I think this should happen

The Arcade: Dayton’s public library

By J. Todd Anderson
Photo: A view from a window on the upper floor of the Arcade; photo credit: Nancy Roach

Editor’s Note: For over two decades, the Arcade has stood vacant at the heart of downtown Dayton. Once serving as a vibrant commercial and social hub of the region, its current ghostly state serves as a constant reminder of the city’s glory days. Meanwhile, the citizens of Dayton are relegated to the status of bystander as the fate of this iconic building lies with distant investors mired in the crippling weight of perpetually mounting back taxes. We at the Dayton City Paper feel that it is time to reclaim the Arcade and find a new, enduring use for this unparalleled architectural gem and solidify its rightful place as the cultural and physical centerpiece of downtown Dayton. The following is, what we feel, an inspired approach to salvaging the magnificent Dayton Arcade as part of cultivating Dayton’s future glory.


The grand Dayton Arcade should become Dayton’s main public library. I have read recently that they are going to sink a lot of money into improving the 215 E. Third St. main library location this year. Why do this, when the Arcade is made to order and available for this future purpose? The money earmarked for the main library currently on Third Street could give the Arcade the traction and jolt from the giant heart paddles that it needs for the great return. Dare I say that the current main Dayton Public Library is a glamorous building? Not when compared to the magic of the old Dayton Arcade. Stop that beeping truckload of money from backing up to the current downtown location. Reevaluate now, Daytonians.

Sound editor and Dayton resident Lesley Fogle came up with this brilliant idea, the Dayton Arcade as the Main Public Library. Since she mentioned it to me, I just can’t shake the vision. When I drive by the Arcade’s lovely but forgotten entrance, I suddenly see it lit up like a corny Thomas Kincade print. I see hordes of people, studying on the Arcade’s fantastic multiple mezzanine levels, researching, laptops open on huge tables, pawing future electronic wonders, texting, drinking five dollar coffee and some folks enjoying good old-fashioned books. All in the magnificent splendor of a restored Dayton Arcade.

The old Arcade was built around 1903, but I remember back when it was restored in 1980 when I was at Sinclair College. Yes, 1980. Not that far back, that is for a restored building. Re-opened and available for all, it was quite simply a staggering architectural wonder and a powerful statement of Dayton’s legacy. The monstrous, spider-webbed, glass dome would bleed buckets of sunlight. Large and elegant, it was fun to eat, shop and just hang out there. I loved those goofy plaster turkeys that still silently perch on the rotunda’s darkened ledge. The place would just take your breath away every day. Now it’s closed. Abandoned in place since 1990, ten short years after it re-opened.

The Arcade deserves more than the complacency that both degrades and embraces it now. My fear is that it will continue to atrophy and slip away from our cultural radar. Then, one day, we in Dayton and the Arcade’s fans all over the world will wake up to Internet images of its ignominious demolition. Another huge loss for the home team.

When I’m in New York City on business, I frequently use the “new” Penn Central Station, built in 1964. It stinks, is hideous and totally uninspired. I hate it. Even more when I see the token rubble of the “old” Penn Station, on display along side of its glory-day photos. I catch my mind wondering what it must have been like to experience this grand railway station. For your own curiosity, you might watch Stanley Kubrick’s “Killer’s Kiss” (1955). Old Penn Station is a shadowy, looming background character for pivotal scenes in this perfect movie. It was an absolute crime to New York’s humanity and America’s historical fabric when it was demolished in 1963. Some New Yorkers are still livid over its destruction. Rules have been put into place to stop another scorched earth incident of such magnitude in NYC, but old Penn Station is gone forever. Gloomy current events in Dayton spell out that the Arcade is truly vulnerable to the same kind of fate and it is our old Penn Station to lose right now.

At this writing, the current Arcade owners are mired in pathos against financially overwhelming odds of the daunting circumstances of restoration and finding the ultimate tenant for the building complex. The city of Dayton? It continues to perish from the lack of wisdom over the whole ordeal. Unfortunately, just like New Yorkers in 1963, we may soon be the victims of this growing apathetic narrative. It must be understood now, that anger and bitterness could await us every time we pass the vacant grease spot at Fourth and Ludlow that was once the Arcade. As I say to my friends, “The march of time takes no prisoners.” Sound like a movie title? Here’s the pitch:

