This Old House
By Lisa J. Mauch
It won’t be on a Hollywood tour of famous homes anytime soon, or in the Architectural Digest book of celeb-rity houses. But the white stucco bungalow with the Spanish tile roof that graces the corner of Victory Parkway and Ledgewood Drive is arguably one of the University’s—and Cincinnati’s—most historic properties. Adorned with the architectural elegance of previous eras but worn from decades of poor upkeep, the Villa, as it is now known, is the one-time residence of silent movie star Theda Bara.
Born in neighboring Avondale, Bara became an immensely popular film star in the early 20th century, ranking alongside Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin in fame. Through her career of more than 40 movies, she evolved into one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, flirting with the camera with her dark eyes and pushing the limits of acceptable dress long before Marilyn Monroe and Madonna were on the scene. It was Bara who coined the frequently misquoted line, “Kiss me, my fool,” and gave new meaning to the word “vamp” after playing a female vampire in her first major film, A Fool There Was, in 1915.
Though the details about her life in the Villa are blurry, it’s known that during the 1920s the 12-room Hollywood Mediterranean-style residence was one of the places she called home. The University acquired the Villa in 1979 in a six-building deal from Joseph Link Jr., a professor emeritus of economics. Included in the package were three apartment buildings—Linkshire, University and Manor House—along with Fraternity House and the Tudor Lodge. The University initially used the Villa as a residence for nuns on the faculty, and had plans to convert the estate into an alumni center. Before that happened, though, a housing crunch in the 1990s led to the building being modified into student housing—up to 14 people can live there.
Today, even amidst the modern refrigerators and dormitory furniture, one can still see glimpses of the glamour and style the home once held for Bara.
A smooth stone walkway winds from Victory Parkway up to the house, cutting a path between large, stately trees that cast afternoon shadows over the plush front lawn. The passage undoubtedly created a grand entrance to the home during Bara’s era, when the neighborhood was more residential and the street less of a speedway.
At the end of the pathway, a semicircular portico graces the front of the home, with its archways supported by spiraling columns that are topped with Corinthian acanthus leaf capitals. Three sets of French doors flood the front entryway with light, illuminating a Gothic fireplace decorated with Baroque volutes and Mesopotamian rosettes— symbols of fertility. The glass in each door is adorned by decorative Moorish tracery.
Exposed timbers with faint traces of painted designs stretch across the ceiling, while various hand-carved tiles beautify the floor underneath. Off the entryway in what was probably once a formal dining room, a gilded cornice encircles the domed ceiling with carvings of ram heads mounted in each corner. Both original bathrooms sport Rookwood tiles in Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, while the larger one has a picture of cherubs and seagulls in raised pattern tiles over the bathtub.
The amalgamation of architectural styles continues throughout—a common trait to these types of homes, says Jerome Pryor, S.J., associate professor of art. Such eclectic mixtures are prevalent in Southern California, he says, lending credence to the account that Bara wanted her house here to match her Hollywood home.
The complete history of Bara’s time in the house, though, remains a mystery. A Cincinnati Enquirer article quotes Link as saying, “[Bara] came back and lived here two years in the ’20s, but got sinus like everyone else in Cincinnati, and moved back to California.” However, Eve Golden, author of Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara, claims that the film star simply rented the house and used it for several years with her husband as a stopover point when traveling between New York and California.
Either way, the home has the amenities worthy of someone of Bara’s status—a walk-in cedar closet, a dumbwaiter that goes downstairs, and a separate servants entrance on the side of the house.
The grandeur of the house’s glory days is becoming somewhat lost to the ravages of time and necessity. Gently arched doorways have been covered to create walls as part of the conversion into student housing. Detailing is being lost to deterioration. No renovations are planned, though. Still, the students who live there don’t mind.
“The students love the house even though they have to share it with so many people,” says Cindy Lowman-Stieby, campus manager for student apartments and houses. “It’s so big and spacious and has a lot of character. They like it because it’s older and not perfect and not beige.”
Which is understandable—beige would not be suitable for a star of the silver screen.