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Wednesday, March 14, 2001

Goodbye to Girls' Town

Old school, orphanage building making way for St. Xavier athletic fields, parking lot

By Mike Pulfer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It could have been a secondary school for aspiring actors, dancers and musicians.

        It could have been home for 418 condominium owners.

        It could have been a detention center for teen-age criminals.

[photo] Cindy Matyi, who grew up across the street from the chapel, photographs the demolition site. She and her family often attended Mass in the chapel.
(Enquirer photos)
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        Instead, the site of the old Girls' Town of America will serve other needs of 21st century Americana. It will be a place to park cars and play games. St. Xavier High School, directly across the road, has bought the property for soccer and baseball and special-event parking.

        The old Girls' Town — 29 prime hilltop acres at a Finneytown bend in North Bend Road — has been recommended as a fine site for various projects since the Jesuits' Sisters of the Good Shepherd closed their residential school and orphanage in 1971.

        As Wayne Contractors Inc. moved wrecking equipment to the site last week, neighbors and passersby stopped to snap pictures of the massive multi-chapeled main building.

        When the destruction became serious, onlookers milled about on rolling grassy knolls while work crews struggled with stubborn steelwork that supported a weathered green dome.

        The building was unusual to demolish “because of its architecture,” said Randy Wayne, president of the company hired to clear the site. “It was just well built.”

        Workers swung a large wrecking ball to tear a hole in the face of the main sanctuary, then used a steel cable hooked to a bulldozer to “pull the (steel) legs out from under the dome.” There were delays when steel members refused to budge. A cable snapped and the first wrecking ball literally cracked under the pressure.

[photo] The chapel of Girls¹ Town of America formally opened in 1923.
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        Mr. Wayne assigned seven men to the project and allowed three months to complete it. After the demolition, he said, it would take as long as three weeks to clean up debris and to grade the site.

        At the main building, a landmark in Springfield Township, seven brick wings, some longer than others, radiated from the central domed altar room. There were five chapels.

        “It was huge,” remembered Sister Kevin Schingel, teacher and spokeswoman for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Fort Thomas. For a short time in the 1950s, she said, she worked at Girls' Town as a novice.

Building pieces donated

        Like a dying organ donor, the massive red-brick structure that sheltered the chapels at Girls' Town will contribute building and grading elements for new construction projects.

        An extensive steel substructure under the huge dome is being salvaged, in pieces, as is the building's foundation stonework, said Mr. Wayne, who directed the demolition.

        Bricks will be used on the site to fill low spots as St. Xavier High School prepares more than 10 acres of land for athletic fields and parking.

[photo] The chapel¹s dome is destroyed.
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        Wood and plaster will be sorted from other building materials and sent to landfills.

        By midsummer, the property will become another sign of the sprawling times: a new varsity baseball field and a practice soccer field for neighboring St. Xavier High School and, of course, a parking lot.

        The school has three more soccer fields, two more baseball fields and a football field adjacent to the school, in addition to the stadium field, used for football, lacrosse and soccer.

        In all, with the purchase from Faith Fellowship, the school now has about 100 acres of land.

"It was gorgeous'

        The demolition has prompted those who had personal experience in Girls Town to reminisce about the building and its history.

        “It was gorgeous,” Sister Kevin said. “The scene from the top of that hill, overlooking Cincinnati, was spectacular.”

        Each of the seven wings was designated for use by a specific group. Contemplative sisters in one; choir members in another. Good Shepherd sisters here; live-in students in another.

[photo] The dome crashes down as workers remove supporting beams
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        Separate buildings served as a residence hall for orphans, girls with family and societal challenges and a home and office center for the sisters.

        The students were the center of attention. “They were often portrayed as bad girls,” Sister Kevin said. “They weren't bad. They just had problems.”

        The facility, which housed as many as 300 students at a time, reportedly educated and disciplined more than 25,000 area girls over the course of its 114-year history.

        The school, Our Lady of the Woods, had originated in Cincinnati's West End. The complex became Girls' Town in September 1945, after the Rev. Edward Flanagan, founder of Boys Town, Omaha, Neb., visited Cincinnati and recommended the new name.

        Paul Zook, director of public relations at St. Xavier, said some girls, 1 to 17 years old, were referred by their parents; some by the courts. Some went to Girls' Town because their parents or guardians died.

        From 1976 until 1992, the 89-year-old main building was used again for worship by Kings Mountain Faith Fellowship Ministry.

"A defensive buy'

        St. Xavier decided to buy the property — in a $506,000 deal finalized last fall — to prevent other development possibilities.

        “It was a defensive buy for us,” Mr. Zook said.

        Over the past three decades the site had been seriously discussed as a new location for Cincinnati's School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA, now in Over-the-Rhine), a high-density residential condominium development, and a new Hamilton County juvenile detention center.

        But none of those deals materialized, and the school finally bought the property in a fire sale of sorts. Kings Mountain and its pastor, the Rev. Wilbur Jackson, faced financial difficulties when the federal government withdrew its tax-exempt status.

        “I never did quite understand it,” the minister said.

        Hamilton County property-tax records show a market value of $2.4 million for the property.

        “I feel good about the sale” to St. Xavier, the Rev. Mr. Jackson said. “If there was anybody in the neighborhood that had a need for it, they needed it.”

        Valuable elements of the towering gothic-style main building — slate shingles, copper gutters, stained glass, altar furniture and marble accessories — had been removed years ago.

        “The interior was stripped,” Mr. Zook said. “There were trees growing in there. Pigeons were flying in and out.

        “It would cost millions and millions of dollars” to repair and refurbish the building, he said.

        While the structure was completed in 1912, some interior elements, including paster moldings and marble highlights, weren't in place until 1922, the Rev. Mr. Jackson said. Much of the artistic detail work was done in Europe, where the war interrupted progress.

        While the school wasn't desperate for land, the purchase did make sense because of an “expanding sports program,” Mr. Zook said. Because multiple teams must wait their turns to use existing fields, some students are late getting home on practice days.

        Additional parking spaces will come in handy for major events at the school, he said.

        Only 10 acres of the property are flat and usable, Mr. Zook said. The school might, eventually, develop a nature trail on the wooded hillsides.

        The Rev. Mr. Jackson and his church — which had hosted conferences and retreats, in addition to its own services — may continue to use a smaller building on the property (the 15,000 square-foot former school) until October. But the Rev. Mr. Jackson said he hoped to move within two months.


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May. 13, 2001
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