I remember when I first saw photographs of the old public library downtown as a child; I was amazed. The previous main library looked like an Escheresque steampunk fantasy.
A few years ago, my father send me the following Buzzfeed photographs: “15 Gorgeous Photos Of The Old Cincinnati Library.” According to the “Charming ‘Old Main’ library” story on Cincinnati.com, the building from the 1870s was sold and razed in A.D. 1955, having been replaced by the typically dull and dulling mid-twentieth century monstrosity that still stands today. There was evidently no protest of any kind by anyone, which seemed to be the public’s default reaction to those fits of modernist architectural iconoclasm until the 1980s. What were people thinking? Were they so enraptured by the progressivist Zeitgeist that they did not fathom the loss of beauty— did not shrink from the ever encroaching ugliness of the new styles? Alternatively, were they just so relieved by the superior hygiene and comfort of newer structures that they gave the dismal aesthetics a pass? Perhaps, they confused the two, thinking that modern cleanliness and comfort required modernist style and never considering that one could improve the plumbing without defacing beauty. Or, perhaps, the World War II generation was simply exhausted from the fight and eager to get along with life, come what may. The Cincinnati.com article’s commentators suggest that cost was the main reason that the library was not renovated, but 1950s America was one of prosperity and ambitious public works. They could have afforded it. They just did not care to do so.
A counterprotest movement did finally take shape, starting with culturally sensitive women’s groups around the country who found the loss of continuity and beauty in all the modernizing demolition objectionable. These sensible ladies started historical preservation societies and lobbied to save landmarks and neighborhoods. In Cincinnati, likeminded women formed the Miami Purchase Association for Historic Preservation, which eventually became the Cincinnati Preservation Association. An exemplar of such women on the national level was Nancy Hanks, Nixon’s appointment to head the National Endowment for the Arts. Her efforts saved the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C. from the same spirit of destruction that claimed Cincinnati’s lost library.