It has always been a beautiful building – four stories of limestone and intricate detail. What made it so bad was that it represented a brief but ugly chapter in Cincinnati history.
The neo-Renaissance building at 12th and Walnut streets was built in 1877, and even in a German part of town, Over-the-Rhine, this building was extraordinarily Teutonic. It was built by an immigrant named Rattermann, there was a statue of Germania built into the design, and then there was the name: Deutsche Gegenseitige Versicherungs Gesellschaft von Cincinnati.
This became a problem 100 years ago when World War I started, the Lusitania was torpedoed and anything German became suspect. The language stopped being taught in public schools, people were fired, street names were changed, and pretzels disappeared from bars. Too Germanic.
The name of this beautiful building has been concealed for a century, never seen again – until now.
Last week, the name was revealed again.
“It honors the city’s German heritage and righting a past wrong,” said Don Heinrich Tolzmann, president of the German-American Citizens’ League of Greater Cincinnati. For a long time, Tolzmann hoped to return the building to its original state.
Kelly Murphy, who owns the building with her husband, first learned of the covered name when they bought the building five years ago. So Tolzmann reminded them.
When it was time to paint the building, Murphy said it was time to bring back history. “It was something we really wanted to do. It was important,” Murphy said.
Councilman Chris Seelbach, a longtime OTR resident and descendant of German immigrants, fully supported the change and helped lead the way.
Seelbach knew the history of the town, he knew the fear and the hysteria, and he thought it was time to fix at least one thing. “It was a way to experience fear and honor our German heritage,” Seelbach said. “It’s great to honor that. I was happy to be a part of it.”
It’s hard to remember how troubled those times were, now that Bockfest is booming, people are drinking Rhinegeist and every new house is seemingly a ‘haus’. But in 1914, when the war started, things started to feel awkward in the German-American and German immigrant community.
At the time, more than half of the residents of Cincinnati and northern Kentucky were either born in Germany or had German parents, according to Tolzmann. The Germans built churches and opened businesses and made it their home.
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, some people wondered how the Germans felt here. In truth, it was complicated. World War I was not popular, and many Americans—of all ethnicities and races—believed the country should stay out of the conflict.
“They (German-Americans) had mixed emotions; they tried to keep America out of the war,” Tolzmann said. “It was a heartbreaking experience.”
The reality is that many Americans had no interest in fighting in Europe. “Most Americans were isolationists,” said Scott Gampfer, director of the Cincinnati History Library and History Archives and Collections at the Cincinnati Museum Center. “And before our (American) involvement in the war, many Germans here were sympathetic to German causes. They raised money for war aid.”
After the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and after it became increasingly likely that Americans would join the war, Germans and German-Americans were asked about their Americanness. And it got ugly.
Some companies have been boycotted, German language books have been removed from libraries and some people have had their names changed. By order of the police, according to the Ohio Historical Society, only German could not be used in public meetings. Rue de Brême became Rue de la République.
“A veil of suspicion has fallen over the city,” Gampfer said. “But the hysteria wasn’t based on anything real. It got ridiculous.”
This is when the 12th and Walnut building covered its name. Deutsche Gegenseitige Versicherungs Gesellschaft von Cincinnati became the German Mutual Insurance Co. of Cincinnati. Better for business, fewer questions.
The statue built in the building, the beautiful Germania, became Columbia. “E Pluribus Unum” was chiseled into her dress. (However, many people still know the building as Germania, because of the statue.)
This hysteria began to fade, oddly enough, when America entered the war. German-Americans enlisted or were enlisted like everyone else here. “Many felt compelled to prove their loyalty,” Gampfer said. “And they fought valiantly.”
Over time, Cincinnati began to emerge from this period. German Americans and German immigrants were more accepted. During World War II, there was much less suspicion and, in most places, none at all. The dark story of fear has become a memory.
And last week a basket crane was raised to the building’s fourth floor on 12th and Walnut and the last sign covering the building’s original name was removed. “Truth triumphs,” Tolzmann said.
And a block away, on 13th and Walnut, a century of wind and sun was beginning to reveal even more history. The paint on a repo business has faded enough now that the name under that paint is beginning to emerge.
It’s in German too.
Street names changed during WWI hysteria
• From the German street to the English street
• Berlin Street to Woodrow Street
• From rue Brême to rue de la République
• Brunswick Street to Edgecliff Point
• From Frankfort Street to Connecticut Avenue
• Hanover Street to Yukon Street
• from rue Habsbourg to rue Merrimac
• Schumann Street to Meredith Drive
• from Vienna Street to Panama Street
• Humboldt Street to WH Taft Road