Remember the Wesley Chapel

There are ghosts in Cincinnati, but not the traditional ones like you may be imagining.  There are invisible outlines of the buildings our ancestors built and their descendants demolished all over the city streets we walk every day and we don’t know they're around us.  Memories of the buildings our parents and grandparents couldn’t save linger on every corner where a high rise now stands or a green space now grows or a highway now sits.  We’ve torn down a lot of our physical history to make way for new developments despite the fact that the history absorbed by every brick we’ve demolished is part of the story of Cincinnati.  We can’t remember every word uttered between the bricks of the homes in the West End before the highway crews annihilated it, or all the legislative matters handled within Hannaford’s original courthouse, and we cannot remember every musical number that graced the E.F. Albee’s stage at the end of the roaring twenties.  We can’t remember because a lot of us weren’t around for it and the ones who were only remember the moments they encountered.  Collectively, we cannot remember the majority of what happened in those places.  But the buildings themselves were there for everything and they house the details we’ve forgotten.  By destroying them, we lose the physical entity that surrounded pivotal moments in people’s lives.  We break apart the bricks saturated with the facts of our past and the adventures we’ve had. Specificity is the soul of narrative, and we are erasing it with every swing of the wrecking ball.

Illustration of Wesley Chapel from "Vanishing Cincinnati" by David and Barbara Day.

So why am I talking about this?  I want you to remember a particular ghost in Cincinnati.  Remember the Wesley Chapel, built 1831, which sat on the north side of Fifth Street between Broadway and Sycamore.  Inspired by John Wesley's Chapel in London. It was the largest meeting space west of Alleghenies with 1,200 available seats.  William Henry Harrison, who became the 9th president of the United States in 1841, stood in the rain and gave the longest inauguration speech of any president in history on a cold day in March and developed a fatal case of pneumonia as a result; he passed away only a month into his presidency and his funeral was held within Wesley’s walls.  In 1843, a 77 year old John Quincy Adams was ready to give the last speech of his life at the top of Mt. Ida (later renamed Mt. Adams in his honor) to dedicate the newly built Mitchell Astronomical Observatory.  The outdoor ceremony was washed out by heavy rains, and the dedication speech was subsequently moved to Wesley instead.  Political rallies and abolitionists frequently met inside of it to discuss their agendas and issues in the years leading up to the Civil War.  Over 140 years of history were embedded into its walls; it witnessed so many sermons, so many meetings, and sheltered so many people during their events over its lifetime.  People experienced life between those walls and under its roof for multiple generations.  But it wasn’t meant to exist forever.  One fateful night in 1972, after a lengthy struggle between P&G and local preservationists came to an end and the congregation elected to have a new church built on McMicken in Over-the-Rhine, the enduring Wesley Chapel, was torn down to make room for P&G's front lawn.  The oldest standing church and arguably most usable indoor meeting space of 19th century Cincinnati was gone.

Its memory still rests here in the foliage of the Gardens.  It has been over 40 years since it was torn down, and many people don’t realize the flowers and grass and plants lining the pillared tunnel between Broadway and Sycamore was once the area where it stood for so long.  When you walk through the garden on your lunch hour and you enter the tunnel, mentally pause for a moment under the shade of the greenery overhead and remember the Wesley Chapel, built 1831 and demolished 1972, so all the history that was embedded into the bricks, now forever missing, can be honored in the only way we still can.