Part I of chasing down the history of our new old home.
What can I say? It’s and unassuming brick box with a beautiful bay window and glass paneled door frame. I was instantly intrigued. It’s currently a two-family home but that was not its intention when it was built in 1926. Buildings, like people, reveal their pasts in pieces.
My husband and I were shopping for our new home when we found it. We’re moving back to the small Northern Kentucky community where I grew up. We visited the school and we participated in local events to check out the vibe to make sure this is where we wanted our three-year-old Ezra to grow up. It is. I have a few friends remaining in the community and I’m looking forward to being a part of it once again.
But this house. Hardwood floors throughout, a beautiful fireplace on the second floor, even the bricks of the building are textured and gorgeous, I loved all of it. The big lot with even bigger potential makes us eager to make it our own. But in the process of of making it our own I want to know and honor the property’s past somehow. I love an old house and my husband and I have rediscovered that we like home improvement projects. Both of us grew up in homes where our fathers undertook large projects. I remember wearing a work apron and learning to put screws in drywall. I was eight-years-old and trusted with a power tool. “Put a screw wherever I put an x on the drywall,” Dad had said.
We invited Dad to the home inspection. He stood in the front room and speculated on what the building could have been. “Maybe it was a bakery,” he said. He imagined the bay window being for displaying cakes and confections. Dad remembered that in the 1950s there was a deli next door in the adjacent lot. That lot is now a small street that holds three large newer homes.
The inspection was on April 26 and we are scheduled to close on June 3. Ezra and I left my dad and husband at the house with the inspector and headed over to the Fort Thomas Military and Community Museum to see what history we could find. Nothing. The woman working advised me to go to the Newport library and search through the old city directories.
I knew a visit to the library, at least one that included me camped out in the archives and scanning microfilm with a toddler in tow, was out of the question. So, I decided to see what I could find online while Ezra played LEGOs and Hotwheels in the afternoon.
I found the 1938 Fort Thomas, Kentucky city directory online and started there. The directory was listed in alphabetical order so I scanned the pages searching for a name with 515 South Grand attached. When I hit the S section at page 22 of 46 I wondered what letter of the alphabet could possibly stretch this directory for another 24 pages. Well, I learned behind the alphabetical directory there was a directory sorted by street and then a business directory sorted by category. Lesson learned. Understand the document before going on a blind search.
I flipped to the business directory and searched under categories I thought would fit for the old building. It was not a bakery. The address was listed under “Cafes.”
In 1938, 515 S Grand was a cafe owned by Frank H Wubker. I love that it was a cafe and it so fits with the vibe I want to create in those gorgeous rooms with hardwood floors and a bay window. It’s the perfect entertaining space.
I called my dad right away to tell him what I’d learned. I was excited and I wanted to know more. I wanted to know was it build to be a cafe? Or had Frank bought if from someone else who had a different business and turned it into a cafe?
I couldn’t wait for a slow week with no deadlines and a babysitter to find out. I enlisted my husband’s help. We went to the Newport library on Saturday morning. The boys played in the children’s section while I met with disappointment in the archives. I imagined a dusty old history room with old books and maybe microfilm to read. Instead, there was one section of shelf the young man at the desk pointed to from his station. I had dreamed of uncovering photos and finding building plans for 515 S Grand when in fact the only Fort Thomas City directories they had were from the 1970s.
“We sent all we had to the Campbell County Historical Society,” I was told. That was a visit that would have to wait for another day and I didn’t want to wait another day. Once again, I turned to my laptop. This time I focused by attention on the Cincinnati Enquirer archives. First, I did a name search for Frank Wubker. That was fun. Frank was a colorful guy, more on that in a minute. What I was really excited about was I learned its name. The Grand Grill. It was in the announcement regarding the sale of the cafe.
Learning the name sent a new wave of excitement and curiosity through me. A name! It has a name! That was exciting because Ezra had asked if the house had a name. I explained to him that some people name their homes especially if it’s a ranch or a farm or estate of some sort. He said he wanted our new house to have a name, and I couldn’t wait to tell him what the name once had been.
Frank Wubker sold the Grand Grill to Joe Larvo (also saw it reported as Laurville) in 1939. Then another notice in the paper revealed that the Grand Grill had a liquor license. Frank Wubker requested the license be transferred to Joe Larvo, the Grill’s new owner.
These discoveries changed the image of the place altogether. The image of coffee and poetry in a local cafe changed to one of something a little more lively with alcohol and maybe more of “man’s” atmosphere. My dad was quick to remind me that the prohibition had ended in 1933. “Could it have been a ‘speakeasy’ with bootleg liquor?” Dad wondered in an email. Hmmmm. All of this was so interesting to ponder. It will be fun to honor this establishment’s history. I just need a few more pieces to the puzzle.
After Frank Wubker sold the Grand Grill to Joseph Larvo, Frank went on to become the owner/operator of the Plantation Club on Alexandria Pike in Cold Spring, KY where, according to the article in the Cincinnati Enquirer archives, Frank pleaded guilty to and paid a fine for permitting gambling on the premises. The idea of the Grand Grill being a speakeasy establishment seemed more like a possibility. Joseph Larvo’s name also appeared in the paper because he and his wife (not named other than as Mrs. Larvo) were key witnesses in a case that indicted almost 200 people for violation of gambling and Sunday Closing Laws.
The vision of 515 S Grand and its owners was becoming more and more colorful. That’s when I shifted my archive search from name to address and, oh boy, I’m glad I did. Check out this want ad from April 24, 1938:
“It was a whorehouse!” My husband exclaimed when I showed it to him. Now, I’m not ready to say that. I mean, it was 1938 and I’m guessing that any woman in the workplace was expected to be attractive. It was a very sexist time. The want ads were divided into “Work for Men” and “Work for Women.” That wasn’t declared unlawful until 1965. I’ll have to check my suspicions with a historian. “It was a whorehouse,” my husband repeated. My sexist world explanation wasn’t flying with him. Plus, I think it’s more fun to imagine our new home had a dramatic past as a speakeasy and a whorehouse and the evidence is pointing to a not-so-upstanding establishment.
On May 2, 1939 the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had circulated a petition requesting an investigation and accused the Grand Grill of not obeying “Sunday Closing” laws.
Our brick box that is being sold as a two-family, perhaps started out as a cafe, evolved to be the Grand Grill, and was listed as a nightclub in the want ads. Then a petition sought an investigation into their business practice and suspected foul play. Was it this reputation of foul play that shut down the Grand Grill? Did Joe Larvo (Laurville) continue operating the Grand Grill or was it Joe who decided to rent it? There’s also still a substantial 12-year gap that’s unaccounted for 1926–1938. I intend to learn how it all began.
My next stop will be to the Campbell County Historical Society. That will have to wait until I have a sitter for a day. Until then, we’ll be dreaming of walls lined with cash (or missing persons?) inside our new home. Stay tuned.