That July evening of 2018, I had whipped up a batch of obatzda, a German cheese spread that awaited its first cracker dip, when the doorbell rang.
My husband, Mark, opened the door to a crowd of tourists standing outside our iron gate. Just over their heads, a broad-shouldered, white-haired man wearing a golf shirt stepped away from the group and aimed a camera at my head.
As an Italian, I welcomed strangers into our home. That night, I was nervous. The group of sightseers seemed right at home, our home on Race Street, once a home to the Mueller’s, their German ancestors.
How We Got There
It was 2010, Mark phoned from work while I sipped on coffee at my desk. He was intrigued by a newspaper article about an open house of condominiums in the Gateway Quarter in Over-the-Rhine.
In 2009, Over-the-Rhine (OTR) had been named the most dangerous neighborhood in America due to years of crime, riots and lack of attention. Regardless, Mark and I were supporters of non-profits, theatres and markets located in the neighborhood. But we acted as suburbanites, coming from Loveland into OTR for a day, a night, an hour. Spending time in the neighborhood didn’t frighten us. We just didn’t do it.
On the phone with Mark, my ears perked up at the excitement in his voice. He had been raised in Cincinnati. I was born in northern Ohio. Our children had begun to fly off to college and soon our nest would fall apart with no one to bind it together. We wanted to be ready for new, whenever new was ready for us.
Oftentimes, when visiting our kids living in urban settings like Charleston, we asked ourselves, “Where is that kind of historical, walkable place in Cincinnati where we could move to?” Could it be in Over-the-Rhine?
The following Saturday, we parked along a lonesome Vine Street and traipsed in and out of large-scale historic structures, previewing condominiums that stood shoulder-to-shoulder with narrow, Italianate-style stand-alone buildings. Small convenience stores dotted side streets. However, large blocks of buildings still sat unoccupied. I took in the decrepitness with objectivity. Shops, restaurants and homes needed people. And the vibrant crowds we were accustomed to in other cities were virtually non-existent.
Admittedly, we were not ready for condominium living, not with our blended, extended family. Perhaps we were not ready to be bold. We left Over-the-Rhine that day better informed — but deflated.
It would take another newspaper article and two excursions before we landed on the stoop of an Italianate-style home along Over-the-Rhine’s Race Street where a portion of a bow and picket iron fence flanked limestone front steps. Intimidated, we stood before a soaring three-story home where plywood had been hung over the windows of the kelly green, brick edifice and a pink plywood door nailed across the entrance.
Guided by a builder and lights from our phone, we stepped across the threshold into the home and peered through dust particles to find salmon-colored, raised scalloped designs along the side of the front staircase with newel post and spindles missing. I ran my bare hands along the scratches and gauges in the front window’s thick, bulbous casings, painted caution-tape yellow. In the parlor, decorative plaster molding cradled the ceiling or crumbled in pieces down below. The smell of waterlogged wood permeated the air.
Down in the cellar, water trickled in through cracks in the limestone foundation, creating a crispness that winemakers aim to infuse in their wine. Three old newspaper clippings about a tornado, a fire and a hurricane were nailed to a cement block. The lower level had all the trappings of a horror flick.
Beneath stratums of glue and linoleum on the floor, we could see through to various-sized planks of pine. Some rooms were divided by studs. Other walls were covered in solid plaster and wood trim painted in psychedelic colors.
But nothing captured my attention more than the smell of history and a chilled feeling that sent goose bumps down my spine. Someone beckoned me to stay.
Did We Just Make a Decision?
We sat for twenty-five minutes while Mark drove us home. We acknowledged nothing to each other, and through that, everything.
Home at my desk, I searched “1419 Race Street” on my laptop. One result referenced a master’s thesis from The University of Cincinnati DAAP. In 2008, Michael McLaughlin had written a dissertation on Historic Preservation and used 1419 Race Street as his case study.
“It’s about our house,” I squealed to Mark.
The thesis not only revealed details of how rooms in house were purposed, but also the owner: Charles H. Mueller. Knowing the owner’s name piqued my curiosity. He now had a presence in my life.
A contract was signed. The renovations begun. We simply had to wait. For paperwork and zoning. For wood floors to be sanded down, for plaster to be restored. During the wait, Mark too searched the Internet, stumbling upon a post written in 2002 by Jane McSorley, living in Greater Cincinnati. She sought information related to C.H. Mueller and his residence on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine. She was his great-granddaughter. In her post, she noted C.H. was a Civil War veteran who owned an apothecary in OTR.
