Journal-News, Sunday, Sept. 3, 1989
'Center Punch' changed downtown Hamilton
By Jim Blount
Much has been done in recent years to maintain and improve downtown Hamilton, including the building of a new hotel, the railroad underpass and the municipal parking garage.
But a project known as Center Punch was the first major step, leading to the opening Sept. 20, 1968, of the Elder-Beerman Store on High Street, opposite the Butler County Courthouse.
Center Punch combined local initiative and city development funds with a federal grant and private money.
The Center Punch Urban Renewal Area — its official name — covered the block bound by High, North Front, Market and North Second streets.
Today that block includes not only Elder-Beerman, but a parking lot and the Butler County Administrative Center.
In the winter of 1961-1962, Hamilton City Council and the city administration began working on a proposal to raze the one to three-story buildings on the block and seek a large retail magnet for downtown Hamilton.
The city learned June 2, 1962, that more than $1 million in federal funds was available to help purchase property, But it wasn't until June 1, 1964, that the city and the feds ironed out an agreement.
Arthur Beerman, who headed the Dayton-based department store, offered $280,000 for the store site March 31, 1965, and completed a contract with the city July 28.
Beerman began with a dress shop in Dayton in the 1940s, merged with the Home Store there in 1956 and combined with the Elder-Johnston Co. in 1962, assuming the Elder-Beerman name.
Demolition of 17 structures -- some as old as 140 years -- began Sept. 8, 1965. By Jan. 5, 1966, the Center Punch site was cleared and ready for construction.
Only 60 people had worked in the razed buildings — about a fifth of the employment of 300 projected in the new store.
Ground was broken Wednesday, Sept. 21, 1966, for the $3.5 million Elder-Beerman store. This first phase of Center Punch would occupy about two-thirds of the block.
The company said the store would have 121,650 square feet of retail space on three floors, 42,475 square feet of storage and additional room for offices.
Before opening here, Elder-Beerman acquired Wilmurs, the leading downtown retailer for many years. The Dayton company paid $2,5 million to William Murstein and other Wilmurs' shareholders.
Wilmurs was across the street from the new store in a pre-Civil War building which extended along North Second Street between High and Market streets.
Wilmurs began business in 1934 when it purchased the buildings from operators of the William C. Frechtling Company.
That structure is still used by Elder-Beerman, which opened in Hamilton Sept. 20, 1968, under the name Wilmurs Elder-Beerman.
At that time, phase two of Center Punch was to be a four-level, 180-car parking garage on the northeast corner of the block, also to be developed by Elder-Beerman. The remaining area along High Street was to be additional retail space.
But, for various reasons, it didn't materialize.
Instead, the Butler County Administrative Center was built on the parcel on the northeast corner of High and North Front streets.
The $2.9 million five-story complex -- which formally opened in December 1976 -- houses most of the offices of the county commission, auditor, treasurer, recorder, clerk of courts and other county agencies,
Its construction permitted the county to renovate the courthouse and rededicate that building to courts and court-related services, easing over-crowding which had hampered county agencies.
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Journal-News, Sunday, Sept. 10, 1989
Downtown theater has new a life
By Jim Blount
A landmark in downtown Hamilton has new life with the conversion of the 600-seat Court Theater to the remodeled Rialto Theater, its original name.
The recent trend in the theater business has been to suburban, multi-screen complexes with large parking lots. But the nearly 70-year-old Rialto was built in the era of downtown, single-screen theaters when parking wasn't a concern because few patrons owned cars. Instead, they walked or rode public transportation to the movie house.
The theater on the northwest corner of High and North Front streets was one of six theaters in downtown Hamilton in 1920, and since September 1960 the only survivor.
It was described as "Hamilton's newest home of the silent drama" when it opened Wednesday evening, Sept. 1,1920.
The Rialto was built by Jewel Photoplay Co., which included John A. Schwalm, president, and John H. Broomhall, secretary and treasurer. Schwalm and Broomhall also operated three other theaters in Hamilton.
In 1909 they leased the Jewel Theater at the southeast corner of South Second and Court streets. In 1914 they bought the Jefferson Theater on the west side of South Second between Court and Ludlow streets, and in 1918 took over the Grand Theater at 201 South Third Street.
