Home Tour: Two centuries' worth of Cincinnati history resides in Mount Auburn's Gorham Worth House

Some of it's myth, but most of it's true

CINCINNATI -- John and Andrea Kornbluh will leave behind a lot of personal history when they sell their home of 14 years, the 1819 Gorham Worth House on Auburncrest Avenue in Mount Auburn. Mix that with stories from past generations — some true, some dubious — and they have enough history to write a book about the place.

Take, for example, the urban legend that Helen McGregor, whose father, Robert McGregor, owned the Federal-style house after Worth’s short occupancy, danced at a ball there with a young Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.

That story just isn’t true, said Andrea, who is a University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash professor emeritus of history and women’s studies. Yes, Helen did indeed dance with the prince in September 1860, but it was in the ballroom of Pike’s Opera House, downtown, not at the Worth House, which had no room in which to stage a ball, Andrea said.

What about the story of future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt being served watered-down soup in the Worth House while campaigning for vice president one Sunday night in 1920? That one is true, according to Andrea’s research.

“FDR was in town, and his train got delayed,” she said. Much of Cincinnati was shut down for the night, so someone suggested that the wife of the Worth House’s owner, Cincinnati politician Guy Ward Mallon, have FDR out to the house for a meal.

“She, of course, said ‘Yes,’ ” Andrea said. With her servants off work for the Sabbath, Mrs. Mallon hustled over to a neighbor’s yard, where she picked some greens to dress a watery soup she concocted with thinly sliced meat.

“And they all had a lovely meal,” Andrea said, while sitting in the very kitchen where FDR’s meal was made, her house research file as thick as a short novel resting on the table next to her.

While Andrea soaked in Worth House history for 14 years, John, who is an architect with a Downtown firm, basked in its design.

The Kornbluhs once lived in a house on a lot that had been part of the Worth estate, so they had knowledge of Mount Auburn, more than 35 years’ worth, in fact. They first experienced the grandeur of the house during a 1980 tour. John said he was struck by the perfect scale of the entry hall’s wraparound staircase, the wonderful hand-feel of its cherry railing and the scroll-motif applications on the side of every step.

“Of all the houses we’ve been in, we feel this is the most graceful of any proportions we’ve seen,” John said of the staircase.

“I walked in the front door and took a look at the newel post, and my jaw dropped,” he said. “It is fair to say I lusted for the house from that point on.”

More than 10 years later, the couple learned its owner was taking an out-of-town job and moving. The empty-nesters (their children are now 37 and 39) got in touch with the owner and struck a deal to buy the Worth House.

They could have regretted it but never did.

Three days before moving in, and with the sellers still in the house, a fire broke out in the master bedroom and torched its woodwork. There was smoke damage throughout the house, as well as some water damage. It could have been worse, but the horse-hair plaster on the bedroom ceiling absorbed the heat, keeping the flames out of the tower above it, John said.

The Kornbluhs were so impressed with how the Cincinnati Fire Department protected their house, they nominated and won an award for the “heroes” given out by the Cincinnati Preservation Association, Andrea said.

The entire interior of the house, nevertheless, had to be repainted.

“Suddenly I had this situation. I had never had the opportunity to pick all the colors of a house,” Andrea said. A friend of a friend, who had designed historic interiors in places such as historic Williamsburg, Virginia, helped her pick an archival color palette. The scheme improved the house’s period look, and the paint masked the smell left behind by the smoke.

The Gorham Worth House, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, was built in two stages. The two center rooms for sitting and dining date to 1819 and the two Victorian-style wings on either side were designed about 40 to 50 years later by famed Cincinnati architect James McLaughlin.

The first floor of the house features 10-foot ceilings, 8½-foot-tall doors, an 18 feet by 17 feet kitchen with a non-working brick fireplace, a powder room, a walnut-paneled study off of which is an added mudroom and dining and living rooms, each of which measures 21 feet by 15 feet. Upstairs are four bedrooms, three full bathrooms and an apartment with private stairs and entrance.

Over the years, the Kornbluhs have made many cosmetic changes to the interior of the house. They pulled up carpets and had the mostly pine floors refinished, nail holes and all. They remodeled the master bathroom and upgraded the kitchen with new appliances and green-veined soapstone countertops, among other projects.

One of the biggest improvements made by the Kornbluhs was to the yard between the house and what John refers to as “the back 40,” a stand of trees and underbrush that provides privacy. The backyard was “completely wild” when they moved in, he said, but it is now a triple-tiered sanctuary, thanks, in part, to landscape designer Linda Kreidler, who features the yard on the home page of her website, http://www.kreidlerdesign.com.

