Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Did you know about Cincinnati's other lost 'Secret Tunnels"

OTR Foundation  has been talking about Friday, when  volunteers will break through the remaining walls
and remove debris to reconnect one of Cincinnati’s historic pre-prohibition breweries via its underground tunnel under Hamer Street.

Clearly this is a major event, but did you know Cincinnati has perhaps hundreds of long abandoned tunnels and passages? In fact, I 'discovered' one over the weekend as I was making some mental notes on a house down the street from us for the registry nomination for our neighborhood, and the house which will be on our Preservation bargains series on Thursday. Now, being a big fan of Second Empire architecture, I've always been looking at the house, but something caught my eye in the historic retaining wall.........Cast iron gate pivot hinges..

Look closely and you may spot the pivot hinge pins on the right and you can see the angled "arch" on the top. This house likely had a wrought iron gate that opened out and the door sat in slightly. This one was closed in early with real stone but many are filled with brick, block, or just framed in and boarded,

A close inspection of the retaining wall revealed that there has once been an opening there and I realized I had come across a lost "service tunnel". You see, things, and home layouts, were different during the Victorian era. This house is a 3 story second empire townhouse which sits about 15 feet from the street with a raised basement, was built for someone fairly prosperous by the standard of the day and they would have had "household staff", most likely a cook and maybe a maid . The kitchen and the servants quarters and the "pantry' were all in the lower basement level. When the gas lines were update they took the simple way out and ran the gas line through the tunnel.

The public rooms in this house would have been the formal parlor at the front a formal dining room and what was known as the "back parlor" where the family lived. It is that back parlor or dining room depending on the configuration that we most commonly see converted to a kitchen. Meals were prepared downstairs and brought up by the help to the dining room where the family was waiting, properly dressed of course for dinner.

In the "modern" Victorian home there were countless deliveries. The ice man, the butcher, the grocer, deliveries of all kind and in those days the 'deliveryman" did not come to the front door but rather at the servants entrance. As we all know many houses in Cincinnati sit elevated to take advantage of the views as well as to be above street noise. Therefore 'service tunnels' came into vogue. Most Cincinnati houses only sat a few feet back but some might be as much as 20 feet. Sometimes if you look carefully you may sometimes see an old bell which was a way to signal they were there, but most often the deliveryman would just come on in. REMEMBER, back then, people didn't lock their doors.

Service tunnels were a casualty of the end of the Victorian era. Most often they were simply blocked in, lost forever. However as baby boomer age these unique tunnels could be opened back up and may have new use, as a street level entrance for one's old house for access to a home elevator that will take people too old to comfortably, or safely, negotiate stairs from floor to floor or as the 'Ultimate Entrance" to your wine cellar tasting room for a get together, or even as a street level; entrance to a home office. Another piece of lost Cincinnati, Not a subway or a brewery tunnel, but an equally important piece of Architectural History!

Many are simply boarded up as shown here and are easy to spot, The ones filled with stone take more than a passing glance to find. 

Where can you find them? Well mostly in areas like OTR but they are also in areas like Walnut Hills, Price Hill, Pendleton, there are several along McMicken north end of Brewery District and just about any place there are large hills and the house has a setback which would mean places like Sedamsville and Clifton. So the next time you are out for stroll looking at the great architecture of Cincinnati take a look at those historic walls too!

1 comment:

Karen Anne said...

I wouldn't mind having household staff, sigh. More likely I would have been the household staff :-)