A candy store in a space once occupied by a famous jewellery outlet, a micro-brewery occupying an abandoned fire station. Sounds incongruous? But not many people know that these are but examples of how a small city in Ohio (United States) is slowly revitalising itself through local entrepreneurship and giving a new lease to its historic buildings, which would have been otherwise demolished.
Founded in 1791 as an army outpost and supply station on the east bank of the Great Miami River, Fort Hamilton was named after the Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. By the time the army left the place, a rudimentary township had sprung up around it. The town was mapped, government was seated, and Hamilton was formally incorporated as a city by the Ohio General Assembly in 1810. The city, which was primarily occupying the east bank of the Miami River, extended its boundaries when Rossville on the west bank of the river decided to merge with Hamilton in 1840. By this time, Hamilton was growing into a flourishing industrial town and reached its peak in the 1900s.
However, a devastating flood in the Miami River valley in 1913, a new interstate highway system in the 1950s bypassing the city, and a shift in the manufacturing trend in the mid-1920s, dealt a huge blow to Hamilton’s prosperity. With the economic downturn, the city’s much acclaimed buildings – once hailed for their architectural and historic importance – began to bite the dust.
Fortunately, in recent years, the city council and a number of non-profits are working together to encourage the restoration and reuse of the city’s built heritage, said Chelsea McGill, co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, a Hamilton resident now settled in Kolkata.
According to a report in the Cincinnati Business Courier, organisations such as Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment Efforts (CORE), the Hamilton Parks Conservancy, and the Hamilton Community Foundation, funded through public and private channels, has carved out an area of influence in Hamilton and invests strategically in infrastructure, buildings, or people to maximise their impact.
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Today the city, especially its downtown area, is seeing many of the old buildings repurposed with a fresh lease of life. Tax benefits, and other facilities offered to commercial establishments who check into these buildings, are also gradually bringing in new businesses, especially local enterprises. There has been an overall improvement in residential, social and recreational lifestyle, say many of the local residents.
One of the first projects that convinced of the efficacy of repurposing was probably the saving of the Davis McCrory Building from potential demolition. Built in 1875 in the First Renaissance Revival style, the commercial premises is now known as the Historic Mercantile Lofts. Today it stands as a fully leased building with loft spaces above street level storefronts, designed by Community Design Alliance.
Two internally connected historic buildings – Mehrum Building, reflecting 1900 French Renaissance style and the 1913 Lindley Block – have been converted into Artspace Hamilton with live/work space for artists and their families, and the ground floor designed for use as commercial space for creative businesses, galleries, and an outdoor seating patio.
The Robinson-Schwenn Building, now home to several business enterprises, including a café, was originally an opera house dating back to 1866. The Henry’s Candy Company is housed in a space earlier occupied by the Mayor’s Jewelers. The candy store has not only retained the old wood panels from the older shop but also uses the vault to store supplies. The Municipal Brew Works, took over the fire department of the former municipal building (1933) to convert it into a highly popular brewery and tap room. If it was not for the COVID-19 pandemic, downtown Hamilton would have seen the opening of a new restaurant known for its handcrafted burgers and cocktails. Called Billy Yank, it is housed in an 1866 building and takes its name from the sculpture on the top of the Butler County Soldiers, Sailors, and Pioneers Monument.
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Many Indian cities have an eclectic collection of urban heritage which spans across styles and communities. These include religious and secular buildings, public and commercial edifices, art and cultural hubs, recreational centres, etc. If a city like Hamilton can find a way to preserve its built heritage, how difficult can it be for cities like Mumbai, Kolkata or New Delhi, one wonders.