Ghosts of the PantheonWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
The news that two more Downtown businesses are closing is scary. Diva’s Restaurant and Ken’s Flowers join a list of recent casualties which includes Durty Bird, Bellacino’s, Quiznos, Salad Galley and that little complex called COSI (Contrary to what you may have read in the daily newspaper, Jackson’s Lounge has not closed, at least not as of press time).
My first memory of Downtown Toledo is a visit to the Pantheon Movie Theater, which was on North St. Clair Street. I believe it was a showing of “Pinocchio,” the 1940 Disney flick. I was probably 5 or 6, and the Internet Movie Database lists a “Pinocchio” re-release in July 1971, so that math works. I grew up in Walbridge, which was and is a comfortable, small community, so a trip Downtown was a big deal. I remember impressions, not details; the overwhelming tall buildings, crossing the street with what seemed like thousands of cars, the diversity of colors on people’s faces.
Most of all, I remember the excitement of activity and the bustle of life. That’s not just missing today; it’s tough to imagine a non-Mud Hens day with people pouring Downtown for simple entertainments like movies and dinner and shopping.
I’ve recently read the book “Historic Photos of Toledo,” which captures Toledo on the rise, when it was a Downtown bursting with pride and life. The book, 200 pages of glorious black-and-white photos, was compiled by Gregory M. Miller (I’d say no relation, but given my father’s mysterious and irresponsible past, that’s not safe ground), curator of photographs in the local history department at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. Miller is the director of the stunning and invaluable “Images in Time” collection (www.toledolibrary.org/collection.images.asp), and his book is a portable treasure of Toledo’s rise and eventual decline.
The book begins with images from as early as 1870, as churches and factories and schools and groceries sprang up to meet the growing populace’s needs. There are amazing pictures of architectural wonders like the Hartford Block, the destroyed-by-fire Lucas County Armory and the National Union Building. A lighted sign with the motto, “You will do better in TOLEDO” hangs on one page, and if there’s a goal and mindset and message we need to adopt, I can’t think of a better phrase.
There is a great photo of the City of Toledo, a steamboat that made daily trips between Toledo and Put-in-Bay. How and why did that idea fall out of fashion? If Robert Russ’ paddleboat business takes off, maybe his next investment can be that daily boat run.
It is amazing to see the early 1900s explosion of commerce Downtown, the multi-story department stores, hardware stores and grocers that dominated Washington Street and Madison Avenue. There are, of course, pictures of Tiedtke Brothers Department Store, Woolworth 5 and 10, Lamson’s Department Store, McCrory’s 10-cent Store and the LaSalle and Koch Department Store. There were streetcars and crowds and circus parades and so many cars! There were huge hotels, the Niagara, Secor, Waldorf and the Boody House.
And the theaters! The Vita Temple, Loew’s Valentine Theatre, the Palace Theater and the Paramount, which hosted regular appearances by the Marx Brothers, Mario Lanza, Tom Mix and the Three Stooges.
There is a fascinating section of the book dedicated to the Jeep and its history, the foundation of a proud tradition that lives on today, one of the few things in the book that has survived the decades.
“Historic Photos of Toledo” continues through 1975. One of the more striking images from that era is a photograph of the Owens-Corning Fiberglass Tower, which now stands empty and toxic, the grey symbol of the lost life and lost opportunities Downtown once owned. The last Downtown photo in the book is the demolition of the Town Hall Burlesque Theater, reduced to a rubble of bricks and exposed girders.
I will keep and cherish Miller’s amazing book, but my first few reads through it left me saddened. I work Downtown and see the effects of Fifth Third Field, businesses such as ours and The Blarney Irish Pub and Packo’s by the Park. From my office window, I can see the Downtown Arena construction site, and the hope that building represents is palpable in the Downtown air. Being able to superimpose images from Miller’s book over the empty and boarded-up buildings I see is a mixed blessing. Part of me knows I am conjuring ghosts, but another, perhaps less intellectual part of me, wonders why it can’t be the future I see, a return to glory and life.
Are there 5- and 6-year-olds seeing Downtown for the first time today? What do they think? Will it have an impact that can reach across 40 years?
Will they see the spirit? Or only the ghosts?
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com.