The Jewel featured silent movies; the Jefferson offered a variety of live theater and entertainment, plus movies; and the Grand was a live vaudeville house.
The original plan in 1919 was to raze the St. Charles Hotel, which then occupied the Rialto site. Instead, part of the hotel was demolished and the remainder saved and rebuilt as a theater.
The year-long conversion was the work of L. W. Fahnestock, a Cincinnati architect who designed theaters. The general contractor was Edward Honnert of Mount Healthy.
At its opening, a news report said the theater "is practically fireproof, only a small amount of combustible material entering into the construction." The article also emphasized that there were no steps for patrons entering or leaving, and that ample exits allowed the building to be emptied in one minute in an emergency.
"It has a seating capacity of 867, every seat being so set that a full view of the stage can be obtained without necessitating a strain upon the part of the occupant of any seat," the report explained. A special feature was a scattering of extra-wide seats for moviegoers with a generous girth.
In the era of silent movies, music was an essential amenity and the Rialto was well provided. The Rialto Ladies' Symphony Orchestra performed for afternoon and evening shows.
The pride of the Rialto was its $20,000 Wurlitzer organ, described as a Hope-Jones unit orchestra which "reproduces the effects of a symphony orchestra, combined with the sweetness of tone of the finest church organs."
The organ had about one million parts and about 150 miles of wiring.
The opening night feature was "45 Minutes from Broadway," a George M. Cohan play which had been converted to film, starring Charles Ray.
First-nighters also saw two shorts, "Sunday Evening," a Mack Sennet comedy, and Will Rogers' "Illiterate Digest."
Two seatings were scheduled and tickets for the early show were sold out before Sept. 1,1920. The second show sold out early that evening.
Local officials and regional film distribution executives attended the opening festivities, which began with a band concert in front of the theater.
The Rialto and then the Court — its name since September 1959 — have provided film entertainment for more than 69 years with only brief interruptions.
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Journal-News, Sunday, Sept. 17, 1989
Area's banks were sound during 1933 crisis
By Jim Blount
Recent federal approval of more than $166 billion to rescue the nation's savings and loan industry recalls one of the most memorable events of the Great Depression — the 1933 bank crisis that prompted a new president to declare a bank holiday.
March 4, 1933 -- as Franklin D. Roosevelt replaced Herbert Hoover in the White House -- national unemployment was 25 percent and the banking system was failing. More than 5,500 U. S. banks, with deposits topping $3.4 billion, had closed.
By inauguration day, every state had taken some action with half declaring bank holidays of from one to eight days. Banks in only three states (Delaware, Colorado and South Carolina) were open that day without restrictions.
In nine states, including Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, they were operating, but with state-imposed limitations.
Gov. George White and the Ohio General Assembly in February enacted legislation which gave the state superintendent of banks the power to limit withdrawals. Starting Tuesday, Feb. 28, persons with money in Butler County banks could withdraw only 5 percent of their balance.
But the stricture wasn't applicable to new deposits.
Thirteen Butler County banks placed advertisements which explained that "deposits made on and after Feb. 27, 1933, will be held in cash or liquid assets and will be separately credited and subject to full withdrawal at the will of the depositors."
A newspaper said the withdrawal restrictions "were taken calmly in Hamilton as officials of business places were making plans to meet conditions imposed by lack of ready cash."
One of FDR's first presidential actions was to order a four-day holiday, which suspended all transactions in banks, trust companies, credit unions, building and loan associations and the Federal Reserve System.
The new president also embargoed the export of gold, silver and currency.
FDR's closing edict — which came less than 36 hours after his inauguration — was effective March 6-9.
With the state's 800 banks closed, the Ohio General Assembly approved the use of script (certificates of indebtedness) for payment of state debts. Many merchants followed suit.
Thursday, March 9, the U. S. Congress and the president cooperated in producing a new national banking law. It was passed by Congress and signed by the president the same day.
Although the FDR-ordered holiday ended March 9, banks remained closed Friday, March 10, because new federal regulations didn't permit reopening until a bank could demonstrate it was in solid condition.
Sunday evening, March 12, FDR delivered his first radio "fireside chat," assuring listeners it was safe to deposit their money in the banks again.
