Historic schoolhouse at the center of one of Hamilton County's most epic real estate sagas

'They don’t have to know anything about the contributions that African Americans have made to the Village of Glendale but (are) just given the building...'
Eckstein School
Posted at 5:56 PM, Aug 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-19 14:58:35-04

GLENDALE — The Eckstein School building sits unassumingly on Washington Avenue in Glendale’s historic district surrounded by private homes, parks and graveyards. It has been empty and in need of countless repairs for longer than anyone can remember.

A schoolhouse for Black children from 1915 to 1958, the building long symbolized Glendale’s history of segregation. But since then, it has taken on a whole new meaning as an emblem of what might arguably be one of the most stunning real estate snubs Hamilton County has ever seen.

The current owner of the Eckstein School is Denny Dellinger, an architect hailing from Over-the-Rhine. Following a years-long series of negotiations and bidding rounds between the Village of Glendale and a handful of interested parties, Dellinger was grandfathered into owning property after some of his colleagues at a realty company forfeited their winning bid on it.

“As we were discussing the project before the final sale, they started to get cold feet and decided it really wasn't a project that they wanted to do,” Dellinger said. “And I half-jokingly said, ‘Well, if you don't want to do it, I'll do it.’”

Dellinger’s LinkedIn boasts of design and construction projects in the Middle East and Caribbean over the past decade.

“I'm not really a member of this community. So I don't have the connection that the local folks do,” Dellinger said. “But I'm an architect, I appreciate old architecture and I appreciate the opportunity to improve an old building and create a new use.”

Dellinger shelled out $25,000 to the Village of Glendale to take over the bid on the property. He also took on an agreement with the village to rehabilitate the building as a community art center and event space.

But what Dellinger didn't know was that there was a local man who had been striving toward ownership of the Eckstein School building long before Dellinger ever entered the picture.

“For me, it was really about creating a greater community in an African American building that really embodies the contributions of my parents and grandparents and others,” said Bill Parrish, president of the Eckstein Cultural Art Center, also known as ECAC.

Parrish founded the art center as a 501(c)(3) during his effort to acquire the Eckstein School building. The 63-year-old spoke from the center’s office on East Sharon Road, a cozy, airy workspace filled with artwork, archival photos, and posters recounting the Eckstein School and Glendale’s Black history. Parrish intended to move the ECAC into the Eckstein School after acquiring and rehabilitating the building. But after Parrish lost the extensive negotiation and bidding process, the ECAC office appears like a miniature model of Parrish’s vision for his own cultural organization that never came to be.

Parrish’s passion for the Eckstein School and Glendale’s Black community stems from the fact that his father was once a student. His African American family has lived in Glendale since his grandparents migrated to the area from Virginia during the Great Migration in 1923. Unlike his father, Parrish attended Glendale Elementary a few blocks away on Congress Avenue when local schools were desegregated in 1958.

After an extensive career as a creative and professional artist, Parrish resettled in Glendale around 2014 when he learned that the Eckstein School had been vacant since 2009. Parrish then set out to reopen and repurpose the building as a cultural space in which he could work with young, diverse, emerging artists and locals who shared his interest in Glendale’s history.

Prompted by conversations with Glendale officials and members of the village’s Public Buildings Committee that go as far back as 2014, Parrish went through a litany of steps to demonstrate his ability to viably rehabilitate and operate the historic building if given ownership. In addition to forming his 501(c)(3), Parrish wrote a proposal for the cultural programming and events he would hold in the space. He said he submitted the school to be registered as a national historic landmark. He said he drafted architectural drawings and came up with a three phase process of what it would look like to rehabilitate the building. He also said he created organizational literature demonstrating commitments from members of the community who would donate to Parrish’s effort to rehabilitate the building.

However, Parrish’s biggest claims are that he invested as much as $80,000 into the building over the course of his efforts to acquire it, and that the village acknowledged him for meeting all of its requirements to acquire it in 2017. He also said the village created a term sheet outlining their agreement for Parrish to receive the building at a nominal fee in exchange for his commitment to host cultural programming in the space.

