Journal-News Wednesday, July 5, 2006
(This is the first of two columns on the Jewel Theater and the career of John Eberson, its architect.)
By Jim Blount
When it opened in 1909, the Jewel Theater was one of 11 showplaces operating in Hamilton. In an era before radio and television, the Jewel's competitors included the Bijou, Eagle, Grand, Lyric, Princess, Queen, Royal, Smith, Star and Vendome theaters, offering everything from vaudeville shows, plays and musicals to increasingly popular movies.
The Jewel was created on the southeast corner of South Second and Court streets in a building erected before the Civil War. It had several occupants before the first and second floors of the three-story structure were converted to a theater, advertised "as free from danger as human ingenuity can make it."
In its 40 by 50-foot area "there are eight exits in the theater for the protection of its patrons," a writer noted, reflecting the lingering impact of a Chicago theater tragedy. About 600 people had died in the Iroquois Theater fire more than five years before the Jewel opened..
The 1,600-seat Chicago theater had been advertised as "absolutely fireproof" when about 2,000 people jammed the five-week-old building Dec. 30, 1903. Across the nation, public reaction demanded stronger fire codes and strict enforcement for public buildings, including theaters.
Jan, 6, 1904, a week after the Iroquois fire, Hamilton officials inspected the Globe Opera House and ordered it closed. For nearly 38 years, the 1,200-seat Globe had been a popular theater. It was on the third floor at 221 High Street at the southeast corner of High Street and Journal Square.
A newspaper said the Globe was "insecure in case of a panic from fire, and that the exits from the theater would not near accommodate the audiences it had been accustomed to contain." Its owner complied with the closing order, noting "that the public has been worked to a high fever of excitement over the terrible Chicago disaster."
In addition to safety, Jewel planners emphasized comfort. They said the theater would be built as a "steep auditorium," a feature advertised today as stadium seating. "Every row will be over a foot higher than the preceding one so that ladies can keep their hats on and they will not disturb even a child" sitting behind them, management said.
The theater -- which opened with 350 seats and later expanded to 450 -- became part of the Jewel Photoplay Company, also operating theaters in Indiana, Pennsylvania and elsewhere in Ohio.
Later, the company owned two other Hamilton theaters -- the Jefferson at 123 South Second Street and the Rialto, later known as the Court, at the northwest corner of High and North Front streets. Its officers, based in Hamilton, included John A. Schwalm, president, and John H. Broomhall, secretary and treasurer.
The Jewel opened Saturday, May 1, 1909, the same day the Hagenbeck and Wallace Circus visited Hamilton. Performers and animals from the 42-car circus train paraded through Hamilton that morning, three hours before the theater opened.
The weather -- cold and snow -- favored the theater in its competition with the circus. Price also influenced choice. Circus admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. The Jewel's price -- prominently advertised on its marquee -- was five cents, regardless of age.
Theater owners boasted they would show "motion pictures, illustrated songs and high-class exhibitions for ladies, children and gentlemen." They also said "only comedy and educational pictures will be shown. No sensational or melodramatic pictures will be displayed under any circumstances."
The Jewel operated for nearly 17 years. The building was sold March 1, 1926, and the Jewel Photoplay Co., which had leased the space, closed the theater March 14. After remodeling, the first floor corner was occupied by the Central Drug Store. The building was demolished in 1960s and the property became a bank parking lot.
Building of the Jewel Theater in 1909 had been directed by John Eberson, who specialized in theater architecture with emphasis on interior design. Eberson -- nationally known as "Opera House John" -- is believed to have launched his successful theater design career in Hamilton.
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Journal-News Wednesday, July 12, 2006
(This is the last of two columns on the Jewel Theater and the career of John Eberson, its architect.)
By Jim Blount
You won't find the Jewel Theater -- in operation from May 1909 until March 1926 -- on a current list of historic or architecturally significant places in Hamilton. But if you explore the national development of "movie palaces" in the first half of the 20th century, you're likely to find mention of the local showplace.
The Jewel, according to numerous sources, was the first theater designed by John Eberson, one of the top theater architects. He has been called "Opera House John," "the dean of American theater architects" and an artist "whose theater designs revolutionized the industry during the 1920s."
Eberson's specialty was interiors. His wall and ceiling designs are described as "atmospheric." His atmospheric theaters presented the images of statues, fountains, grottoes and gardens under colorful skies. He described his concept this way: "We visualize and dream a magnificent amphitheater, an Italian garden, a Persian court, a Spanish patio or a mystic Egyptian temple yard, all canopied by a soft moonlit sky."
The Jewel wasn't a new building. The first and second floors of the existing three-story structure were converted to a theater. The building had stood at the southeast corner of South Second and Court streets since the mid 1800s. When the theater opened May 1, 1909, there were few exterior additions. They were limited to marble columns at the entrance and a 22-foot vertical electric sign including its name and emphasizing admission five cents.
