David and Barbara Day: Preserving the Spirit of a City

by Debora Del Valle

To paraphrase the foreword of their book Vanishing Cincinnati, Barbara and David Day are lifelong Cincinnati residents with a passion for Cincinnati and the places and vistas that make Cincinnati unique. Their detailed freehand drawings of buildings that have been lost and/or preserved “preserve the spirit of the city as it has been for more than a century…”

But their ideas and drawings have done much more than that. They have helped breathe fresh life into the idea that careful preservation of these venerable structures brings cultural richness and a sense of place to the heart of the city.

Barbara and David have known each other nearly all their lives and started collaborating on their art and design while studying at the University of Cincinnati. Barb studied interior design and David industrial design. After UC, they furthered their education by studying with renowned architect R. Buckminster Fuller.

The Days opened their design practice in the 1960s and for nearly six decades now have helped change the way people think about renovating and restoring historic structures. “We were encouraged to be catalysts by our college mentors,” says David. “And indeed, that is the role we have played out for the past 55-plus years in client relations.”

Take, for example, the Federal Reserve Building. The Days were retained in 1985 to renovate the main Fourth Street entrance. During the initial process the Days uncovered many beautiful and intricate details including a cast bronze griffon. This discovery led to a call for a restoration rather than a renovation. “We started with signage,” says David. “We figured out early on that signage was a way to open the door [to restoration]…”

The griffon eventually became a symbol for the whole preservation project, appearing on everything from stationery to patches for employee uniforms. Thirty-five years later the design profession calls this “branding.” “In the 1950s and 60s, we were taught by practicing architects that everything in design is related and it was up to us to fill in the blanks,” says Barbara.

David says he heard of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, then the Miami Purchase Association (MPA), in the early 1970s, but decided to get involved after they were working on the Cincinnati Enquirer building in 1982. It was during that project the couple met Carol Nagel from MPA.

“She came in, saw the main lobby and elevators and asked ‘You’re not going to do this to all the floors?’ and we said ‘Yes, we are,’” says David. “That’s when we saw that the Miami Purchase Association was fostering the same kind of work we were. So, we joined.” The Enquirer project was honored with an MPA historical preservation award in 1982.

Over the years the Days have been instrumental in dozens of projects, including the Findlay Market History Mosaic and the Over-The-Rhine Campanile at the corner of Reading Road, Liberty Street, and I-471. The campanile with its 19 bells and cast bronze finials pays homage to the Days’ beloved OTR neighborhood.

“We grew up in Cincinnati,” notes Barbara. “We remember these places as kids and they’re important to us. And now people who come to live in the inner city are happy with its character after decades of neglect.”

Both believe it is important to pass their love of Cincinnati to the next generations and they do that through their drawings. “While selling books at the art museum a young woman said she sees more in these buildings than she ever noticed before because of the drawings. People learn from our drawings what the spirit of the city is all about.”

CPA honored the Days with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. “We got where we are by asking seemingly simple questions,” says David, “but the answers are complex and fascinating. So, we keep asking.”

To learn more about the Days, visit their Facebook page Vanishing Cincinnati.