He didn't know why, but Steven Johnson sensed there was something special about the desolate apartment building at Ashland Avenue and Chapel Street. His eyes often wandered over to the building when he drove past it in his Walnut Hills neighborhood.
Johnson’s curiosity with the building soon turned into a passion for it. When the independent developer learned that the property was going on the market, he became a bidder and acquired it in 2018. Johnson has been refurbishing the property as a new condo complex ever since.
But it wasn’t until Johnson started to speak to people in the community that he learned of the building’s historical significance. The complex was originally built in 1916 as a safe haven for Black travelers and workmen who were barred from staying at nearby white-only establishments.
“Unanimously people that stop us on the street congratulate us and say, ‘We love what you're doing. You're doing a great job, it looks great,’” Johnson said. “And a lot of them say, ‘I used to live here and it looks so wonderful.’”
With basic improvements like repainting the building and unit interiors, updating appliances and cultivating garden areas outside of the apartments, Johnson has managed to maintain the compound’s distinguished charm from a bygone era.
Of course, like so many others in gentrifying neighborhoods across the U.S., the most vulnerable in Walnut Hills are posed with the question of whether they will be able to enjoy the improvements coming to their neighborhood, or be further displaced as positive changes keep coming to their native stomping grounds.
The history of Gordon Terrace and Walnut Hills as a Black cultural hub
Once called the Gordon Terrace and Hotel, the complex was one of various buildings in the area that served as housing, entertainment and meeting spaces for Cincinnati’s quickly expanding community of Black laborers and community leaders in the early 1900s.
The project was right up Johnson’s alley; the apartment compound was quaint and a century old, and he had a background in refurbishing dozens of old buildings in the vicinity. Just three years ago, he converted what used to be Cincinnati’s premier jazz club of the 1950s and 60s into another set of condos. The striking blue building on the nearby corner of Hackberry and Taft that was once home to Herbie’s Lounge is now home to six private residences individually priced in the mid $100,000s.
Spaces like the Gordon were in high demand in the early 20th Century because of the Great Migration: the exodus of approximately five million African Americans from the agricultural South to the industrial North. From 1915 to 1920, droves of Black people traveled north and west in search of jobs and freedom from oppressive, often deadly social conditions rooted in racism and white supremacy.
There are a number of reasons why Cincinnati, especially Walnut Hills, was an attractive place to settle down for Black migrants. It had long been perceived as an environment that was welcoming to Blacks because Walnut Hills was a stop along the Underground Railroad. It later became a booming hub for Black culture due in part to the number of Black white-collar workers and middle-class families that gathered in the area.
Walnut Hills was one of the first neighborhoods in which Blacks could rent or buy real estate in Cincinnati history, and it had a bustling business district with national distinction. A number of these businesses made it into the legendary “Negro Motorist Green Book,” a publication detailing travel services and destinations that accommodated Blacks in the U.S. and abroad during the segregation era. Community leaders and social organizations like the local NAACP chapter and the Cincinnati Federation of Colored Women’s Club also did community organizing to help newcomers integrate into Cincinnati society.
“Many other large industrial cities, Detroit, St. Louis, had tremendous riots, you know, white-on-Black violence,” said Geoff Sutton, a member of the Walnut Hills Historical Society. “Cincinnati managed to avoid that, I think largely because there was a strong Black leadership community that both helped the migrants to find places to live, and also help them figure out what the rules were in Cincinnati, which was very different from the rules in the deep South.”
The Man Behind the Building
Entrepreneur and philanthropist Jacob Schmidlapp built Gordon Terrace. He also founded Union Savings Bank and Trust. He named the building after Robert Gordon, a former slave who moved to Cincinnati in the 1840s and went on to become a prosperous real estate developer. Schmidlapp ventured into creating low-cost housing for African Americans at the urging of local Black leaders who shed light on Black travelers’ needs for hotel accommodations.
Schmidlapp hoped he could use this effort to innovate a philanthropic strategy that would inspire wealthy investors to put their money into similar projects in other cities, leading to a trickle-down of wealth in wider communities. The concept did not catch on elsewhere, but Gordon Terrace was successful and continued operating as an affordable housing complex predominately occupied by African Americans into the early 2000s.
Sutton said Schmidlapp was progressive for his time but says he had a “complicated” legacy.
“He did do workforce housing for African Americans," Sutton said. "On the other hand, he did segregated workforce housing. His racial attitudes were definitely condescending.”
Schmidlapp’s low-cost housing properties and co-op grocery store had few opportunities for black managers. He also yielded to the discriminatory attitudes of whites who pushed back against his efforts to build another housing complex for Blacks in Norwood.
Gordon Terrace: then and now
Even with Schmidlapp’s problematic outlooks on race, he did take the unique situations of his Black tenants into account when setting the pricing for the units. After investing $250 per room, Schmidlapp rented each space for $10 to $12 a month, taking into account the average African American’s daily wage of $3.
These rates are a far cry from what Johnson is investing in the building, as well as what its 20 units are going for today. Johnson projected that the completed project will be valued at $4 million. One bedroom condos are priced between $120,000 to $175,000. Two bedrooms are priced at $212,000 to $250,000.
“We have some pride that our nice product is relatively affordable,” Johnson said. “You know, not affordable for everyone, but it's half the price of some other condo conversions that happen, you know, in Walnut Hills, or, you know, other parts of Cincinnati.”
Center Bank, Johnson’s lender for the project, has a down payment assistance program available. For those who are below a certain income requirement, the bank is able to waive most of if not potentially all of the down payment.
Sutton agrees that the condos are priced at rates appropriate for the area. But he acknowledges that the space will still be inaccessible to Walnut Hills’ native low-income residents and that it is important to maintain the neighborhood’s culture of being an inviting, comfortable space for African Americans.
“Part of it, I think, is trying to get Black professionals, middle-class Blacks, Blacks who work Downtown to want to live in Walnut Hills,” Sutton said. “I think that Walnut Hills has for a long time been seen as an impoverished community, a community with all kinds of drug and crime problems. And that makes it difficult.”
After its heyday in the earlier part of the 20th Century, Walnut Hills struggled with dramatic population loss, urban decay and crime by the 1980s and 90s. Conditions were further disadvantaged when a section of the neighborhood was removed to create a highway. This undermined Walnut Hills’ status as a cultural destination and instead converted it into a neighborhood commuters were more likely to drive through instead.
Still, recent years have shown a reversal of Walnut Hills’ once declining conditions. Various projects similar to Johnson’s revival of the Gordon such as the redevelopment of the Alms Hotel and the property rehabilitation efforts from The Port’s collaboration with the Walnut Hills Community Council and the Walnut Hill’s Redevelopment Foundation demonstrate locals’ investment in preserving and revitalizing the area.
Johnson said phase one of construction at the Gordon has gone by quickly with six units in place. The second phase of the project will start in the early fall and prepare the other 14 units in the 28,000 square foot living space. Fundamental mechanics like plumbing, electricity and the project’s HVAC system have been installed. Johnson said contractors will next lay down drywall, paint the premises, and put in doors and trims to finish each household.
“We think it's a great place to make home.”
Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.