The Enquirer recently reported that the Emery Theatre was beyond repair, so the University of Cincinnati will sell the Over-the-Rhine venue (“Emery Theatre to be put up for sale,” April 24). Say, UC, how did it get “beyond repair?” You have owned the Emery Theatre for 50 years.
The University of Cincinnati bought the building when it acquired Ohio Mechanics Institute in 1968. OMI had a distinguished history. It had outgrown its building at Sixth and Vine streets, and in 1911 built a new structure at Walnut and Canal streets (now Central Parkway).
A college needs an auditorium. Philanthropist Mary Emery asked if she could add funds to make the auditorium suitable for the May Festival and the Cincinnati Symphony. She ended up writing a check for the whole building.
The new building was designed by the celebrated Cincinnati firm of Hannaford & Sons, specifically by Harvey Hannaford, Jr. It was the third in a series of four concert halls designed after an acoustic theory developed for Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Hall. These four buildings were designed specifically for symphonic music – Carnegie Hall in New York City, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, The Emery and Orchestra Hall in Detroit.
The design was augmented by the suggestions of Leopold Stokowski, the symphony’s new conductor. He compared the acoustics of the finished Emery favorably with Carnegie. And there was not a bad seat in the house – Emery was the first large hall of its kind to have no blocked seats, owing to two large I-beams spanning the width of the balconies.
The symphony performed at the Emery from 1912-1936, then, unfortunately, traded the perfect sound for more – eventually unneeded – seats. After the symphony left, the Emery, still part of OMI, was used for various lectures, concerts and movies for many years. Then, UC acquired the building in 1968 when it acquired OMI. The neglect began.
For 50 years, UC has abdicated its stewardship of “Cincinnati’s Carnegie Hall,” allowing it to become “beyond repair.” Now UC wants out. Not so fast.
For a time in the 1970s, UC used the theatre for school-related and public purposes. But when it moved OMI from the building in 1988, UC had no further use for the Emery. Gradually, UC allowed the building and theatre to fall into disuse. Eventually, UC used the building for storage and the theatre was open for events only occasionally.
In the late 1990s, UC developed a complex plan to allegedly provide funding for the theatre and maintain the building. The plan was to renovate the majority of the building into market-rate apartments and commercial space, which, after paying off the mortgages necessary for construction, would provide funding for the theatre.
Because UC held the building in a charitable trust established by Mary Emery and OMI, it went to court to get permission to use part for apartments, promising that the revenue from the apartments would be used to support the Emery. Never happened. While the plan might possibly have been well-intended, history proved it worse than a failure.
The plan was a complex, unworkable mishmash of various entities, both for-profit and non-profit, that only a sadistic lawyer could devise. No support for the theatre materialized – to this day.
The renovation by the for-profit group, with the UC’s approval, left the theatre without running water, heat, bathrooms or fire escapes, and without any realistically feasible way to provide these necessities in the future. This despite the requirement that the theatre remain open. It has sat mostly empty since. And crumbled while UC watched and did nothing.
UC’s abandonment of its responsibility for the Emery Theatre has turned a priceless architectural gem into, in UC’s own words, “beyond repair,” though it probably isn’t. UC simply wants to finally rid itself of a responsibility it has shirked for 50 years. And keep the money. Shameful.
At a former firm, I was involved for a time in a lawsuit about UC’s mismanagement and neglect of the Emery. UC’s conduct there showed no concern for the Emery at all. I vowed in 2014 not to give any more money or again set foot on the UC campus unless the Emery were restored.
What should happen now? Perhaps the court case in which UC promised to keep the Emery open should be revisited. Perhaps the charitable trust should be enforced, and the memory of Mary Emery honored. Perhaps Attorney General Dave Yost, who is charged with enforcing charitable trusts, should investigate.
Surely, UC should not be allowed to sell the building and keep the proceeds – the product of its own neglect – the money should go to restoring Cincinnati’s Carnegie Hall.
Mark P. Painter served as a judge for 30 years. He is the author of six books, including “Write Well” and “The Legal Writer.”
Originally published in The Cincinnati Enquirer May 6, 2019.