“How many Muellers could there have been on Race?” Mark asked. Despite the date of post, in June of 2011, he responded. Months later, Jane appeared at our pre-construction house-warming party. With white hair, cut short, her rounded face gave some indication of the features of her ancestors who were taking shape in my mind.
Three years after our first tour, we moved to Over-the-Rhine. Upon our transition, we resolutely declared our home would be a community gathering space and offered it up during a holiday home tour and affordable housing learning sessions. The home was a location for everything from political strategy sessions and salons, and we joked we were waiting for Emil Estevez to ask about our home’s use as a film location.
But best decision involving the home occurred sixteen years after Jane wrote her genealogy post.
A Segway Tour Reveals a Tragic Past
A year after our move, Mark and I toured Spring Grove Cemetery on a Segway. Though instructed follow the guides, I braked at the sight of a soaring headstone. The name on the marker for Section 100, Lot 6? Mueller.
Using Sanborn maps, Williams’ Cincinnati directories and research from Anne Senefeld of Digging Cincinnati, I discovered more about the family of Cincinnatians I lovingly referred to as the ancestors.
According to Cincinnati city directories, in 1868, C. H. Mueller & Son operated an apothecary at the southwest corner of 15th and Race Street (now Nellie’s Tap Room at Taft’s Ale House). Charles H. Mueller built the home at 1419 Race Street in 1875. In our possession, we had photos of four Mueller men, C.H., Charles Jr., Oscar and Louis, standing in front of their store. After Charles H. Mueller died, various Italian families of the DiPilla’s, DiVencenzo’s and DiPilla’s took ownership of the home, using it for a tailor shop.
But the storied past of the German C.H. Mueller family had come to life in those documents, represented by the tragedies and dangers of living in Over-the-Rhine in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. A German physician immigrant. A son who became a physician. A family business. Two daughters, one living in her sister’s home. Gunshots and pneumonia. Three suicides and one tragic, but fascinating past.
The Descendants Come Knocking
Late this past Spring, Jane McSorley had sent an email stating, My scattered Mueller relatives are planning to all be in Cincinnati in July of this year. Would there be a time between the 16th and 20th of July when we could come and take a peek at the house?
Standing now in our front parlor, we exchanged family lore with three generations of Mueller descendants as if we were long-lost relatives. I invited them to sit for food and conversation over the dining room table where census listings, death certificates from Spring Grove Cemetery, the thesis and an old photo that had come into Mark’s possession from another branch of the family were spread out.
We closed the meal with cupcakes from Sweet Petit and Cherbourg Bakery and sipped on a brisk wine from Skeleton Root. Everything was local including the growler of Culebra Cut beer from Taft’s.
As stomachs settled, talk about the Mueller family heated up. Nancy, taller than Jane, with wavy whitish blonde hair that matched the Germanic shade of her siblings, confessed to a little bit about her father. “At age eleven, my father was sent to boarding school. I’m still a little mad at my grandmother for doing that.” Wrinkles spread across her face as if she still felt her father’s pain.
There was more to the story I was anxious to hear. Mark, too.
“So, Jane,” my husband began, “at the housewarming, I recall you saying that a lot happened in that house?”
According to death certificates and census records, Charles H. Mueller was born around 1842 in Prussia. He was educated in pharmacology in Heidelberg and arrived in U.S. in 1860. He served the U.S. Civil War as a courier and in 1866, married Katherine Mentel, born in Hesse-Kassel, Germany in 1843.
According to Jane, “He (C.H.) ruled with an iron fist and was intolerant of scandal.” Once his six children, William, Oscar, Alma, Hulda, Charles Jr. and Louis became adults, “a lot of things fell apart and some of his children fell into situations he couldn’t tolerate.”
William, the oldest, was considered the black sheep. Born in 1868, he was likeable, according to Charles III, but married a divorcée and then divorced her and thus, as the family suggested, he was too likeable. He died in Florida.
Oscar, born in 1869, joined the apothecary with his father, C. H. He married Pauline (d. 1962) and left downtown for Clifton in 1938. He died soon after of tuberculosis at The Christ Hospital after suffering a robber-inflicted gunshot.
Next came Alma, born in 1873. She was two years older than her younger sister, Hulda. In 1915, after their mother died, she went to live with Hulda.
However, Hulda was married to Eric Nulson. And in 1928, according to the family, Alma stuck her head in the oven and killed herself. It was believed she was in love with Eric while residing their home on Middleton Avenue in Clifton. Eric eventually was admitted to Longview Mental Hospital and died at the age of 90 in 1962. Hulda died at the age of 104.
