by Margo Warminski, CPA Preservation Director
originally published in Northern Kentucky Tribune
Newport, Kentucky’s Mansion Hill is one of America’s great historic preservation success stories. And like many historic districts nationwide, its plot is familiar. From starting as a genteel subdivision to houses that have been subdivided into multiple units, and finally, to careful and attractive historic restorations, Mansion Hill celebrates the evolution of American housing.
Mansion Hill was the last piece of the estate of General James Taylor V founder of Newport, to be developed as housing. In the late 19th century, a middle- and upper-class residential district developed around the Taylor residence, appropriately named the Mansion Hill Subdivision. New residents benefited from views of Taylor’s stately mansion, access to Cincinnati via the new Central Bridge across the Ohio River (since demolished), and the elegant Italianate and Queen Anne dwellings on surrounding blocks.
655 Nelson Place. This American Foursquare brick residence, with Craftsman details, was at one time the home of artists Lenore Davis and Bill Helwig. Following years of neglect, it has been lovingly restored. Kentucky historic rehabilitation tax incentives made it feasible for the owners to restore the orange tile roof. (Photo by Margo Warminski, July 2020)
Ironically, the 1886 Sanborn fire insurance map of Newport reveals the existence of a plan, likely drawn up by the Taylor heirs, to demolish the family home and to extend Overton Street to what is now Dave Cowens Drive (Kentucky Route 8) — the first of a series of redevelopment plans for the neighborhood, for good or ill. Instead, the heirs chose to remodel the Taylor house by removing one wing, adding another, and reorienting the house to Third Street with the addition of a two-tier veranda (Newport, Kentucky. New York: Sanborn Map Publishing Company, 1886). To this date, the best views of the mansion’s original, Greek Revival façade continue to be from the modest residences on the hillside below — the last homes to be built in the neighborhood — demonstrating indeed that “A cat can look at a king.”
Whether bought by kings or cats, lots were expensive in Mansion Hill. Most houses were built on narrow parcels with ornament largely confined to the street-facing façade. The neighborhood remained the most prestigious in the city until the early 20th century, when the first generation passed on, either to the next world or to new suburbs.
Gradually many of the original houses in Mansion Hill began to be converted to two or more units, a trend that accelerated in the Great Depression. Some of the larger homes became rooming houses. An example is 301 Overton Street, the splendid Queen Anne-style residence of steamboat boiler manufacturer Thomas McIlvain, whose company eventually failed. By the 1930s, the McIlvain mansion had become a genteel rooming house, and its interior was remodeled to accommodate the new tenants.
235 East Fifth Street. This charming Italianate cottage at one time housed an antique shop. Original details include floor-to-ceiling windows, paired cornice brackets, and a dormer with twin arched windows. A bellcast hood with spindled frieze shelters the main entrance. (Photo by Margo Warminski, July 2020.)
In the years after World War II, Newport, including Mansion Hill, experienced a significant demographic shift. Many longtime residents took advantage of federally supported incentives for suburban development—including VA and FHA loans—and moved to outlying suburbs such as Fort Thomas and Highland Heights. Taking their place were large numbers of migrants from Appalachia. Many owner-occupied residences were converted to rental properties to accommodate the new residents.
Some were well-kept while others, neglected, deteriorated into slum properties. For example, the once-elegant mansion of Taylor descendant Martha Saunders on Washington Avenue became a crime magnet and blight on the neighborhood. A new owner dealt with the situation by asking the city to condemn the third floor so those tenants would be forced to move out, to which the city agreed.
Also starting in the post-World War II era, the “federal bulldozer” pushed freeways through cities, leveling historic buildings and neighborhoods regardless of their significance. State governments took advantage of federal funding to build new highways in the hope of attracting economic development.
313-319 East Third Street. The Davidson House, an imposing Shingle-Style home at 315 East Third Street, was built in the late 1880s for a successful produce merchant. The second house to be built on the block after the Taylor Mansion, it features a half-round turret and inset porch. Soon, neighboring homes were built on the block, representing the Queen Anne and American Foursquare styles. (Photo by Margo Warminski, July 2020.)
In the 1970s, Interstate I-471 ripped apart Newport’s far east side, splitting Mansion Hill into two. Many houses were demolished for the construction of the highway. According to long-term former resident Nick Rechtin, so many houses with relatively high property values were torn down that Newport’s tax base declined and the city had to lay off police officers (Nick Rechtin, personal communication to Margo Warminski).
