- Patronage, Process, and Civic Identity: The Development of Cincinnati’s Union Central Life Insurance Company Building
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 9, Number 2, Summer 2009
- pp. 54-77
- View Citation
- Additional Information
54 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY “Cincinnati, The Queen City Beautiful.” CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER SUMMER 2009 55 “ The characteristics of our present-day business life are speed, bigness, and intensity of effort. We are living under high pressure.” William Howard Taft, at the Union Central Building’s dedication, June 27, 19131 W hen William Howard Taft uttered these words at the dedication of the Union Central Life Insurance Company Building, the 495foot tall structure in the heart of downtown Cincinnat was the tallest building in the world outside of New York City. Cass Gilbert’s firm designed the building, one of four structures he would create for the insurance industry, and the only one located outside of the New York metropolitan area. The $2.7 million corporate headquarters and speculative venture stood at Fourth and Vine Streets, the premier corner in Cincinnati’s central business district, and the site of two revered previous architectural achievements: the U.S. Post Office and Henry Hobson Richardson’s Chamber of Commerce Building, the latter destroyed by fire on January 10, 1911. The genesis of the building offers insights into how American corporations have used skyscraper design to present an image of distinction and import for themselves. The Union Central Life tower fits squarely into the tradition that Kenneth Turney Gibbs has carefully documented, in which American businesses used powerful symbolic architectural language to convey expressively their characteristics and goals.2 Examination of the intricacies of the patronage process that helped give rise to the Union Central Building reveals business and civic leaders striving for a potent symbolic form that would mark Cincinnati as a significant regional center in the insurance industry. Studying the client-architect relationship reveals an ambitious and adept company president, Jesse Redman Clark, who leveraged the selection of Cass Gilbert, nationally acclaimed for his design and construction of The Development of Cincinnati’s Union Central Life Insurance Company Building Patronage, Process, and Civic Identity: Barbara S. Christen PATRONAGE, PROCESS, AND CIVIC IDENTITY 56 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY the Woolworth Building, to bring national attention to his company’s headquarters in Cincinnati. For his part, Gilbert used his stature to enhance his control of the design process and make expedient decisions about the Union Central project . The associated relationship between Gilbert and the Cincinnati-based and MIT-trained architects appointed for the job, Frederick W. Garber and Clifford B. Woodward, also shaped the building’s design. Though they headed a young firm in the 1910s, the brothers-in-law Garber and Woodward eventually became known for their libraries, schools, and apartment houses. The collective efforts of these men provided a means to forge a symbol of civic identity for the city, one that did not compete with similar developments in the insurance industry in New York but instead learned lessons from it. Before the construction of the Union Central Building, Cincinnati offered only a modest skyline to residents and visitors. Images of the period depict a fledgling nexus of the region’s commerce and culture. John A. Roebling’s bridge linking Cincinnati with its neighboring city, Covington, Kentucky, stood out, as did several buildings by Daniel Burnham and Company built between 1901 and 1905 in the central commercial district, including First National Bank and Fourth National Bank on Fourth Street, and the Traction (Tri-State) Building and Union Savings and Trust Company Building on Fifth and Walnut Streets. However, Burnham’s buildings, while handsome in their own right, lacked the aesthetic refinement that by this time had begun to characterize certain types of commercial architecture in the eastern United States. For Union Central Life Insurance Company, however , more was at stake than enhancing Cincinnati’s civic and business reputation. In the early 1900s, New York State’s Armstrong Commission Hearings sent large and small insurance companies reeling. The hearings investigated insurance and investment banking abuses, corruption, and mismanagement, revealing a financial industry that appeared committed to unbridled growth at almost any cost. The outcome of the hearings had a profound impact on the insurance world. New York and many other states imposed increased regulation and called for corporate restructuring meant to stop the abuses. The hearings did not have a direct effect on Union...