Charles Jr. became a physician and married Viola Georgi in 1904. They delivered Charles III (the father of the three in our living room parlor) in 1906 and Grace in 1908. Family lore purported Charles Jr. also died of a “suicide gunshot” because of an affair that produced an illegitimate child. Unfortunately for those still living in our home, the newspaper reported the suicide occurred at 1419 Race Street where Charles had been “resting” following his wife, Viola’s hospitalization. In 1911, the home was listed as his last place of residence.
Louis, born in 1880, became a traveling salesman, married a woman named Edna and lived in Clarewood in present day Evanston. After Edna perished in 1949 of uremic poisoning, Louis followed and died in the Metropole Hotel (then for impoverished men, now known as the 21c Hotel) in 1953. His cause of death? Also suicide by gunshot.
The Next Generations
Following the death of Charles Jr., his two children were raised by Viola and her grandmother, Caroline Georgi, who lived in the West End. Viola died from pneumonia at the age of 39 when young Charles was in his early teens.
According to Nancy, “At 13, Dad was judged to be incorrigible and sent off to a military boarding school in Louisville.” She choked up, angry mad at her grandmother, Viola. “Why send a little boy like that off to boarding school?” He was told it was because he was bad.
About his father, John said, “Charles III attended there for two years. Dropped out when he was seventeen to deliver groceries in a Model A pickup. Her returned to Hughes High School at age nineteen and graduated. When he inherited a bit of money, he attended the University of Cincinnati. Unfortunately, he joined a fraternity and lost focus AND was relieved of his money by his “brothers.” He never graduated.
John wondered if all those events were connected. “If you had met my father you could never have believed that he was so bad he had to be sent off for discipline. We kids would never go with him to run errands because he knew everyone in our small town and would talk to them, and he would talk to people he did not know. It would take forever to run a five-minute errand… Tough life, but he never much talked about those years with me. Maybe he knew I was incorrigible too, and he didn’t want to give me any encouragement.”
His three children must have inherited his easy-going manner. Otherwise, why would they have visited a stranger’s home?
Charles III married Virginia Hilling and bore Jane, John and Nancy, with seven children between them. Charles III died in 2002 at the age of 96.
“Annette, why don’t you lead the tour,” Mark suggested, after we reached the end of the familial line. “She’s the one who put this together.”
I clapped my hands. Enough talk of the dead, I was ready to bring them back to life.
Another Home Tour
No tour of our home began with the context of how Mark and I, as grieving spouses, found each other. We called the home our “love child” because our marriage hadn’t produced children. Of course, we hoped no one in our family or the new Mueller’s would experience the same fate as others who lived at 1419.
As I guided our guests through the parlor toward the winter and summer kitchens, did Jane imagine her great-grandmother directing servants over a dinner party? We marched up the front stairs that led only to the second floor parlor where she would have received guests. On that same floor, John could now imagine his father washing up in a room where marble once ran. When I pointed to the fireplace bump out and the opening plastered over, could Nancy see her great-grandfather seated beside the fire reading the Annals of Pharmacology?
Further up the back stairs leading to the third floor, could any one perceive the wails of their grandfather as a baby? Would they have heard his cries from a gunshot wound?
In a lofted room that was a supposed servant’s quarters, a few layers of wallpaper, possibly selected by the Mueller’s great-grandmother, were preserved and set behind glass. That was the only remnant, save dirt in the cellar blocks, which still carried DNA of the Mueller family.
A New Branch
The next morning, I went back over the records, directories and maps, longing to hold on to the Mueller connection a little longer.
Jane and John must have felt the same. Separate notes arrived later from both: “We want to adopt you.” They too had been curious, hoping to hear the past tapping on the same treads as their grandfather. Through us and how we had cared for and opened the home to them, they had time traveled and found family.
For Mark and I, our intention to create community had taken a turn. While we relished in connecting to the broader neighborhood, our meeting with the Muellers was contained within .058 acres of soil where a family tree took root in 1875 and that night a new branch was grafted on.
To solidify that notion, before our goodbyes with the Muellers, Jane had gifted us two sets of silverware with an engraved “M”, including two citrus spoons with CHM carved into them. Charles H. Mueller. The utensils awaited framing, one more thing to preserve.
As for the original owners, Katherine Mueller died in 1915 from fattening of the arteries. And Charles H. Mueller died of a paralytic stroke in 1919. Where at? 1419 Race Street.
Now that I was linked to the nearly two centuries of German ancestors, I could turn my attention to the DiSalvo’s, DiPilla’s and DiVincenzo’s. As Mark once said, “You can find a relative in any room you walk into.” He meant Italian, but I could find a German one too.