"Secret Cincinnati" Tour
Enjoy discovering some of the Northern Kentucky locations featured in Kathryn Witt’s book, Secret Cincinnati: a Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure (selections reproduced here with permission from the author).
"Garden Party at the Taft"
Location: Mural on Petri’s Flowers Building, 229 Fairfield Ave., Bellevue, KY
Why is a mural celebrating masterpieces from a Cincinnati art museum painted on a flower shop in Bellevue?
Stroll along the avenue—Fairfield Avenue, that is—in Bellevue, Kentucky, and you will come across a lavishly colorful and captivating mural depicting a scene of guests enjoying themselves outdoors. Splashed across a building located in the 200 block of the Historic Fairfield Avenue Business District, the mural actually portrays subjects from a handful of masterpieces that hang on the walls inside the Taft Museum of Art, a historic house museum in Cincinnati.
Garden Party at the Taft suggests exactly that, with a couple lounging on a blanket on the lawn, a woman entertaining her companions with music, a mother cuddling her baby, a fashionable gent looking as though he’s staring right at you and about to greet you, even a pair of lazy dogs. The ornateness of the Taft Museum shows in the background; beautiful pink peony blossoms dominate the foreground. Adding a touch of the fantastical is a demon bursting forth from a tree and riding a lion.
Featured masterpieces include Rembrandt Van Rijn’s Portrait of a Man Rising from his Chair, The Song of the Talking Wire by Henry F. Farny, World of Their Own by Lawrence Alma Tedema, Edward and William Tomkinson by Thomas Gainsborough, and Mrs. John Weyland and her Son John by Joshua Reynolds. The demon and lion figures are from a Chinese vase dating to the Qing dynasty (early eighteenth century) and depict an episode from the fourteenth-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
This mural was created in 2012 by the award-winning ArtWorks, a non-profit organization that employs and trains local youth and talent to create art and community impact, in partnership with the Taft Museum of Art. It was part of the museum’s Eightieth Anniversary Celebration, “Art for All.”
See the original works depicted in the mural at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati. All are part of the museum’s permanent collection and on view.
Pro Tip: Fairfield Ave. is filled with a variety of shops and restaurants in architecturally beautiful nineteenth-century storefronts.
Location: 636 Monmouth St., Newport, KY
How did a thirty-year-old producing theatre become Cincinnati’s only true storefront theatre?
Tucked in the midst of Newport’s Monmouth Street Historic District is the Falcon Theatre, founded in 1989 and known for bringing high-caliber theatrical productions to Cincinnati. This little theatre that could has been responsible for bringing such premiers as The Grapes of Wrath, Driving Miss Daisy, Poseidon: The Upside-Down Musical, and Gilligan’s Island: The Musical.
The old storefront this small, professional theatre company calls home is in one of Newport’s most vibrant neighborhoods, a mix of architecturally beautiful residences, locally owned restaurants, and dynamic entertainment venues that give Newport’s main commercial street its hustle-bustle verve. Many of the buildings date back to the 1850’s, and it is no surprise that the district itself is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The theatre space within the old storefront is comfortable and charming, intimate and abuzz with energy; the company produces five to six shows each season in a space whose past life included being an entertainment venue for an eclectic array of performing arts. At one time, it was owned by the Costume Gallery located next door, considered one of Cincinnati’s most outstanding costume shops.
Falcon Theatre moved lock, stock and props into the space in 2004. The theatre purchased the building ten years later in 2014 and officially renamed it Falcon Theatre. And where does the Falcon Theatre company find many of the costumes for its productions? Right next door, of course, at the Costume Gallery.
Cost: $22 per ticket (may be purchased online)
Pro Tip: The Falcon Theatre building is a stop on American Legacy’s Newport Gangster Tour. In Newport’s “Sin City” heyday, it was La Madame’s adult entertainment venue.
You’ll find all these wonders and more, along with crystal balls, medical equipment that will send chills down your spine, animal skulls, vintage religious iconography, and Ouija boards, tarot cards, and other portals to the dark arts arrayed on the shelves or mounted on the walls at one of the coolest shops in Covington’s MainStrasse Village, and in the Cincinnati area in general.
Book titles indicate that shopkeeps Neil and J.D. get their audience: Satan Speaks, Lords of Chaos, and The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity, the first contemporary biography of the notorious dancer, actress, and star of the 1921 silent epic Lucifer, whose vast sexual harem counted Marlene Dietrich and the King of Yugoslavia among its members.
For weird, dark, and creepy, this is the place. The staff is easy to talk to and very helpful. How could you be otherwise in a shop that nosedived straight into the macabre?
The shop has a killer inventory of vinyl: rock, pop, hip-hop, folk, R&B, classical, and more. If you’re looking to augment your album collection, spend a fun hour or so flipping through the stacks here.
Cost: Free to browse, but you’ll probably find something you can’t live without. Prices range from a few dollars on up.
Pro Tip: You may be greeted by a taxidermy goat with a book open in its lap, but this shop is pure ghoulish good fun.
Location: 720 Main St., Covington, KY
Where can you find discount animal skulls, witchy whatnots, and Elvis albums under one roof?