CUT TO: BLAND CITY COUNCIL ROOM – DAYTON OH. – DAY. An angry mob discusses the fate of the Dayton Arcade. Mayor Gary Lietzell (played by Martin Sheen), jugular veins protruding from his neck, gavels for order. City Manager Tim Riordan (played by Clint Eastwood) stares, arms folded, jaw muscles working as upper-upper, middle management city employees and council members scream, “The Arcade is nothing but wasted negative space! It’s inefficient! It will take millions of dollars to restore! It’s a black hole for taxpayers. Eyesore! Burden! Dangerous! Falling shards of glass will impale us! Yeah! Bring it down!” The good-intentions club (all members played by Richard Dreyfuss in different make up and costume, male and female) weighs in: “We need a better plan! A mall. A gambling casino! Yeah!” And like a pop-tart from Hell’s shiny toaster the famous word “CAN’T” becomes a 30-second montage: In fast cuts, 400 reasons why the Arcade can’t be saved. END MONTAGE. Pause. The Arcade’s current owner sits slumped and haggard. He looks up slowly to the ceiling (we see he is played by George Clooney). Brow knitted, he speaks: “It is – impossible! Dayton backed up taxes are killing me! It is – impossible!” He collapses into his seat. Silence. A nervous cough. A chair skwonks over the dirty floor and we hear the lightly timbered voice of Lesley Fogle (played by Drew Barrymore) “Hey! Like, how about – The Arcade as our new, like, Dayton Public Library!” The snap of a chain, a light bulb clicks on. A concerned local speaks up, (you the reader play this part, cast your own actor!): “This sounds like the perfect federally-funded project!” The sound of one hand clapping followed by a huge applause. The mayor stares at the city manager, a trace of a smile. The city people cheer on. The Arcade’s owner embraces Fogle. She victoriously holds up an overdue library book. FADE OUT.

What? It’s a parody of a fictional movie! It isn’t even a film! As Hitchcock said, “What is drama but life with all the dull parts cut out?” Even still a farther fetch? How about, as Nelson Mandela said, “It’s always impossible until it is done.” Look at the Frank Lloyd Wright Westcott house in Springfield. Remember that broken-in-half mess? Although it was restored with private funds, it, too, was impossible. Visit it and tell me that the tremendous effort wasn’t worth it? Tell Marta you read this article.

You can, if you concentrate really hard, get a feeling for this fantastic vision of the Dayton Arcade Library by simply standing in Wright State’s current library. Multiple levels surround a huge, negative open space. Inefficient? My guess is yes. Just like the Arcade. But hey! Look what gets accomplished in there for the future, every day, and all under Wil and Orv’s, world-shaping and inspiring Dayton invention, the 1903 Wright Flyer. It hangs in the so-called negative space, beautifully lit by a massive front window.

Inspiration of what can be done in the simple gaze of an eye. Now think under a really big glass dome. The Dayton Arcade could probably hang a 1903 Wright Flyer replica, all three Wright glider replicas, a 1905 flyer replica, with the Wright brothers kite replica  dangling from a plaster turkey’s beak and still have room for everything in the current library’s Third Street location. The entire complex is that big! Sorry I’m digressing here – but it’s a clear no-brainer answer for the Arcade here, folks.

OK. Let’s push the idea way outside of the box. How about the Arcade library as an attraction? A world attraction. The new Dayton Arcade Public Library could be the most technologically cutting-edge library on the face of the planet. Our very own library of Alexandria? Now that is a cool image! After all, this is Dayton, Ohio, famous for innovation. The Dayton Arcade Library, by edict, should stimulate absolute intellectual leadership and radical public service for Dayton’s immediate future and the world’s needs for decades to come. It should inspire the multitudes working in its magnificent rotunda to deliver the future on deadlines with a momentous scale never dreamed of. Think of it as ideas being punched out under that gorgeous dome like Moraine punched out Chevy trucks. But the new Dayton Arcade Library would produce a far more enduring product than trucks, thus ensuring that this one-of-a-kind landmark will be safe for future generations to enjoy and use. This should also kill any sad documentarian movies that would be made about our arcade’s untimely demise.

The focus and clarity should be on the Dayton Arcade as the new Public Library. It is the absolute best investment for that property and for the future of the Miami Valley. I think the Arcade Library should happen, and it needs to happen ASAP. As we say in the movie business, the story is a “lead pipe cinch.” Let’s make the picture now – before it turns into a schedule.

For more information on contributing to saving the Dayton Arcade, visit the official website of the Friends of the Dayton Arcade at daytonarcade.wetpaint.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer J. Todd Anderson at J.ToddAnderson@DaytonCityPaper.com

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