CINCINNATI — You know that old building at the east end of Fourth Street that kind of looks like the White House and is home of the Taft Museum of Art? You might know some names in its ownership lineage: millionaire wine maker Nicholas Longworth, millionaire pig-iron industrialist David Sinton, newspaper editor Charles Phelps Taft and his philanthropic wife, Anna Sinton Taft.
Good for you if you’ve heard of those folks. There’s a name missing from that list, though. It’s an important name, too — the name of the man who built the place in 1820.
Let’s put Martin Baum on your radar with the Longworths, Sintons and Tafts, because he was every bit as important as they were to the development of Cincinnati — and he did it really early.
Baum arrived in Cincinnati in about 1795 (a decade before Longworth), just eight years after the town was founded by four men on a flatboat searching for a suitable site within the vast Miami Purchase of John Cleves Symmes to stop and survey. In those eight years, 94 cabins and 10 frame houses were built to shelter fewer than 500 Cincinnatians.
Baum’s early business moves set the pace for the rapid industrial growth Cincinnati achieved in its first 40 years. He opened a general store; formed an exporting company that essentially was the first bank in the West; founded the city’s first sugar refinery and steam mill; ran iron, cotton, wool and whiskey businesses; and helped spearhead the creation of Cincinnati’s first public library, the Cincinnati Literary Society and the Western Museum. He also cultivated a small vineyard and landscaped the first residential garden in the West.
In addition, Baum served one term as mayor, was asked but refused to serve in Congress and was one of the pillars of the Presbyterian Church, which was the town’s first religious congregation.
Along the way, Baum became the richest man in Cincinnati, a man who needed a house fit for entertaining the town’s who’s who and visiting dignitaries, as well as his fellow Germans who turned to him for hope and opportunity and laid the groundwork for Cincinnati’s strong German heritage.
Gorham A. Worth, who as cashier ran the local branch of the Second Bank of the United States, of which Baum was the first president, had this to say about Baum in his 1851 memoir “Recollections of Cincinnati”:
“He was a man of great probity of character, of plain manners and sound sense and ranked for many years among the first and wealthiest merchants of the place.”
Martin Baum was born in Germany in 1865 and came to America with his family as a boy, settling in Hagerstown, Md. According to historian George Katzenberger, Baum’s parents sent their son to school in Baltimore, where he studied German, French and English as well as some Latin and Greek.
Baum wanted to become a physician, but he must have felt an overwhelming curiosity for the West, because he joined the army instead, serving under “Mad” Anthony Wayne to fight American Indians in the Northwest Territory. Baum, wrote Katzenberger, was put in charge of medical supplies and ran the apothecary at Greenville Fort. He was there for the decisive battle, Fallen Timbers, on Aug. 20, 1794.
Baum came to Cincinnati about a year later, when the Treaty of Greenville ended the Northwest Indian War. It’s possible that he traveled with a surveying team led by John Cleves Symmes, who owned almost all of the land in what became Southwest Ohio. On that trip, Baum learned the lay of the land and came to understand the opportunity it held.
Katzenberer said Baum possessed “great initiative” and “decided talent for business,” which he applied to his general store, a two-story building near the Ohio River. His success earned him a spot in Cincinnati’s small circle of leaders, which included David Ziegler, a fellow German and the city’s first mayor, as well as Judge Jacob Burnet. In 1804, Baum married Burnet’s sister-in-law, Ann Somerville, in the judge’s house.
The Baums built a brick house next to their general store and started a family, producing seven children from 1804 to 1820, the year he built his famous white house. Those between years saw Baum’s many businesses grow and him speculate on land from Cincinnati to Yellow Springs and as far away as what is now Toledo.
Caught in first depression
Land speculation in the West was rampant in the second decade of the 19th century, and it got Baum and the nation in big trouble. Debts couldn’t be paid, businesses buckled and homeowners were foreclosed on like never before. Ultimately, the western branches of the Bank of the United States, Cincinnati’s included, pulled the plug on the capital train, catapulting the economy into its first great financial panic in 1819.
“The city at large groaned under the infliction for many years,” Worth wrote. “Mr. Baum, however, I have understood, still left at his death a very considerable estate.”
The foundation of Baum’s wealth may have been his house and his friends, one of whom was his neighbor, wealthy land surveyor William Lytle II. Businesses bottomed out during the three-year depression, and Baum’s certainly took a big hit, enough so that in order to pay off his debts he offered to sell Lytle his Pike Street house and the 9 acres around it for $62,000.
In a letter, Baum, who had 10 or more relatives living in his house, wrote to Lytle that “I must have $1,000 or thereabouts in advance because without some money I and my family must starve.”
Lytle liked Baum’s price but made a counteroffer, asking Baum to throw into the package seven additional plots of land that increased the value of the deal to almost $155,000 — equivalent to $2.6 million today. Baum balked and deeded the house and half his acreage to the U.S. Bank for $50,000.
The bank leased the estate to a “school for young ladies,” according to a 1998 article written by Jayne Merkel for the Cincinnati Historical Society. It was called Belmont House, a name that stuck to the building when Longworth purchased it for $28,000 in 1828.
Baum bounced back from his financial low. Among his accomplishments in the final years of his life was the establishment of a cotton-trade relationship with the city of Liverpool, England. He died during an outbreak of influenza in 1831, the same year Lytle died of tuberculosis.
Baum’s family buried him at the Presbyterian cemetery where Washington Park is today. His remains were moved in 1853 to Spring Grove Cemetery, where his befittingly tall monument can be found in Section 97, Lot 10.