Monday, January 31, 2011

Fight over Gamble House now in courts, Council

With the most recent proposal to save Westwood's historic Gamble House from demolition rejected by its owner, its fate will likely be decided in the court room or in Cincinnati City Council chambers.

Indian Hill-based Greenacres Foundation wants to turn the 22-acre grounds at 2918 Werk Road into an outdoor, agrarian youth education center. As part of the plan, the 2,600-square-foot, 13-room 1870s High Victorian Italianate home, once owned by Ivory Soap inventor, philanthropist, and first Village of Westwood mayor James N. Gamble, would be demolished.

Largely vacant since 1962, the house was maintained by Gamble's grandson Louis Nippert until his death in 1992. Mr. Nippert and his wife Louise founded the Greenacres Foundation in 1988 and received a Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA) award for stewardship of the house in 1991.

"He exhausted efforts years ago with a number of organizations, including well known preservation societies, Procter & Gamble, and the City of Cincinnati, and each declined to take over the house, to preserve it, and to maintain it," said Greenacres attorney C. Francis Barrett in a letter to Councilmember Jeff Berding, dated December 23, 2010.

It was then Nippert's desire to have the house razed, Barrett said.

In February 2010, Greenacres filed for a demolition permit for the house. The City soon moved to declare the house a local historic landmark in May 2010 and, in June 2010, issued building code violations for a roof leak, plaster damage, and missing wood trim and railings.

That caused Greenacres to file a lawsuit in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas claiming that the City was violating its private property rights by refusing to release the demolition permits. Greenacres also claims that the historic designation wasn't passed until after the filing, making it more difficult for those permits to be issued.

That lawsuit is now in federal court.

Proposal 'compatible' with Greenacres' vision

CPA has made two prior offers to purchase the property, starting with a $150,000 proposal in April 2010.

The lastest offer, submitted on January 17, would have given CPA a 90-day period to find $250,000 in funding to purchase the house and a 1.7-acre portion of the estate. During this 90-day period, CPA would perform repairs to prevent further deterioration, eventually renovating the house for community and educational use, using part of the building to highlight the life and work of its most famous resident.

In return, Greenacres would receive an easement to construct a driveway through the property, allowing access to the remaining acreage.

CPA Executive Director Paul Muller said his plan would be compatible with Greenacres' vision of youth educational programming on the property.

"Their mission of stewardship of the natural environment would be enhanced by the renovation of the James Gamble house," he said. "The house marks the beginning to an American architectural movement that sought to connect houses to the natural landscape. It is a rare and timely opportunity to teach about the intertwined relationship of natural and built environment."

No workable plans

Barrett maintains that the foundation has yet to receive a workable plan, including a pending Council resolution that would put a six-month moratorium on possible eminent domain proceedings – if Greenacres lists the house for sale with a realtor.

"In spite of a substantial amount of pontificating by those who have expressed that the Gamble House be preserved at all costs, Greenacres has not received a single bona fide offer to purchase the property," he said. "Certainly, with all of the publicity, it would not be necessary to list the house with a realtor in order for someone to make an offer."

Barrett said that the most recent offer from CPA was rejected largely because it doesn't address how CPA will maintain and sustain the property.

Costs of restoring the property have been estimated at between $1 million and $2 million, a cost that Greenacres is unwilling to take on.

"It would be a misuse of charitable assets to spend more than $1 million to restore a house that has no economically viable use and to set aside more millions to maintain it and sustain it, for no known feasible use," Barrett said. "More importantly, it should not be the role of City Council to direct a private property owner to sell its property."

Many sides

Councilmember Charlie Winburn said that the failure of CPA's proposal means that the City will resume looking at the use of eminent domain. Greenacres Foundation Executive Vice President Carter Randolph has said that the foundation will continue to fight for the building's demolition in federal court.

Muller said the CPA will continue fighting for the Gamble House as well.

"The community of Westwood has united in support of the preservation of the house," he said. "We value their vision and commitment and will continue to try to save this national treasure."

Barrett said that he believes that most of Cincinnati's property owners and taxpayers are on Greenacres' side.

"While there may be a vocal group who act as though they own this property, including certain City officials, none has exercised any of the responsibilities of ownership such as spending any funds on this property," he said.

Gamble House photo courtesy of the Westwood Historical Society.

Previous reading on BC:
Greenacres rejects CPA plan for Gamble House (8/16/10)