Its foot print measured only 40 by 50 feet and it seated 350 patrons -- minuscule in comparison to Eberson's 3,500-seat Paradise Theater, opened in Chicago in 1928, and his 4,000-seat Majestic Theater in San Antonio, Texas, completed in 1929.
The Republican News said the Jewel "was designed and built under the direction of John Eberson, the well known theater architect who has designed many of the leading playhouses of the country" -- a statement that seems to contradict the claim that the Jewel was his first theater venture.
The article said Eberson worked from his third floor office in the Rentschler Building, a block north of the theater. The 1908 city directory listed Eberson as an architect residing in the 500 block of North D Street with his wife, Beatrice.
Information is scarce as to why Eberson came to Hamilton, how long he was here and his other accomplishments, if any, while a local resident. Also a mystery is if the Jewel incorporated any of his "atmospheric" ideas or had a traditional design.
Answers to the latter question appear to have vanished when the building reverted to retail and office use after the Jewel closed March 14, 1926. The structure was razed in the 1960s.
A 1909 Republican News story offers some clues about its design. The Jewel, "from an interior viewpoint," said the newspaper, is "one of the most beautiful theaters in this section of the country."
It reported "15 fancy electric lights swing from the artistically decorated ceiling and the side lights and other lights, which are in part covered with artistic glass shades, will add beauty to the entire interior." In addition, the newspaper said, "Charles H. Blair, the well known local painter and decorator, has added much to the beauty of the theater by handsome decorations of the walls and ceilings."
Eberson -- who may have designed as many as 500 theaters -- was born in 1875 in Romania and studied in Dresden, Germany, and Vienna, Austria. He was jailed after an argument with a superior officer in his military unit. After escaping prison, he came to the United States.
He located in St. Louis, working for a construction company, 1901-03. As the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair approached, he did stage design and painting, and began experiments in atmospheric design. He developed a system to pre-cast decorative ornaments with plaster and straw.
Some reports say one of his first jobs in Hamilton was to design a porch for a Mrs. Sheehan. Those sources say he was paid $20 for "a three sided Ionic affair tacked on to her Victorian dwelling." While Eberson was in Hamilton, according to city directories, a Mrs. Sheehan, a widow, resided in the 200 block of North Second Street.
In 1910 -- a year after the Jewel opened -- Eberson relocated to Chicago. His business boomed as movies evolved from the black-and-white "Silent Era" to the "Talking Pictures" and color photography of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1926, as the demand for luxurious "movie palaces" was increasing, Eberson moved his office to New York, where he died in 1964.
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Journal-News Wednesday, July 19, 2006
By Jim Blount
"The largest single-storied industrial plant in the world" -- producing air-cooled radial engines for U. S. fighters and bombers during World War II -- relied on water imported from Butler County. Local leaders willingly supplied the Wright Aeronautical Corp. complex, but bulked at sharing water with other industries and communities in Hamilton County.
In 1942 the federal government ordered that the Wright plant -- identified then as located in Lockland, but later in Evendale -- acquire 12 million gallons of water a day from newly-drilled wells in Butler County over a 20-mile pipeline system.
Butler County leaders -- including Hamilton City Council -- questioned the initial decision by the War Production Board (WPB). The WPB had been asked to allow 30 million gallons to be pumped daily from Butler County to industries and communities in Hamilton County. Besides the aircraft engine factory, 28 other industries and several villages in the Millcreek area of northern Hamilton County could have drawn water.
The Journal-News said "the underground water supply has been called 'Butler County's most valuable asset.' Any plan to divert this asset to the benefit of other communities or to industries in the Millcreek Valley would present a menace to the health of every family, imperil present industries and stifle growth."
Butler County leaders argued "that the war should not be used to veil a grab of water for other industries and municipalities." After several meetings and many letters of protest, the WPB agreed.
Aug. 31, 1942, the federal board granted permission to drill 11 water wells south of Hamilton, and build a pipeline and a 15-million gallon reservoir at the Wright plant. The facility required 50-degree water around the calendar and claimed it couldn't be obtained in Hamilton County.
Wright Aeronautical was a division of Curtiss-Wright Corp., the result of a 1929 merger of early aircraft industries. The factory north of Cincinnati -- built by the federal government at a cost of $39,427,475 in 1941-42 -- provided employment for hundreds of Butler County residents during and after World War II.
The plant was part of a massive U. S. aircraft expansion that started before Pearl Harbor. "During 1939-1945, the [aircraft] industry became the largest single industry in the world and rose from 41st place to first among industries in the United States," reports the web site of the U. S. Centennial of Flight Commission.
By the end of 1943, according to the same source, "81 production plants were in operation for aircraft bodies (airframes), engines and propellers, with another five plants in Canada." By the end of 1943, aircraft industry employment totaled 2.1 million people.
Fewer than 6,000 planes had been built in the U. S. in 1939. The monthly output peaked at more than 9,000 in March 1944.