The original plan for I-471, approved by the city in 1968, favored on- and off-ramps on East Fourth and Fifth streets. To facilitate this, the Kentucky Department of Transportation (now called the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet) purchased options on the front yards of those blocks, extending to the front doors of those homes (Renee Rice, personal communication to Margo Warminski).
In 1977, a “strong community protest, which was spearheaded by the Newport [Citizens] Advisory Council, forced a delay in construction [of the ramps] until further studies could be made as to possible alternatives” (“Hearings Held on Ramps,” The Newport News, October-November 1978, p. 14). Another option was chosen: Alternative 3-A, a looping off-ramp that emptied traffic onto Park Avenue, ending at Dave Cowens Drive, along the levee protecting the neighborhood from flooding from the Ohio River.
Yungblut House, 522 Overton Street. This elegant Italian Villa speaks to the success of German-American contractor-builder Yungblut. Note the three-story tower with bellcast roof and the original carriage house at the rear. A two-and-a-half-story north wing, built to resemble the original house, was added circa 1920 when the house was converted into apartments. (Photo by Margo Warminski, July 2020.)
“Of the 4 options presented, the Highway Dept. clearly favored the original plan of 4th & 5th St. Alternative 3-A…however, was the overwhelming choice of the political and community leaders who spoke at the hearing. Supporters of 3-A included State Representatives Terry Mann and Bill Donnermeyer, County Judge Lambert Hehl, The City of Newport, The City of Bellevue, and the Newport Citizens Advisory Council” (“Hearings Held on Ramps,” The Newport News, October-November 1978, p. 14).
Although Mansion Hill neighbors no longer needed to fear the Fourth-Fifth Street ramp plan, many nonetheless felt threatened by the I-471 “loop” ramp. The neighborhood association filed suit to stop it and held fundraisers for legal expenses (“Neighborhood to Pursue Suit,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 29, 1983, 2c:3). Residents held a rush-hour protest beside the freeway, bearing handmade signs with attention-getting slogans, such as “Kill the Ramp” and “My Daughter is Not a Truck Stop” (“Residents Battle Ramp Construction,” Cincinnati Post, May 23, 1983, 6A:4).
Eventually the neighborhood agreed to a ramp compromise (“I-471 Ramp Approved,” Cincinnati Post, August 18, 1982, 3b:1; “Mansion Hill Residents Settle,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 16, 1985, B-6:1). The Kentucky Department of Transportation (now known as the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet) built a barrier at East Third Street and Park Avenue to keep ramp traffic out of most of the neighborhood. Some residents of lower Park Avenue and East Second Street, however, objected to the increase of traffic in their area. Because they tended to be less affluent than their neighbors to the south, and lived in smaller, less expensive homes, they saw the intrusion of the barrier as a class issue benefiting what some called “Mansion Hill South.” Despite their objections, the barrier, now with the addition of landscaping, still functions to this day, notwithstanding scofflaws who continue to make U-turns to avoid it.
404-412 Overton Street. This block of mansard-roofed frame cottages was built as an investment by a coal dealer named Spinks. Over time they were unsympathetically altered and many of their original details were removed or covered. Since then, 406 and 408 have been sympathetically renovated, including recreation of patterned slate roofs. Also, 410’s façade has been restored. Mansion Hill Historic In 2014 Cincinnati Preservation Association presented developer Mansion Hill Properties with a Rehabilitation Award for the renovation of 406 Overton. (Photo by Margo Warminski, July 2020.)
In addition to a highway in their backyards, Mansion Hill residents next were concerned about inappropriate development arriving on their doorsteps. In 1978, the Newport City Commission cast a controversial vote rezoning the residential blocks to the west of Mansion Hill—between Fourth, Sixth, Washington and Saratoga streets—as a zone known as Central Business District. This change was made in reaction to a supposed high rate of substandard housing in the area, in anticipation of new development resulting from the construction of I-471 through the city, and to accommodate a nearby business owner with expansion plans and concerns about possibly losing a lease.
