Wednesday, October 20, 2010

HomeWord: The Betts House

Looking at the homes of the earliest settlers in Cincinnati reveals an excited commitment to sow ones seeds in a new place. The Betts House, built in 1804 is Cincinnati's oldest residence in the downtown area and Ohio's oldest brick structure on its original site. The stability of the brick structure alone may be testament to the intended permanence of home in this river valley. However, the record of the Betts family westward migration reveals a commitment to the Queen City. Born in New Jersey, William and Phebe (nee Stevens) Betts first moved to Pennsylvania for a few years before finally settling in Cincinnati in 1800. Five Betts generations were raised in the home! Even the earthquake of 1811 failed to rock the structure of the house or the resolve of the family to maintain a home for decades.

The Federal Style architecture of the Betts House was a very popular style during the late 1700s through the early 1800s. With its balanced proportions and repeated analytical lines of geometry, the style is inspired by ancient Greek and Roman architecture. The adoption of this style during America's early decades was a conscious effort to create a visual link to earlier democracies. The visual language of symmetry and stability reflect the commitment of the earliest settlers.

At 416 Clark Street, the Betts House is located in the Betts-Longworth Historic District, just northwest of downtown Cincinnati. The neighborhood is characterized by a variety of architectural styles. Along with the Greek Revival , there is Italianate and the Queen Anne Style, and yet some buildings are transitional; adopting many styles. Yet the neighborhood has a cohesive feel. Amid the varying decorative elements, the brick work and stone facades are pulled together through a vertical design filling these long narrow lots.

Unlike many historical homes open for public tours, the Betts House is unfurnished. This is not to say the house is empty. Betts House Director, Julie Carpenter has been developing some wonderful programming related to the architectural and cultural history of Cincinnati. As with many of our cultural centers, the Betts House hosts children's educational programming in the summer as well as events and special exhibits during the holidays. But because the house is not furnished with original artifacts once belonging to the Betts family, Ms. Carpenter opens the space up as a gallery for local artists, who share an interest in the built environment and regional history.

Last spring, the Betts House opened HOME WORK, an exhibition of items for the home inspired by architectural decorative elements found in Over-the-Rhine. Currently exhibited is From Queen City to Porkopolis: Prints of Cincinnati from 1860 to 1890. These are truly breathtaking images of notable events in the city's history. And coming up for the holidays, the Betts House will exhibit recent paintings by Marcia Alscher along with the annual celebration of Christmas in the 1800s.

Using the home as a space for exhibiting local artists and histories keep the house fresh. New perspectives and conversations provide continued learning and celebration of the region. The stability and commitment to Cincinnati continues in the Betts family home as it now functions as a living history.