Our UC History: Fire and Friendship

I would say the best way to learn about UC’s history involves having a conversation with David Stradling over coffee at Rohs Street cafe. Associate dean for humanities, UC history professor, writer— Stradling is considered by many to be the unofficial “official” residential UC historian. He’s published multiple non-fiction books, and his latest project is a history of the university that currently lives (not for long) in the editing phase. The following is what I learned from my conversation with David about a strange and interesting fragment from UC’s past.

Before the University of Cincinnati was embodied as the Uptown Campus you know today, it was a singular building simply dubbed “the university building.” A small academic faction deeply nestled in the hills of Over-the-Rhine, the university made its home in a building precariously balanced on The Bellevue Incline slope, near Bellevue Park. Not only was the small University of Cincinnati housed in a striking and tall brick structure, the building was the very first and sole of the institution. Classic in its design, yet unique in its intricate architecture (excessive windows decorated the red brick walls, with a monstrous roof that resembled a charcoal-gray top hat), it was the kind of building that entices one to stop and stare a long while, both in appreciation and curiosity. In 1885, the building burned down. Well, it almost burned down.

They think it probably started in the chemistry lab, but they can’t be certain for sure. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, November 7th, 1885, flames and smoke emerged from the UC building. The fire persisted until daybreak, and by then multiple rooms had sufficiently been destroyed (the chemistry lab completely). Because of the glowing flames visible on the hilltop from the city below, as well as news of the disaster spreading by word-of-mouth like wildfire (pun intended), almost everyone in town was aware of the fiery crisis. Isaac M. Wise promptly sent a note to the University of Cincinnati.

“I take pleasure in informing you and the Board that the Hebrew Union College building and each room thereof, is at your service to be used as temporary quarters,” Wise wrote. “The Hebrew Union College building is at your service daily up to two P. M. as long as you may deem proper to use it.”

Wise, founder and president of the small Jewish college that had recently moved downtown into a townhouse on West Sixth Street, was opening up his doors to UC students. The university took him up on the offer instantly. What followed would be the two schools sharing house, for the sake of education, for several months as the burnt school underwent repairs.

Wise is not only the founder of Hebrew Union College, but one of the founders of Reform Judaism in the United States. “He’s a huge guy. He wasn’t such a huge guy at the time, but he becomes really one of the most important figures in American Judaism history,” David explains, “He founds Hebrew Union College and he also has this congregation.” To this day, the Isaac M. Wise Temple congregation remains an active and vibrant community within the Cincinnati area.

But maybe what is most notable about the story, however, is the abnormality of it, such as David explains, “Wise was the central figure of Judaism in Cincinnati at the time, and the University of Cincinnati is a municipal university. To partner with a religious figure—a prominent religious figure who is Jewish, at a time when anti-Semitism is pretty big—is, I think, indicative of the way in which the early university was reaching out to different communities. And, in fact, it probably also says something about Wise.

“Isaac M. Wise, you know, his story is that he’s not about the money. He’s about the dedication to his vision for Judaism in the United States, his vision for reformation, creating a lively Jewish community in Cincinnati, and connecting it to other institutions like UC. He would give prayers before meetings, you know, benedictions and things like that. Which I find really interesting—you have this secular institution [UC] that is embracing these religious rituals. That they would be led by a Jew, I think, is very interesting; in a city that is not predominately Jewish, at a time that there was considerable anti-Semitism in the United States.”

Wise was a member of the Board of Trustees at the University of Cincinnati and remained on the board until 1899, the year prior to his death.

In the mid-1890’s, the university moved to Burnet Woods, the UC location you know it today. As for the original UC “university building,” although having managed to survive the fire of 1885, the structure was demolished in the 1930’s. It seems as though the professors and students didn’t care for it much; they claimed it was hard to get to. Following the fire, The Cincinnati Enquirer is recorded to having printed that the college was located “on an almost inaccessible bluff, reachable without fatigue by nothing except Rocky Mountain goats.”

“It’s a shame that they couldn’t find a use for it. And there’s nothing there now,” says Stradling, “As you’re going down the hill on Clifton—it provides a nice view of the city—but there’s nothing there, just a big grassy spot.”

Without the existence of this original University of Cincinnati building—the tall and striking brick building that wore a charcoal-gray top hat for a roof in Over-the-Rhine—the oldest standing building belonging to UC today lives on the Uptown Campus. Van Wormer Hall, a library when it opened in 1901, is the oldest of UC’s structures. Comprised of sleek blocks of silver stone, it serves as the current home of the Office of the Provost and the Graduate School.

Coincidentally, Van Wormer Hall also looks as though it wears a hat. The big glass dome is nothing like the “top hat” of the original university building. It calls to mind a large glass kippah—the round cap worn by Jewish men, also called a yarmulke. In Hebrew, the word “kippah” means dome, making an appropriate comparison. Van Wormer Hall sits across the street from the Cincinnati Hillel, a center for Jewish college students, and is a short walk from the current location of Hebrew Union College’s Cincinnati campus, on Clifton Avenue across form Burnet Woods. I would like to think that Isaac M. Wise would be pleased by the sights along Clifton Avenue.

Written by Danniah Daher, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School Office