William Betts Builds a Home
Built in 1804, the Betts House is the oldest residential structure in the downtown Cincinnati area and the oldest brick house in Ohio still on its original site.
In its early years, the house was the hub of activity on a busy, 111 - acre working farm. Back then Western Row, today known as Central Avenue, was a quiet lane leading into the Betts' peach orchard and brick yard. The western plain of the Cincinnati basin was a seemingly vast stretch of grassy undeveloped land which residents of the day called "Texas."
Born in Rahway, New Jersey, William Betts began his westward journey in 1795. Betts and his family settled in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, but soon pressed on, travelling down the Ohio by flatboat in 1800 to the newly founded Cincinnati. Betts went into brick making - by all accounts quite successfully. He acquired the West End parcel as repayment of a debt owed him by Joel Williams, a local tavern keeper, and commenced building a farm house. Construction was finished in time for the birth of his ninth son in 1804.
A Changing Family, A Changing City
Over the years four generations of Betts' descendents lived in the brick house, and over two dozen children were raised within its walls. To accomodate the prolific Betts brood, the two-story, two-room original structure was augmented by a number of new rooms, more than doubling its original size. When the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes rocked the Ohio Valley, an early kitchen addition was damaged beyond repair. The main house evidently weathered the quake without notable structural harm.
Cincinnati grew at a clip equal to the Betts family. Suddenly the city seemed to be at the doorstep of the once rural farm. Several Betts family members built houses on the farm, but it was not subdivided until 1833. In 1839, the area was incorporated into the City of Cincinnati. By 1855, nearly every lot was developed and the West End population soared, with 30,000 residents per square mile, the highest density in the nation. As conditions grew more and more crowded, the more affluent residents flocked to the prosperous hilltop suburbs made newly accessible by inclines and rapid transit.
By the 1870s, the once vital neighborhood had begun its decline. Industry started to move on, leaving an over-crowded neighborhood populated by those who could not afford to live elsewhere, or chose not to. As bleak as it was, things grew worse. The neighborhood was cut off from the rest of the city with the construction of Ezzard Charles Drive to Union Terminal and Interstate 75. By 1968 only 1,200 residents remained, and many the area's fine homes fell into ruin.
The Betts House Now
The city began revitalization efforts in 1980. In 1988, a partnership of concerned citizens (initiated by Martha Tuttle, William Betts' great-great-granddaughter and NSCDA-OH member) purchased the Betts house and undertook an extensive renovation. The Betts House participated in the 1990 ASID Designer's Show House project, held in the Betts-Longworth Historic District, to display the partnership's success.
The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Ohio, a 501c3 organization, became the sole owner of the Betts House in 1996. Since then it has opened the house to the public; offering exhibits and programs that focus on historic education and preservation of Cincinnati’s early history as well as the building trades to honor the William Betts’ family legacy. The Betts House is also the state headquarters of NSCDA-OH
In 2004 the Betts House received a historic marker from the Ohio Historical Society. The marker text can be found at the Ohio Channel website.
For more information about The Betts House, visit this article by The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Betts House founder Martha Tuttle passed away in September, 2008. To read more about this remarkable woman and her efforts to save the Betts House, click here.
William Betts Builds a Home