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OKI Wanna Know: What happened to the old Cincinnati library?

An unidentified page works the stacks at Old Main.
From the Collection of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library.
An unidentified page works the stacks at Old Main.

Our OKI Wanna Know series gives you a chance to ask those questions lots of people wonder about, but don't know where to find answers. This week, a dramatic photo of historical Cincinnati is an open book. WVXU's Bill Rinehart explains.

David Sherman of the West End wants to know what really happened to the old Cincinnati library.

"Well, I've always seen these photos of the Old Main library on Vine Street, and I wondered what happened to it, because it's an immaculate building and the inside was incredibly beautiful," he says.

One of the pictures he's talking about shows tall pillars reaching up to the ceiling over several stories of shelving with elaborate carvings on the ends. There are low railings, and books — lots and lots and lots of books. It looks almost magical. If you added floating candles and a couple of owls, it could be straight out of a Harry Potter movie.

The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County's current main library at Vine and 8th and 9th streets is not the first incarnation of the hallowed establishment. It's the third. The first was located on the second floor of the Ohio Mechanics Institute, at 6th and Vine, where the former Terrace Plaza Hotel now stands.

"But when people think of Old Main, they generally think of 629 Vine Street; built as an opera house — never was an opera house — and that was the main library," says Christopher Smith.

Smith is a reference librarian in genealogy and local history. He says without a doubt, Old Main was a beautiful place. But it wasn't very practical. Truman Handy's Opera House company went bankrupt in 1868 before the building was finished, and it was sold to the fledging library.

"And that's why we ended up with those beautiful wrought iron levels," Smith says. "Because those were originally meant to be balconies for a theater. So basically you rip those out and create areas where you can create shelves and shelving, and stacks — stacks as we call it at the library."

Another historian says that's not quite accurate. John Fleischman, who wrote a history of the library, Free & Public, says Handy never finished the stage area of his would-be opera house. "The famous cast-iron reading room ... was a totally novel design, an innovation in 1870 for what we would now call 'information storage and retrieval,' " he told WVXU. "It was nominally the work of local architect James McLaughlin but the real genius behind it was William Frederick Poole who was lured to Cincinnati from Boston."

Fleischman wrote in after this story was originally published and says Poole "laid out the legendary cast-iron 'alcove' library that stunned America when it was finally finished in 1873."

(Fleischman says Poole, who was librarian from 1869 to 1873, was responsible for a number of other changes that are taken for granted today: he put women in charge of "nearly all professional operations," added novels to the offerings, and kept the library open seven days a week.)

The library started moving in in Dec. 1870, but the work wasn't completely finished until 1874.

"The interior, like I said, it looks fabulous, unless you have to work there," Smith says.

Tom Moorman started working for the Cincinnati Public Library in 1965, and retired 35 years later. He knew a lot of people who worked in Old Main, and says they were happy to leave.

"If you look at the front of the building, those were the only windows that building had. There were no windows on the side, and in the back, that was a storage area, and they usually didn't open the windows in the front. And Cincinnati was just as hot and humid then as it is now."

It had no air conditioning, so, Old Main was hot in the summer.

"And it was heated by coal furnaces," Moorman says. "And the building was dirty. There's no two ways about it. Actually there were several positions of book cleaners." Moorman says some people were hired specifically to clean the stacks and the books.

"If I had some of those books here, the tops are frequently almost black from the soot. And many of them that were stored in the sub-cellar are very warped because they got flooded so often," Moorman says. "That's no fun either. As you well know, your basement, you get water in there and it sits for any length of time, it doesn't smell good."

Moorman says before Old Main was electrified, it was lit by gaslight, which is not easy to read by. And even after electric lights came on, he says the building was still rather dark.

And it was dangerous. The public wasn't allowed up in the stacks. Instead, pages would pull books and re-shelve them. At least two pages died, according to Fleischman's book Free & Public, and researched in part by Moorman. In 1875, 15-year-old Willie Haldecamp took the elevator to the third floor with books and fell. In 1902, book shelver John Sloan fell down the elevator shaft.

Old Main was torn down in 1955 after the current Main Library was built

Moorman says he never heard any charming stories from those who worked in Old Main.

"To their point of view, they were leaving behind the 19th century," he says.

Besides the working conditions, Christopher Smith has a theory on why the building wasn't saved. "Because that's just what we did in the '50s. There was no thought of retrofitting, remodeling, you just assumed it was going to be razed."

Have a question you'd like answered? Submit it below and we may answer it in a future episode!

Updated: June 27, 2022 at 10:20 AM EDT
Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.