They’re creepy and they’re kooky/mysterious and spooky/They’re altogether ooky…and we’re not talking about the 1960’s TV series, although Morticia and Gomez and the rest of the Adamms Family would be perfectly at home in the eerie ambiance of Hail Dark Aesthetics.
The shop is a cabinet of curiosities spilling over with oddities and novelties: a two-headed calf; stuffed animal heads; a head shot of one of the most famous prom queens of all times, Laura Palmer from the 1990s cult TV series Twin Peaks (and no, things didn’t end well for her); mummified cats; handmade and possibly enchanted jewelry; and Baphomet flags plastered with the image of the mystical deity.
Its early days were devoted to displaying Behringer’s oddities: a life-sized stuffed black bear, American Indian artifacts, the two-headed calf, and the shrunken head, all of which may still be seen. Over the years, the museum has expanded with additional displays and exhibits.
Find the 1892 streetcar named Kentucky, parked in the museum’s lobby; a giant paddlewheel steamboat, a salute to Ohio River history; a train enthusiast’s idealized recreation of a mid-century community in miniature that comes to life with working trains, lights and voices and has a kid-sized tunnel to unique viewing bubbles; and exhibits that cover industry, art, politics, frontier life, the Civil War, and more.
You can “fish” from the side of the Wake Robin, an interactive learning center; have a tea party; slide into a vintage Buick Electra for a drive-in experience to watch old newsreels; bebop to the tunes playing on the jukebox; see memorabilia relating to the legendary paddle wheeler, the Delta Queen, and so much more. The museum is a charming place to while away an afternoon, with or without kids.
Cost: $9 adults; $8 seniors; $5 children ages 3-17. Parking is free.
Pro Tip: Visit during the holidays to see the outstanding Holiday Toy Trains: 250+ feet of model train tracks and lots of buttons to push.
Location: 1600 Montague Rd., Covington, KY
What do a two-headed calf and shrunken head have to do with area regional history?
That beautiful building perched on a hilltop that looks like someone’s personal residence is in fact a priceless repository for artifacts and information relating to the history of Northern Kentucky’s people and past.
Rising on a gentle slope in Covington’ beautiful Devou Park is the Behringer-Crawford Museum, formerly the home of the Devou family, who owned it from the 1880s to 1910, when they donated it to the City of Covington to be used as a park. It is named for world-traveling eccentric William Behringer, whose collection of “curiosities” was the genesis of the museum, and archaeologist Ellis Crawford, the museum’s first curator.
Harlan Hubbard Mural
Location: The Carnegie, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington, KY
Why is a Great Depression-era mural adorning the stage at a local theatre?
Look up before, during, or after a production at the Otto M. Budig Theatre at The Carnegie and you will see a mural above the stage painted by Harlan Hubbard, featuring four key figures relating to early area history and a hint of Cincinnati skyline.
While their identities aren’t recorded, they are believed to be pioneer heroine Mary Draper Ingles, explorer Daniel Boone, lawyer-politician John G. Carlisle, and frontiersman Simon Kenton. Behind them, arms stretched heavenward, is an allegorical Spirit of Covington, which is also the name of the mural.
Hubbard was a writer, author, painter, and philosopher who loved being on the river and living off the land. Born in 1900 in Bellevue, Kentucky, Hubbard spent more years living away from the Cincinnati area than in it, but he remains one of the most celebrated and beloved artists in the region.
Two years before he died in 1988, he gave more than twenty of his paintings to the Behringer-Crawford Museum [also featured on this tour]; in fact, he allowed the director at the time to choose the pieces for what would become the museum’s core collection of Harlan Hubbard works.
In 1934, he painted a mural on the proscenium arch in the theatre addition of what was then the Covington Public Library. Built in 1904, it was one of many such buildings funded across the country by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Hubbard’s mural was sponsored by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), a New Deal agency formed during the Great Depression.
When the library moved to a larger space in 1974, the building became a community arts center and began a slow decline into decrepitude. Restoration work began in 1999 and there, beneath more than a half century of grime, was Hubbard’s mural. It was restored around 2005 and ready for its close-up when the Otto M. Budig Theatre held its grand opening in spring of 2006.
Cost: Free to see during gallery hours. Tickets for theatre productions vary.
Pro Tip: Gallery hours are 12-5 pm, Wednesday through Saturday and always free. You won’t be turned away should you arrive outside these hours.
Henry Farny Park
Location: 209 W. Robbins St., Covington, KY
Why is a western mural painted on a fence in a Covington park?
There’s a little piece of the American West in a pocket park in Covington’s Old Seminary Square neighborhood. Located at the corner of Banklick and Robbins, the Henry Farny Park recalls the artist and illustrator born in 1847 who lived and worked for a time in Covington and Cincinnati. Farny became famous for his paintings that captured scenes of the life and culture of the American Indians and the vanishing West.
Farny had an affinity for American Indians that went back to his childhood in Pennsylvania, where he and his family lived after leaving Ribeauville, France, for America in 1853. The Farny home was located near a Seneca reservation.
