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The Cincinnati Main Library Building (1870) / The old Main Library building was recognized in its day as one of the most marvelous public libraries in the country. It featured an Italianate design and an open atrium with a skylight ceiling. Sadly, the building was demolished in 1955. ADDRESS: 629 Vine Street (45202) / Image courtesy of the Public Library Cincinnati & Hamilton County // Published: 8.28.18

Cincinnati’s Breathtaking Architecture Owes Much to James McLaughlin

The quality of architecture in this city is absurd. It gets more absurd when you consider how many of our most prominent buildings come to us courtesy of just two men—two contemporaries, two rivals, two masters of their craft.

Samuel Hannaford (1835-1911) you should already know. With Music Hall, City Hall, the Emery Theatre, the Phoenix, and so much more to his name, he’s earned his place in the American architectural pantheon.

James W. McLaughlin (1834-1923) is right there with him. Fewer of his works remain, and what remains has been largely devoured by modern updates. Still, he was every bit the master Hannaford was, and they belong in the same sentence in terms of skill and output.

Indeed, according to the Architecture Foundation of Cincinnati, between them the two architects “split the major establishment governmental, institutional, commercial, and residential commissions” of the city. Together they “gave definitive form to the numerous cultural and public institutions developed during this highpoint of Cincinnati’s prosperity, creativity, and influence.”

What separates the two men? Well, riffing off the Western & Southern Open men’s final, if Hannaford is Roger Federer—fashionable, sensitive, and measured—McLaughlin is Novak Djokovic—distinctive, sometimes awkward, but structurally and functionally innovative. The result is this: buildings designed by the two architects in the same style—Richardson Romanesque, Renaissance Revival, or Italianate—can look wildly different.

As far as McLaughlin is concerned, the building that most typifies his work—both its past and its present—resides on the southeast corner of Seventh and Race. It’s the old Shillito’s department store, and it’s what we’re going to focus on next. For some tasty tidbits concerning McLaughlin's other works, head to the gallery above.


John Shillito's & Company (or Shillito’s Dry Goods, or just Shillitos’s) was Cincinnati’s first department store. In fact it was McLaughlin & Shillito’s before it became Shillito’s. Then it was bought by Lazarus, which became Federated Department Stores, which is now Macy’s.

The “McLaughlin” in McLaughlin & Shillito’s was William McLaughlin, James’s father. Perhaps owing to that connection, the young architect was contracted to design a new Shillito’s store on the south side of West Fourth Street between Vine and Race. That four-story building opened in 1857, and it remains standing today as part of the McAlpin condominiums.

Why are they the McAlpin condominiums and not the Shillito’s condominiums? Because Shillito’s was rapidly expanding, and just two decades after the West Fourth Street building was completed, they needed more space. An empty plot of land on the southwest corner of West Seventh and Race Streets became their new location. Shillito’s again hired McLaughlin, now one of the city’s foremost architects. He designed an L-shaped, six-story building whose wavy brass transom to this day reads “The John Shillito Company."

The store opened in 1877. At the time it was the largest department store in the nation. It was also the first building of the Chicago Commercial Style, featuring five elevators and a grand atrium with a steel framework. The rest of the building was constructed with iron, which made it fire proof and also allowed the supporting joists to be spaced at intervals of 24 feet rather than the traditional 15.

The exterior was breathtakingly beautiful. But in 1937 it was modernized by local architect George Roth. He replaced the brick exterior with a "Mayan” Art Deco limestone facade. What exists today is sadly something of a palimpsest, with two buildings of different styles sitting one atop the other in symbiosis and disharmony.

Thankfully Roth’s handiwork, while extensive, was not absolute. He left the southern side of the building as it was. There you can still see what the building first looked like. Likewise, you can behold the genius of James McLaughlin in splendid living color, just as it exists residually in countless other buildings across the Queen City.