The little red brick house looks like something swept up in an East Coast hurricane and incongruously plopped down in Cincinnati’s West End. Yet, from its foundation stones through its red bricks, the 1804 Betts House is 100% homegrown Cincinnati.
The house that William and Phebe Betts built in 1804 will celebrate its 210th anniversary this year. The Betts House is the oldest brick house in Ohio still on its original site, and welcomes visitors to its new life as the Betts House Research Center.
Building the bricks and the family home
Betts went into brick making and received the West End parcel as repayment of a debt from Joel Williams, a local tavern keeper. He finished his two-room brick farm house in time for the birth of his ninth son in 1804.
The home grew along with the Betts family. Today, the house as research center is a walk-through curriculum on local history and the evolution of building techniques.
Wonder what an 1804 chair rail looked like? Peek inside the downstairs closet for a remnant that escaped an extreme makeover in 1864.
What to do when the 1811 New Madrid earthquake takes out your kitchen? Rebuild—the new version is still on the rear of the house, its brick fireplace again revealed.
Curious who worked on the grand updating in 1864? Just check out the plaster in the front room. John Wright was so proud of his painting and Charles A. Smith so taken with his paper hanging that they signed their names on the wet plaster, May 1864.
A descendant leads the preservation charge
The house has survived 210 years of change, mostly through the drive and determination of volunteers.
“I was so shocked to see the gutter hanging down in front, mortar missing from the bricks,” recalled the late artist Martha Tuttle, great-great-granddaughter of William and Phebe Betts. She saw the vacant building in 1987, and we spoke eight years later about the house where her mother was born in 1877. “I thought,’” Tuttle said, “‘I’ve got to save that house.’”
Tuttle persevered for eight years, through two heart bypass surgeries, to gather a group of supporters, bankroll $200,000 for repairs and secure its future as the Betts House Research Center.
“I’d like people to know that the little house is still standing, because it was so sturdily built," Tuttle said. “The foundation is still sound after 200 years. William Betts was a brickmaker, and he knew good clay.”
When you go
The Betts House is one of the jewels of Cincinnati's Betts-Longworth Historic District, established in 1983 and named for William Betts and Nicholas Longworth, who owned adjacent land. Longworth, famous for his grape growing and real estate savvy, was the second-richest man in America.
The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Ohio owns the Betts House and leases it to the Betts House Research Center. It’s open Tuesday through Thursday and the second and fourth Saturday of the month; other times by appointment.
The restored Betts House received the Greater Cincinnati Beautiful Award in 1990 and the Miami Purchase Association for Historic Preservation annual award in 1991. It also received the Award of Merit by The American Architectural Foundation and Victor O. Schinnerer & Company, Inc. for Excellence in Public Education of Architecture and Design in 2008.