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Our Rich History: Cincinnati’s old ‘fireproof’ Chamber of Commerce building at 4th and Vine

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to the NKyTribune

On the southwest corner of Fourth and Vine Streets in Cincinnati stands a stately skyscraper, the PNC Tower.

The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce Building, circa 1907.

At the time of its completion in 1913, it was the tallest skyscraper outside of New York City, and the fifth-tallest building in the world. Formerly known as the Union Central Life Insurance Company Building, and then the Central Trust Tower, this fabulous structure was designed by noted American architect, Cass Gilbert (1859-1934), in conjunction with the Cincinnati architectural firm of Woodward and Garber.

But before the PNC Tower was an equally extraordinary building, the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, by another famous American architect, Henry Hobson (H.H.) Richardson (1838-1886).

In 1884-85, Cincinnati’s Chamber of Commerce held a design competition for a new building. In all, thirteen different plans were entered in the contest. H. H. Richardson won. Dying shortly thereafter, Richardson never saw the completed structure.

Designed in what has become known as the Richardsonian Romanesque style, the Chamber of Commerce Building featured exterior walls of “pink Milford” (Worcester) granite, corner towers, a steep red tile roof with dormer windows, and impressive three-story arched windows. It was completed in 1889.

The construction of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce Building, 1887-88.

Richardson himself attested that the building was “fire-proof throughout.”

However, a grease fire on the evening of January 10, 1911 destroyed the building. Pieces of the structure were saved, including carved stone eagles that now grace the Melan Arch Bridge on Eden Park Drive.

The Chamber of Commerce’s new headquarters would be located in the 34-story Union Central Life Insurance Building constructed on the same site.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU.

The Union Central Life Insurance Company Building, circa 1913.

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