After the war ended in 1945, the War Assets Administration (WAA) assumed control of the Wright plant that early in the war had been labeled "the largest single-storied industrial plant in the world" by Time magazine. The WAA sold part of the property -- idle for a year -- to the Electric Auto Lite Co. and leased another portion to the General Electric Corp. GE announced it would assemble and test jet airplane engines in Evendale.
The government disposed of the Wright water supply system in a separate transaction. Nov. 18, 1947 -- after about a year of negotiations -- the City of Hamilton paid $750,000 for the 11 wells, the pipeline and the reservoir. The wells were then located in sparsely populated Fairfield Township. The area would become part of the City of Fairfield in 1955.
A news report said the additional water was "badly needed because the present municipal water plant is overtaxed to keep up with the growing demands for water by city consumers." In anticipation of increased water usage, Hamilton acquired the site for a south water treatment plant in Fairfield Township June 10, 1949.
Until Hamilton needed the water, the city had a customer. Aug. 5, 1948, the city began pumping water to a reservoir at the General Electric engine plant. Later, a report said "39,000 persons were employed at the plant which covers 200 acres of land and 4.5 million square feet of floor space."
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Journal-News Wednesday, July 26, 2006
By Jim Blount
"In the winter of 1811-12, the central Mississippi Valley was struck by three of the most powerful earthquakes in U. S. history," reports a web site of the U. S. Geological Survey. Although felt in Boston and other distant eastern points, the New Madrid earthquakes apparently caused little excitement or damage in Butler County.
The only reference to the event in the extensive 1882 county history is 34 words in two sentences on page 431: "In 1812 an earthquake convulsed the country and filled the people with terror. Dishes were shaken form their places, and the limbs of the trees swayed back and forth in a very remarkable manner."
There were no local newspapers in the county then, and other early local histories -- written years later -- paid no attention to the frightening period that extended from December 1811 until April 1812, causing some people to believe the world was coming to an end.
A similar Hamilton County history, published in 1894, barely noted it. A 31-word sentence on page 390 says: "In 1811 was also the great earthquake, which rent the foundations of the first frame house built in Madison [Madisonville] -- one erected by Paddy McCollum, a man of note at the time."
In this region, one of the most extensive reports is in the 1882 history of neighboring Montgomery County (pages 317-18).
"The series of earthquakes which affected the whole of the Ohio Valley, and destroyed the town of New Madrid [Missouri], thoroughly shook up Montgomery County people and all of the Miami Valley," said the 1882 report.
"The first shock was felt here [Dayton] between 2 and 3 o'clock Monday morning, Dec. 16, waking up all the people, many leaving their houses in fright; horses and cattle were badly frightened, and chickens flew in alarm from their roosts in the trees. These shocks, although not so severely, continued for two days.
"Then again, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 1812, another shock, more severe than those of the month previous. Several light shocks were felt within the next few days, the most severe of which was on the morning of the 27th; it shook the houses; articles hanging in the stores were kept in motion for a minute.
"Just before 4 o'clock, Friday morning, Feb. 7, two severe shocks in quick succession were heard and felt; the usual rumbling noise was distinctly heard to precede and accompany both shocks. The last shock was by far the most awful in duration and severity of any of the previous ones. People, cattle and fowls, were again greatly alarmed. In the evening, two other shocks were felt."
A reason for neglect of the series of earthquakes may be because it caused little damage and apparently claimed no lives in sparsely-populated Butler County. The 1810 federal census recorded 294 people in Hamilton, 84 in Rossville on the west side of the Great Miami River and 11,150 residents in all of Butler County. There was no bridge damage because there were no bridges in the county in 1811-12.
The dominant structure then was the one-story log building -- sturdy enough to resist an earthquake centered a few hundred miles away. Reports from other areas say property damage, if any, was usually limited to fallen chimneys and the loss of chinking from between timbers.
According to the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale, developed later, Butler County would have experienced a level VI intensity during the Dec. 16, 1811, tremor. The description for that level is: "Felt by all, many frightened and run outside. Some heavy furniture moved; a few instances of fallen plaster and damaged chimneys. Damage slight."
"The area of strong shaking associated with these shocks [New Madrid] is two to three times larger than the 1964 Alaska earthquake and 10 times larger than that of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake," according to the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS).
"The 400 terrified residents in the town of New Madrid (Missouri) were abruptly awakened by violent shaking and a tremendous roar," notes the USGS. "It was Dec. 16, 1811, and a powerful earthquake had just struck. This was the first of three magnitude-8 earthquakes and thousands of aftershocks to rock the region that winter." The Mississippi and tributaries were said to have run backward and "survivors reported that the earthquakes caused cracks to open in the earth's surface, the ground to roll in visible waves, and large areas of land to sink or rise."
One Hamilton resident recorded his experience and observations while directing a flatboat down the Mississippi River during the series of earthquakes. Excerpts of his report will be included in a future column.