The first tier is a flat gravel landing with a centered 6 foot by 20 foot lily pond and two parterres, which are symmetrical groupings of planting beds. Two courses of limestone ring the landing, which is trimmed out with low perennials such as liriope. Six limestone steps lead from the center of the gravel area to a wide lawn and then down to the “back 40,” where John constructed a short stone wall to create a water garden that limits erosion on the downhill slope.

The Kronbluhs come into their house through a side door and mud room, but guests enter at the front, which is set low enough on Mount Auburn to shade and cool the house in the latter part of summer afternoons.

The rounded transom above the white door features a fan-motif and trim that many believe was copied from Martin Baum’s grand house on Pike Street (later owned by Nicholas Longworth, David Sinton and Charles Phelps and Anna Sinton Taft, and now the Taft Museum of Art). But Andrea’s research shows it was the other way around, that the Baum house was remodeled long after the Worth House was built and that the builder copied the Worth House’s design.

The 10-foot-high, 20-foot-deep entry hall extends to the back of the house to a door that opens onto a nearly house-wide veranda and a screened-in porch. John said 19th century architects created airflow with front-to-back central halls and that the house didn’t get air conditioning until the 1970s, when it was remodeled extensively by then-owner Joe Stewart.

The hall features a curious interior window into a closet. The logo of the Miami Purchase Association (now the Cincinnati Preservation Association) was inspired by its fan-like design, John said.

Flanking the hall in the older part of the house are a walnut-paneled study and a formal dining room, both featuring hand-tooled wooden mantels that came out of a Warren County farmhouse, Andrea said. Few of the house’s eight fireplaces are original, and only the two gas ones work.

The living room is in the south-side addition beyond the dining room. The Kornbluhs — she is from California and he is from New York — call it their “landmark room,” and it features floor-to-ceiling wall panels and trim made of several different hardwoods as well as a marble fireplace.

“When we negotiated with the owners, they sat us down in here. How could we say ‘No?’ ” John said. The matching shelving cabinets built around 1870 feature glass panes that are 30 inches wide and 8 feet high. About the only evidence of water damage caused by the 2002 fire are subtle drip marks on the dark wood molding that connects the cabinets in a run over an unusual two-sided bay window.

The Kornbluhs, who are asking $499,000 for the house, said they’ve moved out mentally but that certain things about the house will stick with them forever. The sunny kitchen, which is large enough for an eight-seat table, has become their favorite spot and likely can’t be duplicated.

“Morning in the kitchen is just incredibly pleasurable,” John said.

He added that he’ll miss the wildlife — hawks, frogs, Lazarus lizards, raccoons, opossums, and bats at dusk — that visit the backyard. And, he said, it’s unlikely he will find a master bedroom where he can shower with the sun in his eyes.

Who was Gorham Worth?

Gorham Worth wrote in his memoir, “Recollections of Cincinnati,” that he arrived in Cincinnati on a boat with William Henry Harrison on April 10, 1817. Sometime that year, he was called on to run — as its “cashier” — a branch of the Bank of the United States, the city’s third and newest bank established by wealthy men who included Gen. James Findlay, Judge Jacob Burnet, Dr. Daniel Drake, Martin Baum, James Keys and John and William Piatt.

Worth came from the east coast, reportedly carrying suitcases full of cash, John Kornbluh said. He was one of the first Cincinnatians to build a house in Mount Auburn, which back then was considered to be the country. The Worth House is thought to be the neighborhood’s oldest.

Worth’s Cincinnati residency lasted about eight years, during which his bank had “disastrous effects upon the city and its residents,” according to a footnote in his memoir. Had Worth been in his house long enough to pay off his mortgage, he would have replaced the ivory cap on its staircase’s newel post with a silver one, which was a sign of ownership in the early 1800s, John said. The ivory cap remains in place today.

After Robert McGregor’s ownership, the house was passed to Truman Bishop Handy, a Cincinnati math teacher and builder who upgraded and lived in it for several years before constructing and moving to Bishop's Place on Lafayette Avenue in Clifton. Jacob Krouse, a Jewish clothier from Germany, whose name graced the street until anti-German sentiment led to it being changed to Auburncrest during World War I, also owned the house, as did the aforementioned Guy Ward Mallon, who was a state legislator and one of the co-founders of Cincinnati’s charter form of government.

Worth had a successful banking career in his native New York. He died in 1856 at age 73.

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