“That was the conversation. We were finalizing it there,” Parrish said. “We get it and we go on with our plan to renovate. But something happened. I don’t know. Something in the Historic Preservation [Committee] or somebody in the village said something and then that’s when they came with the bid.”

Minutes from a January 2018 Glendale Public Buildings Committee meeting show that the village decided to sell the building through a competitive bid in accordance with Ohio Revised Code. The call for bids required a minimum amount that would eventually be set at $10,000, in addition to a development plan consistent with current zoning, proof of financing for development, and development milestones.

Parrish claimed he was never informed directly of the village’s decision to change course, but ultimately submitted a bid opposite another applicant from the area. However, neither of the proposals were compliant with Ohio law and the village rejected them. According to the committee’s meeting minutes from June 7, 2018, the ECAC’s proposal lacked required support of financial capacity.

The village would go on to hold a second bid later that year with fewer demands from applicants, this time only asking for a minimum bid and plans for use that would align with zoning restrictions and the historic significance of the building. As confirmed by the village administrator, the requirements for evidence of funding and a commitment or plan to restore the building were removed.

Parrish entered this round as well. But PBC meeting minutes from Sept. 6, 2018 show the ECAC was beat out by M&O Real Estate Holdings, LLC. M&O put down $25,000 for the building, eclipsing the ECAC’s offer of $10,001. Ohio Revised Code dictated that the building was to go to M&O, the highest bidder. When M&O decided to back out of rehabilitating the building, it immediately transferred their terms on the building to Dellinger, the current owner of the building.

Parrish said Michelle Japhet, once a representative of M&O Reality who had engaged in the bidding process, once contacted him to have a meeting and discuss possibly collaborating on the Eckstein School’s rehabilitation. However, Parrish said Japhet canceled on him at the last minute and ceased communication with him. Japhet declined to speak for the story.

“You have a different group of people who are not African American who come to the table and they don’t have to have anything invested in this,” Parrish said. “They don’t have to know anything about the history of the school. They don’t have to know anything about the contributions that African Americans have made to the Village of Glendale but [are] just given the building to do what with? Nobody knows.”

Parrish maintains that the village had agreed to give him the Eckstein School building in principle, and laments that despite the years of work he put in to acquire it, the village turned on him to give the property to another owner who lacked definitive plans for the space. He argues that his experience of being marginalized in the process of buying the Eckstein School, only for it to be handed over to whites who are not from the community, is an example of systemic racism playing out in modern Glendale.

But Glendale’s officials and public records tell a different story.

Village Administrator Walter Cordes said that despite Glendale’s best efforts to work with Parrish and his team at the ECAC to sell them the building, Parrish failed to adhere to guidelines in the acquisition process by providing a workable plan. More significantly, Cordes said Parrish failed to provide adequate evidence of his ability to finance his plans to rehabilitate the Eckstein School if given ownership. In an email response, Cordes wrote:

“After years of working with Mr. Parrish, he was still unable to provide confirmation of his funding sources and the Village was advised by our Solicitor that the property should be publicly sold at auction and that Mr. Parrish could then bid on it as a cash purchase.”

Cordes goes on to say that the village continued to give Parrish legal notice of their proceedings throughout the public bidding processes on the Eckstein school, and that Parrish failed to submit a bid in the second round until he was prompted by a phone call from a village official hours before the deadline. He also refuted Parrish’s complaint that the village failed to respond to his public record requests of the other bids in the sale of the Eckstein Building. Cordes forwarded WCPO an October 2018 email to Parrish in which he shared a host of relevant bidding documents in question, to which Parrish replied he would not review without his attorney present.

Cordes goes on to say that the village later learned that M&O had contacted Parrish to potentially become a partner in the project, but that idea didn't go anywhere. He also acknowledged that Parrish’s plans to turn the school into a cultural arts center were common knowledge in Glendale due to posts in which he shared the concept on social media.

