If walls could talk.
It’s a bit of a cliche, isn’t it? The phrase itself is a universal colloquialism – it doesn’t matter which cultural or generational background a person comes from, everybody understands the idea that structures, much like humans, bear witness to history. Take for example the Great Pyramid of Giza; the structure, though now a national tourist attraction set along the backdrop of Cairo’s urban and distinctly 21st-century sprawl, beheld the rise and fall of rulers and the scrolling of countless stories – many of which are now lost to the time’s ever-forward march.
Every town has its Pyramid of Giza. From cities to rural villages, the structures we pass by daily as we go about our lives imprint stories from past and present. We often take these buildings for granted, which is unfortunate, because as one begins to dig into the past, one finds that the walls of these structures, much like the painted interior of an old house, reveal the colors of yesteryear with each layer that is stripped away.
The Mid-Ohio Valley, if we wish to continue the paint analogy, is a mural. The buildings that constitute the River Cities rise from the muddy banks of the Ohio River and each has a thousand novels etched into its walls, many of which, much like the forgotten stories of Ancient Egypt, are lost. The stories that have survived, however, provide an important connection to our roots.
Today I’d like to discuss the Levee House property, located along Marietta’s riverfront. The building, known to most for the popular restaurant which occupied its lower hall over the past thirty-odd years, has housed a multitude of tenants and businesses over its colorful 192 year past. It has also seen its share of gatherings, banquets and, in the case of one late 19th-century incident, an ax murder. We’ll talk about that last part a little later.
The building itself is comprised of two separate constructions. The original three-story building was erected in 1826. The lower wing where the Levee House restaurant operated was constructed in 1920. The original building was designed by Colonel Joseph Barker, a prominent early settler. Colonel Barker earned military recognition in the Northwest Indian War and was instrumental to the region’s development. A master carpenter, Colonel Barker is credited for designing several area buildings, many of which are no longer standing. His original 1811 home and the home of his son, Judge Joseph Barker, stand to this day and are included on the National Register of Historic Places. As an interesting aside, Barker was also a gifted shipwright and provided some of the ships that would be staged at Blennerhassett Island as part of a maligned expedition later known as “The Burr Conspiracy”.
Shortly after the construction of the Levee House property, early Marietta resident Dudley Woodbridge Jr. moved in and established himself as the first dry goods merchant in the Northwest Territory.
Let’s linger a bit on the importance of that last statement. The city of Marietta was established in 1788 and was itself the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. The Levee House building was designed and erected in 1826 – 38 years after Marietta came to be. Early 1800s Appalachia was virgin frontier for the first New Englanders who made the western journey across Pennsylvania from the former colonies. The infrastructure that had existed for the past hundred or more years between Philadelphia, Boston and New York did not exist in the Northwest Territory. It was a frontier in the truest sense of the word. The presence of a dry goods supplier at the time would signify the forward progress of the young city.
At some point in the late 1800s, the three-story building would serve as a boarding house for a time under the care of a Madame Nora Descott. By most accounts, the area of Ohio Street near the property was substantially rougher than other parts of the town and the building garnered a reputation as a den of ill repute. It is widely believed that several ladies used the upper rooms for their, uhm, well…let’s say “entrepreneurial endeavors”.
Remember that ax murder we discussed earlier? Well, this article is about to get a good bit messier. Squeamish eyes, be forewarned. There are a few different version of the story, but most tellings go something about like this:
The patriarch of a well-to-do family is visiting one of his favorite girls in an upper room. He has made these visits a habit and in pursuing his chosen vice has drawn the ire of his teenaged son. The young man, blinded by shame and fury, follows his father to the building, ax in hand. The boy stalks the stairwell, one dreaded footfall at a time. He finds his father in bed with a woman who is not the man’s wife and with a wide arc, the boy brings down the ax, severing his father’s head. His father’s mistress, covered in her client’s gore, rushes screaming down the stairs and out onto the streets. An arrest is made, a trial is held, and by the virtue of 19th-century justice, the boy is acquitted on the grounds of having committed a “crime of passion” while defending his family’s honor.
The years following the incident saw the addition of the previously mentioned lower dining hall where Braddock Liquor once operated (you can still see the ghostly remains of 20th-century advertising faded against the outer brick walls). In 1977, Harley Noland purchased the building and opened The Levee House Cafe. The restaurant operated for over 30 years as a staple of the local economy before closing its doors earlier this year. The Levee House currently sits vacant, but will undoubtedly serve new tenants in the future.
It is important to remember the past, to tell the stories that need to be told. This is true of all things that exist, including buildings. Architecture carries both the vision of the architect and the collective wants, needs, and fears of the tenants who live inside its geometry. The Levee House property is not Marietta’s only important structure, far from it; however, it is – to return to the earlier metaphor – one of Marietta’s Pyramids of Giza. And just like those grand, ancient structures, it too deserves reverence and protection.