Ohio Mechanics Institute and Emery Theater

(Editor’s note: Lissa posted this article on her website on March 4, 2010. She had first-hand experience with the old Ohio Mechanics Institute building in downtown Cincinnati because she attended University of Cincinnati classes there from 1988 to 1991.)

By Lissa Kramer

The Ohio Mechanics Institute building on Central Parkway in downtown Cincinnati now houses apartments.

The Ohio Mechanics Institute building occupies the northeast corner of Central Parkway and Walnut.  The institute replaced the Eagle Iron Works, a foundry that supplied Civil War munitions.

The institute, whose vision was that “Technical education should be based upon scientific and philosophical principles and available to all,” schooled young Thomas Edison.  OMI did not accept recent immigrants or African-Americans until 1951.  Because of its technical nature, the OMI weathered the post-war years, and from 1870 to 1888, the OMI hosted 14 Grand Expositions of Manufactures, Products and Arts.  In fact, Music Hall was built to house these expositions, and the last expo, the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States, was a very big deal.  Electric lights were strung over the Miami and Erie Canal, which is now Central Parkway, and the commissioners of the expo arrived by gondola.

Mary Emery endowed the OMI with the current building, which had the city’s longest beam – 90 feet long and 33 tons.  In her endowment she provided for an auditorium, Emery Theater, for lectures, the May Festival, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.  The theater opened January 6, 1912, and the conductor said that the acoustics were comparable to Carnegie Hall.  The CSO stayed at the Emery Theater until 1936, when it moved to Music Hall.

The Emery Theater, part of the Ohio Mechanics Institute building, faces Walnut Street.

In 1911, 1,400 students attended fall classes.  A rooftop garden grew enough produce to feed all of these students, and the food was prepared in the fifth floor kitchen.

The OMI did well:  In 1914 an Industrial Museum featured international industrial technology of the Twentieth Century, and printing and lithography programs were begun with industrial grants.  During World War I, OMI contracted with the U.S. Army to provide technical instruction to more than 1,000 injured servicemen.  In 1934 OMI began co-op programs in Industrial Engineering, and in 1948 the Engineers Council for Professional Development accredited the programs.  The school developed associate degree programs in Civil, Electrical, Mechanical Engineering Technology and Chemical Technology, and in 1958 the school was reorganized and two programs emerged: the Ohio College of Applied Science, and the Ohio Mechanics Institute Evening College.

In 1969 the college merged with the University of Cincinnati.   It was the last of the private schools to join.  Renamed the OMI College of Applied Science, the school added Architectural Engineering Technology and Construction Management to its baccalaureate programs in the 1970s and Fire and Safety Engineering Technology.

The longstanding tradition at OCAS for developing prototypes and participating in expos led to annual student project displays at Tech Expo, and some senior projects have been rewarded with patents.

Interior of the Emery Theater. The theater has not been used in recent years, but plans call for it to be renovated.

Now, here’s the part I love:  From 1988 to 1991 I attended OCAS for Architectural Engineering Technology.  Like any college, my friends and I had long breaks, and somehow we befriended an old teacher’s assistant in the Physics Department who knew the building inside and out.  He took us up on the roof, showed us the bell towers and the view of Central Parkway from that angle.  I didn’t see any remnants of the rooftop garden, though.  He showed us how to go down into the sub-basements where there was a big, black door that opened into the subway.  This was the first time I’d heard of Cincinnati’s abandoned subway, and I was hooked.

He showed us how to go through the boiler room, duck down and crawl through a very low opening, and then we were in the Emery Theater.  Of course we were all over that place, and the view from above the stage was thrilling.

A view of one of the towers of the Ohio Mechanics Institute building.

I was very sad when UC moved the College of Applied Science up to Victory Parkway.  The new building wasn’t nearly as interesting, even though it was Xavier’s old College of Mortuary Science.

For awhile I think the building wasn’t used much, and I was afraid that nobody would love it and it would fall into disrepair and possibly be demolished.  Fortunately a developer came in and renovated it into apartments.

The Emery Theater hasn’t been so lucky, though.  It sits empty, waiting to be rediscovered, like so many other old theaters have.

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