In PBC meeting minutes from Parrish’s earliest conversations with the village about acquiring the building, it shows that he was slow to get the ECAC accredited as a 501(c)(3) by the IRS, and that it received its accreditation months after it was originally stated to have achieved the status. Minutes from April 12, 2016 show there was tension over differing opinions of the validity of renovation estimates and the condition of the building.

Minutes from Aug. 8, 2016 state that Parrish had at one point stopped attending meetings with the PBC because he was advised not to do so by his ECAC advisers. This sparked concerns about the relationship between the ECAC and the village, and led the committee to the conclusion that it could not work with an entity that refused to meet with it. Parrish explained his absence by saying his advisers told him that attending committee meetings was not necessary without a finalized term sheet.

Minutes from March 22, 2017 go on to say that the committee interpreted Parrish’s latest correspondence expressing a preference for the building to be sold to mean it was mutually understood that the bidding for the Eckstein School would be open to the public. This meant that another party could potentially participate and outbid the ECAC for the building. Parrish said he did not understand this at the time, and was told that ECAC would most likely be the sole entity to bid on the building.

M&O's winning bid and Dellinger’s ultimate ownership of the building were unexpected, as Parrish had long been the only person to express sustained interested in buying the building. But village officials and Dellinger uphold that Dellinger is the rightful owner of the property after meeting the second round of bid requirements and adhering to Ohio law.

There is only one meaningful occasion in which the PBC’s meeting minutes reference the term sheet Parrish claims signifies his ownership of the property. A document from June 7, 2018 reads:

“Mr. Parrish also said that the Village had previously provided his organization with a term sheet for a potential lease of the property and then changed directions and decided to sell the property instead. Ms. [Laura Abrams, Village Solicitor,] indicated that there had apparently been a misunderstanding that the Village could directly lease the property to any person or entity it selected. She indicated that Ohio law requires municipalities to publicly bid both the lease and the sale of property, so a direct lease of the Eckstein School property to his organization was simply not possible.”

Parrish shared a document with WCPO, titled as a preliminary draft, that states the village’s purpose to lease to the ECAC the building and lists terms for planning, construction and operation of the building. Upon review, Cordes verified the document, but said they seemed to be older examples of possible talking points in the event that the Committee and village council went on to discuss plans to lease the building to Parrish. He explained that the village later concentrated on Parrish's ability to acquire the building through gift or purchase, and that expectations over the transaction shifted because the extensive repairs and costs needed for the building called for Parrish to own the building, rather than to simply be leasing it.

Dellinger said he once spoke to Parrish about his acquirement of the Eckstein school at a family event that Dellinger was invited to by Parrish’s brother. Parrish confirms this account, though he says the two did not speak at length and that Dellinger didn’t have a plan for the building when he inquired about it.

Dellinger acknowledged Parrish’s frustration over not ultimately acquiring the building, given his long effort to buy it, as well as the close connection he has to the place because of this African American community in Glendale and his father’s past in the school. Still, Dellinger said Parrish had the chance to create a different outcome.

“He’s had the opportunity for many years to present to the village a way to develop the property and hasn't been successful at doing that,” Dellinger said.

At the time that he purchased the building, Dellinger planned to reopen the Eckstein School building as a community art center and proceeded to market it as that for almost another two years. However, he failed to snag any investors with the idea and had to scrap the concept with the onset of the coronavirus. He said that his ability to come up with another plan of use for the building is complicated by the fact that the building is in a single-family zone, but that he hopes to find a charter school, or other kind of educational group, that might want to move into the space.

As for Parrish, he continues to do his work as an artist and cultural educator at the ECAC office on East Sharon Road, just a few minutes away from his organization’s namesake. He said that despite everything, he still has not given up in his fight to have the charming, cavernous historic schoolhouse he has come to love.

“I'm going to follow up because that, that's who I am," he said.

“I'm in a process now of just waiting. Sometimes you have to wait and see, and not do anything.”