Less than thirty years later, Farny embarked on the first of several trips west to pursue his interest, sketching and collecting artifacts as he went and eventually creating a body of oil paintings that today grace the walls of museums all over the country, including in Cincinnati.
The location of the park in Covington is fitting, as Farny lived at 1029-1031 Banklick Street from 1890 until his death in 1916. He painted one of his most recognizable and famous paintings, The Song of the Talking Wire, in 1904 while living here. Westside artist David Rice recalls this painting, on display at Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art, in the mural he created on the park’s picket-fence canvas.
Rice also created the park’s sculpture centerpiece, that of Farny’s Sioux signature (a dot within a circle), which appears on all his paintings. The park is colorful and utterly charming with stone walkway, metal horse and cactus sculptures, and trees and plants.
Pro Tip: This park is all about appreciating the aesthetics of park and artist, so there are no picnic benches or other seating.
Despite losing her daughter, Katie, to meningitis on her fifteenth birthday, her mother two years later, her husband three years after that, and her father the following year, Margaretta Baker Hunt remained community-focused and an avid supporter of education and the arts. With no heirs, she established the Baker Hunt Foundation in 1922. It’s mission? “The promotion of the Education, Art, Science, Psychic Research and Religion in the vicinity of Covington, Kentucky.”
Wait! Psychic research? At one point in the home’s history and lasting for thirty years, Margaretta used her deceased daughter’s room for psychic research and demonstration. This was conducted by Cincinnati medium Laura C. Cooper Pruden, famous for her seances and slate-writing. Also called “spirit-writing,” it was the appearance of writing on a blank slate, purportedly through the intervention of the spirits.
These days, visitors to Baker Hunt Art & Cultural Center find a rich roster of classes for all skill levels: watercolor and oil painting, cartooning, manga drawing, language, ballet, tai chi, guitar, pottery, photography, and everything in between. Each season brings new sessions, and all classes are taught by professionally trained teachers. More than 3,500 students from the tri-state area annually attend classes.
Having spent more than ninety-five years involved in creating art and preserving history and culture, the Baker Hunt campus remains pleasant and peaceful, and it is one of the places you can sit and enjoy nature and still see the Cincinnati skyline. It is a lovely backdrop for concerts, twilight garden events, children’s plays and at least two resident ghosts.
Visit Baker Hunt’s Heritage Gardens with unusual trees and outdoor artwork and the Baker Hunt Family Museum with three rooms of items owned by the Baker-Hunt family, including the quilt made for Katie’s birthday, which she never got to use.
Cost: Free for garden, museum, and some events; fees for classes and workshops.
Pro Tip: Baker Hunt partners with Tony Award-winning Playhouse in the Park and its “Off the Hill Productions” to present free, family friendly live theatre at Baker Hunt.
Location: 620 Greenup St., Covington, KY
How did Covington inherit a house for a cultural hub?
The woman who gifted the home that would become the Baker Hunt Art & Cultural Center, a hub for learning, cultural enrichment, and artistic expression, got the idea from a relative (an Adams of the presidential Adamses, no less) who had donated a home to the community of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Location: 1140 Madison Ave., Covington, KY
Where can you replicate the experience of visiting the great cathedrals of Europe?
Crouching gargoyles, flying buttresses, French Gothic architecture. One almost expects to see the Hunchback lumbering up to the tower to ring the bells. That’s because St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington is patterned after the medieval Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France—the exterior façade, at least. The interior, an astonishing 180 feet in length and 81 feet in height, is modeled after a medieval abbey church in Paris, the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis.
The story of the cathedral goes back to the late nineteenth century, considered the heyday of church building. It was the dream of the Most Reverend Camillus Paul Maes, the third Bishop of the Diocese of Covington, the oldest Catholic parish in Northern Kentucky. Building began in 1894 and continued until 1901. In 1954, Pope Pius XII elevated the cathedral, which was incomplete and remains so today, to the rank of minor basilica, which confers ecclesiastical privileges and status.
Today, St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption is one of eighty-four designated minor basilicas in the United States. Majestic and almost achingly beautiful, this Bishop’s Church is a treasure trove of art: murals by Covington artist Frank Duveneck; gilded wood carvings from Cologne, Germany; Italian Carrera marble altars and statuary; eighty-two stained glass windows, including the world’s largest church stained glass window.
The Schwab pipe organ is one of only two playable Schwab organs in existence. Built in 1859 by Matthias Schwab, it was saved from the wrecking ball that decimated Covington’s St. Joseph’s Church, restored and rededicated in the early 1970’s, the inspiration for the creation in 1975 of an annual Cathedral Concert Series.
And then there are the gargoyles and their equally grotesque brethren, chimeras. Exact copies of the fifty-six figures atop Notre-Dame Cathedral, these hideous creatures roost along the roofline, their purpose unknown. Are they there as decoration, to ward off evil, or for some sinister intent?
Cost: Free; small fee applies for docent-guided tours for groups of ten or more.
Pro Tip: Self-guided and docent-guided tours are available. Docent-guided tours are often given after Sunday’s 10:00 am mass.