Within three days about 75 percent of the banks then in the Federal Reserve System reopened. This included more than 4,500 national banks and more than 560 state banks.
In Hamilton, the First National, Second National, Citizens and Hamilton Dime Saving Banks reopened Tuesday, March 14.
The next day, the remaining nine Butler County banks reopened (the Oxford National and the Farmers State in Oxford; the Farmers National in Seven Mile; the First National of Okeana; the Somerville National; the Monroe National; and the First and Merchants National, Olgesby and Barnitz and the American Trust and Savings in Middletown).
"To the everlasting credit of the banks of Hamilton, it can be said that not one of them closed its doors during the darkest days of the worst financial, industrial and business depression in all history," noted a Journal-News report three years later.
The 1936 assessment said the local banks "stood the test of stability, soundness and conservatism the people had reposed in them."
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Journal-News, Sunday, Sept. 24, 1989
Garfield and Taft high schools opened in 1959
By Jim Blount
Thirty years ago this month Hamiltonians were adjusting to two public high schools — Garfield and Taft — after 106 years of having one high school. Garfield and Taft functioned as high schools for 21 years, until a merger nine years ago.
The move toward the split began in January 1956 when the Hamilton Board of Education retained Ohio State University's Bureau of Educational Research to study the possible replacement of the 41-year-old Hamilton High School at the southeast corner of North Sixth and Dayton streets.
HHS that year had 1,602 pupils in three grades. Projections said there would be 3,000 or more starting in the 1960s.
While the study proceeded, some citizen groups urged the board to build a new, larger central high school. But the OSU report released July 9, 1956, recommended:
* 1 . Building a high school for 1.000 to 1,200 students in the south-central part of Hamilton, specifying about 50 acres in Peck's Addition.
* 2. Building a high school of the same size on about 30 acres in the northwest corner "near Millikin Woods."
* 3 . Acquiring a third high school site on Fair Avenue "to be held until senior high school enrollments justify the construction of the third high school building."
* 4. Adding three elementary schools.
A week after receipt of the report, a $6.48 million bond issue was placed on the Nov. 6. 1956, ballot by the school board, which included Robert K Stevenson, Grover C. Kirgan, James Black, Carl Hutzelman and Mrs. Mildred Henes.
State law then required 55 percent approval for passage of the 2.46-mill bond issue.
After a spirited election campaign — in which the merits of one school versus the split were hotly debated — the vote was 55.35 percent in favor (15,066 for, 12,149 against).
The Garfield site at Fair Avenue and High Street was purchased the next month, and the Taft site on Eaton Avenue was obtained in April 1957, both at $2,100 an acre. Architects were hired in May 1957.
Following precedent, the school board named the new schools for presidents. In this case, it was two Ohio-born chief executives, James A. Garfield and William Howard Taft.
The new three-year high schools, each with 45 academic classrooms, cost about $4.8 million, or $2.4 million each.
The $6.48 million bond issue also financed three elementary schools: $420,000 for Hayes, $440,000 for Monroe and $640,000 for Cleveland.
The 1956 bond issue provided about $75,000 to convert the old Hamilton High into Harding Junior High, and varying funds for remodeling projects at Fillmore and Lincoln elementary schools and Roosevelt and Wilson junior high schools.
The new schools opened in September 1959, when the annual salary for a first-year teacher was $4,000.
The combined high school enrollment in 1959-60 was 1,885, slightly less than the 1,899 pupils at Hamilton High the previous year. The 1959-60 total included 1,007 at Garfield and 878 at Taft.
The peak year for the two high schools was 3,022 in 1971-72 (1,569 at Taft and 1,453 at Garfield). Garfield's highest total was 1,515 in 1969-70 while Taft's population crested at 1,607 in 1972-73, about the time consolidation talks began.
A plan to build a central high school in Peck's Addition failed when Hamilton voters rejected a $17.5 million bond issue in September 1976 (2,953 for, 9,443 against).
Less than three years later, the school board decided to establish one high school through building reorganization instead of building new ones,
When the 1980-81 school year opened, Taft was renamed Hamilton High School (with more than 2,100 students) and Garfield become a junior high school.
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