text and photos by Maya Drozdz
Have you ever noticed this Stonehenge-like structure in Burnet Woods? If this looks like it may be a memorial to a long-gone building, it is. These granite blocks are what’s left of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, designed by the esteemed architect H.H. Richardson and destroyed by a 1911 fire.
Overlooking Martin Luther King Dr. and the northern edge of the University of Cincinnati campus, this monument seems almost engaged in a visual conversation with the Brutalist Crosley Tower to its southeast. The two structures are peers of the late-1960s Modernist vintage and, as Crosley Tower is slated for demolition in the coming years, destruction seems to be a common thread between them.
H.H. (Henry Hobson) Richardson was an architect so important that his career has been immortalized as its own style: Richardsonian Romanesque. His work featured picturesque roofline profiles, rustication and polychromy, semi-circular arches supported on clusters of squat columns, and round arches over clusters of windows on massive walls.
Richardson is often considered the grandfather of Modern architecture, due to his mentorship of Louis Sullivan and subsequent influence on Frank Lloyd Wright. The three men comprise the so-called “trinity of American architecture.” Born in Louisiana and educated at Tulane University, Harvard College and École des Beaux Arts in Paris, he primarily lived and practiced in the Northeast US, developing his own version of the Romanesque architecture of southern France.
Major commissions included the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane (1869), Boston’s Trinity Church (1872), Albany City Hall (1880), Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh (1884–1888), and the Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago (1885–1887, demolished 1930). These last two were completed posthumously by his assistants; Richardson died in 1886 of a kidney disorder, aged only 47.
In 1885, Richardson won the competition to design the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. The work was nearly complete when he passed away, and the project was finalized by his assistants, now operating as Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. Opened in 1889, the Chamber of Commerce building on the southwest corner of 4th and Vine Sts. featured exterior walls of Worcester (Pink Melford) granite, corner towers, a steep red tile roof with dormer windows, and impressive three-story arched windows.
Unfortunately, although Richardson had claimed that the structure would be fully fireproof, a 1911 grease fire destroyed the building. After the fire, a Chamber committee decided to sell the land to the Union Central Life Insurance Company, and a new building was erected for the Chamber of Commerce to occupy. There was interest in preserving and reusing the relatively undamaged granite blocks from the facade, and 3,000 tons were saved for potential projects that all ended up falling through.
In 1967, according to the on-site plaque, University of Cincinnati architecture students “determined to erect a memorial evocative of the genius of Richardson and his building which had stood for 22 years, and a credit to the enterprise and the spirit of the Chamber.” The initiative was named Operation Resurrection. The following year, UC held a student design competition to reuse 84 tons of the granite. Jurors included Boston-based architect Joe Richardson, H.H. Richardson’s grandson.
Architecture student Stephen Carter won the competition. The memorial was constructed in Burnet Woods in 1972, utilizing 51 granite pieces mounted on a slab foundation. A below-grade foundation supports the 14-ton “Chamber of Commerce” lintel stone in a vertical position, an iconic element that serves as the focal point.
Carter graduated in 1969 and, in 1970, started working at Lorenz and Williams Incorporated, an architecture firm based in Dayton. A distinguished career had him practicing while also teaching and lecturing at area architecture programs. He attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design as a Loeb Fellow and was a Graduate Design Studio Head for 19 years at Miami University.
Stephen Carter won the Progressive Architecture Award twice, as well as numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects. He now resides and practices on Hilton Head Island, SC, where his work is focused on design/master planning consultation on a wide variety of project types.
Two stone eagles from the Chamber of Commerce flank Eden Park Dr. near the Melan bridge in Eden Park.
Question: what happened to the rest of the granite?
- UC Historical Walking Tour: Burnet Woods
- Richardson’s rocks
- Our Rich History: Cincinnati’s old ‘fireproof’ Chamber of Commerce building at 4th and Vine
- Stephen Carter (architect)