Before the Storm: Park was once the site of the Bowler family mansion -- and a preservation battle

Greenhouses, gardens were part of lavish property

CINCINNATI -- A great gardener. The future king of England. A boy named Bobby Bowler. Love-thirsty youth. Hard-pressed preservationists. Depleted police.

What an interesting soap opera cast these folks would make.

Yet unlike daytime TV actors, these people and many more characters linked to them played roles in a real-life drama that spanned 90 years and took place right here in Cincinnati.

Our story revolves around an 1850 mansion built by one of the Seven Barons of Clifton atop a steep hill overlooking the Mill Creek Valley. Originally a country camp for the Robert Bonner Bowler family, it was mainly the brainchild of Adolph Strauch, the father of lawn-style cemeteries and sculptor of Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum.

Although the mansions of Bowler's fellow barons Henry Probasco (Oakwood), George Schoenberger (Scarlet Oaks) and William Neff (The Windings) still stand, the first of their kind -- named Mount Storm by Bowler after he'd witnessed a particularly dramatic display of Midwestern weather there -- does not.

Robert Bonner Bowler's mansion stood atop Mount Storm in Clifton for 67 years before the city deemed it a nuisance and had it demolished.

A 1917 public battle chronicled in local newspapers to save Mount Storm from demolition was led by Dr. Samuel Iglauer. Five years before, he and a successful group of preservationists moved the 1804 log cabin of Presbyterian minister James Kemper from Walnut Hills to the city zoo (it's at the Heritage Village Museum in Sharon Woods today).

Iglauer's impassioned plea to preserve Mount Storm likely sounded similar to those who grieved the demolition of Downtown's Dennison Hotel in winter 2016.

A Cincinnati Enquirer article published after the decision to raze Mount Storm included this passage: "One after another of our local fanes (shrines) are being obliterated, and the time probably is not far distant when all the physical links that bind us to the past will be wiped out by the march of modernism."

The city of Cincinnati had purchased Mount Storm and its 70 acres at the west end of Lafayette Avenue from the Bowler family in 1912 with a promise to make it a park. Near the end, the mansion was the site of unlawful uses, such as trysts among teenagers that their mothers reported. The city said it was underpoliced and couldn't guard Mount Storm.

The house had been stripped of some of its grandeur but was solid structurally. Preservationists suggested it be assigned a caretaker and converted to a proper park shelter house.

Public Safety Walter J. Friedlander said at a January 1917 hearing before the City Club: “It being impracticable to close the Bowler house against marauders or to protect it from those seeking shelter therein, this department advised the Board of Park Commissioners that the only step remaining was to raze the building, which, aside from any sentimental value it may have, is worth practically nothing."

Robert Bowler and Adolph Strauch's creation -- which had been the site of an 1860 reception for the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII -- came down shortly thereafter, 100 years ago. It wasn't until 1935, 90 years after Bowler bought the Mount Storm property from Lafayette Bank, that a shelter house was built and the park we have today was used in the way his family envisioned it.

Gradual progress

What preservationists faced back in 1917 they face today, said Margo Warminski of the Cincinnati Preservation Association.

"That kind of guilt by association is still being used by preservation opponents today," Warminski said. "I mean, look at the preservation opposition to the Dennison Hotel. It also happened with the Anna Louisa (Inn)."

It wasn't until the establishment of the National Register of Historic Places under the auspices of the U.S. National Park Service in 1966 and, Warminski said, the seminal saving of Grand Central Station in 1967 that the tide turned toward preservation in America.

What Cincinnati lost

All that is left of the house where Bowler's son -- the Bobby Bowler mentioned above and future comptroller of the United States Treasury under Grover Cleveland (1892-97) -- was born is a structure once christened the Temple of Vesta but now called the Temple of Love.

The Corinthian mini-temple that visitors pass on their way to the 1935 shelter house in Mount Storm Park was designed in 1850 by Strauch as an elaborate cover to the underground reservoir that supplied Bowler's house, gardens, greenhouses and lakes.

The name of the mansion's designer went unrecorded, as licensed architecture in 1850 was not what it is today. The two-story brick and stone-like stucco house featured two terraces and a porch with views that swept from the Kentucky hills up the Mill Creek. A tower was added later.

The mansion's interior was "complete with marble floors and fireplace, wrought iron curving staircase, French cut-glass doors, and hand-carved wood inlaid with gold," according to the city of Cincinnati website.

Strauch's imprint on the property, one he landscaped just before moving on to work at Spring Grove Cemetery and at the homes of Clifton barons such as Probasco, was well-documented.

Bowler -- who married into the politically powerful Pendleton family and made his riches in dry goods and railroading -- had met Strauch in Austria. Strauch was director of the Vienna Imperial Gardens at the time and was creating impressive landscapes that Bowler greatly admired.

The American invited Strauch to visit him in Ohio if he were ever nearby. A long train layover provided that opportunity, and Strauch lived and worked in Cincinnati for the rest of his life.

Bowler's Mount Storm included shade trees from around the world and 17 greenhouses like no other in the Midwest. One had 90 varieties of camellia. Another housed 60 begonia varieties. There were houses for bananas and palm trees, too, as well as seven black swans from Australia that swam in Bowler's lakes.

Sadly, Bowler left the paradise he created forever in 1864 when he was struck and killed by an omnibus (urban stagecoach). His wife, Susan Pendleton Bowler, and later his children and grandchildren cared for the property, along with Irish laborer James Cluxton, who worked there for 53 years while raising Bowler's beloved roses and helping rear the children born at Mount Storm.

As late as 1880, three years after Susan passed, Mount Storm was still a special party palace, as this Enquirer article described:

"The brilliant gas jets of parlor and hallways were reflected in the rich stained glass with which many windows were filled, and the prism'd gleams of light lent their aid in rendering a kaleidoscope of wondrous beauty. ... The entire residence was most lavishly decorated with rare plants, bright flowers and buds, exotics evergreen and smilax, the perfume of which filled the air."

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