Background & History: Cincinnati Architecture

Growth, Industry & Technology Influenced Styles

The earliest houses in Cincinnati were simple log cabins and wood frame structures. Brick was also a popular material early in the city's history, since the condition of local soil was favorable for its manufacture.

As the city grew and became more prosperous, a large and diverse population with varied tastes desired a wider range of styles from which to choose. The development of the railroads, starting in the 1840s, made possible the importation of materials not available locally, such as marble and granite, for the construction of more elaborate houses.

Just as solar technology influences building design today, earlier technological advancements in the building industry contributed to the development of new architectural styles. The Italianate style, for example, popular in Cincinnati starting about 1865, was enriched with cast iron and pressed tin ornamentation, mass-produced by local foundries using recently-developed methods. The powered scroll saw, which made possible the production of the "gingerbread" of Queen Anne and Carpenter Gothic styles, was among other inventions that influenced style.

The periods in which particular areas developed can often be determined by the architectural styles that are prevalent. Areas of early residential growth in Cincinnati included the areas now known as the West End, Over-the-Rhine, Lower Price Hill, the East End, Riverside and Prospect Hill. These neighborhoods exhibit the greatest number of houses of Cincinnati's first styles -- Federal and Greek Revival.

Some outlying settlements such as Madisonville, which later became part of the city, developed independently but simultaneously with Cincinnati, and also have houses of early styles.

The steamboat building industry and river commerce brought prosperity to Cincinnati. By the 1850s, it was the fastest-growing city in the country, with a population of over 100,000 crowded into an area of about seven square miles.

Innovations in transportation aided in expansion beyond the hills. The first horsecar line to Mount Auburn was established in 1867, and the incline, the first in the city, in 1872. Scattered throughout the countryside were small settlements, such as Clifton, Walnut Hills, and Avondale, that gained importance as improvements in transportation continued.

In the 20th century, motorized transportation opened up more remote areas like Pleasant Ridge and Westwood. The influence of the automobile is reflected in street after street of Colonial Revival, Bungalow and Tudor Revival houses in these areas.

Same Elements Arranged Differently Make 'Style'

Every house has a structural frame, roof, siding materials, windows, and doors. The shape, materials, and arrangement of these features, as well as the type of ornamentation, determine a building's style.

Houses that have similar characteristics belong to the same style group. Architectural styles flourish for varying numbers of years, overlap with periods of other styles and subsequently fall out of fashion.

It is generally possible to date a house within 20 years by identifying its style, but not always. A house of a particular style could have been built long after that style's era of vogue.

Sometimes it's difficult to assign a stylistic label to a house, since some houses are composites of several styles, and others don't exhibit strong characteristics of any style. Simple in form and detailing, these are called "vernacular." Vernacular houses are utilitarian shelters, built by their owners or local builders, and not designed by architects. Vernacular houses may be completely free of ornamentation or may have a few elements of a certain style. Detailing on a vernacular house is always much simpler than on a "high style" house (an elaborate example of a style).

Many architectural styles are represented in Cincinnati. Eighteen of them are identified in this manual. Most of them originated in other parts of the country and reached Cincinnati a few years later. "Pattern books" and "builders' guides," which gave descriptions, illustrations and construction techniques, were important in educating local architects and builders in new styles.