In the words of the Newport News:
“Listen to the People. Recently the City Commission voted 3 to 2 to approve the controversial zone change between 4th, 6th, Washington and Saratoga streets from residential to Central Business District…. The majority of residents in this area were opposed to the change. Also opposed were the Newport Citizens Advisory Council, the Newport Zoning Board, the Northern Kentucky Area Planning Commission, and the adjacent Mansion Hill Neighborhood….If the commissioners voted for the change to increase city revenue, then any neighborhood in the city could be razed to get more income. Apparently it could happen in your neighborhood!” (“Listen to the People,” The Newport News, October-November 1978, p. 2)
And it did happen, as the people would find out. In 1984 the city won a federal Urban Development Action Grant to redevelop a site on the south side of Dave Cowens Drive (KY 8) between Washington and Park avenues, then used as a mobile home park. A speculative office building called Riverfront Place was built on the site by a Kentucky-based developer called National Redevelopment. The Riverfront Place mid-rise initially attracted the headquarters of Heintz pet food (occasioning visits by Heintz mascot Morris the cat) and later housed a succession of businesses after Heintz moved out.
Some Second Street neighbors feared the new development would lead to their block being bulldozed for Riverfront Place parking. In fact, part of the block eventually was turned into a parking lot. Others welcomed the new building, hoping that the development would give them the opportunity to sell at a high price as some of their neighbors on Park Avenue had done. Numerous Third Street neighbors, whose homes were built on higher ground, objected to losing their river and downtown views, to the detriment of their property values.
523, 525, 527 East Second Street. The modest brick and frame houses of East Second Street were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to house working people, many of whom may have labored in the riverfront enterprises they could see from their windows. Today many of the same residences have been nicely renovated by a new generation drawn by views of Cincinnati, riverfront attractions, and houses of character at affordable prices. (Photo by Margo Warminski, July 2020.)
Because federal funding was involved, Kentucky Historic Preservation Officer David Morgan stepped into the fray. He forged a compromise requiring the city to draft a historic preservation ordinance that would place a protective zoning overlay on Mansion Hill and could later be applied to other neighborhoods. The north side of Second, however, initially was not included in the overlay zone, in part because of objections from several owners. The Riverfront Place developers took advantage of this situation: They bought three strategic parcels of land on the block, one at each end and a third in the center, demolishing the houses that stood there in the hope of stymying preservation efforts. The north side of Second eventually was added to the overlay zone over the developers’ objection, as several homes on the block found new, preservation-minded young owners and voiced their support to City officials.
As time went on, Newport’s support for preservation increased among residents and elected officials. In 1985 the Mansion Hill Historic District was expanded to take in buildings in the blocks between Washington, Saratoga, Southgate and East Sixth streets. The city’s then-economic development director objected to the expansion of the district, but the nomination proceeded nonetheless. Ironically, because Register listing typically offers no protection from demolition, a number of homes in the expansion zone ended up being demolished to provide parking or additional space for nearby businesses. Also lost to private development was part of the former Dueber Watch Case Factory at Sixth and Washington Streets, which was torn down for parking for a business to the south.
In 1990, the City’s preservation board passed an ordinance creating the East Row local historic district, which includes Mansion Hill as well as the adjoining Gateway neighborhood to the south. The new ordinance put guidelines in place for exterior renovation, demolition and new construction within the district. This overlay district includes 1,070 buildings and comprises the second-largest historic district in the state. Following East Row’s lead, local historic overlays have since been put into place for both York and Monmouth streets in central Newport, as well as some individual historic properties.
Beginning in the 1990s, Mansion Hill benefited from a new interest in city living. Neighborhood property values soared as a wave of affluent new owners found their way to the neighborhood.
Taylor Mansion, the home of Newport founder, James Taylor V. Instead of demolishing the family estate in the 1880s, the Taylor heirs chose to remodel the house by removing one wing, adding another, and reorienting the house to Third Street with the addition of a two-tier veranda, as seen here. (Photo by Margo Warminski, July 2020).
“A historic neighborhood full of hundreds of Queen Anne, Italianate and Victorian houses here has become an enclave of urban professionals because of its easy access to downtown Cincinnati across the Ohio River and a ready supply of revitalized housing” (John Eckberg, “Once a Rundown District, It’s Now Mansion Hill,” The New York Times, January 16, 2000, Section 11, p. 12).
In a scenario increasingly familiar in urban America, however, the neighborhood’s high real estate prices have priced many would-be buyers out of the market, particularly young people and those of modest means. At the same time, some of these same people are buying and renovating homes in other, more affordable Newport neighborhoods, helping to revitalize those communities as their Mansion Hill predecessors did years before.