By Amelia Robinson
The Arcade was what inspired Dayton when it opened over 110 years ago.
“Words fail to convey a perfect idea for the wonderful beauty of the gentlemen who in this Arcade have given to Dayton a building which for completeness, elegance, and artistic as well as practical value, cannot be duplicated in this country and probably not in the world,” reads the gushing front page article the Dayton Daily News published about the March 3, 1904 Arcade Charity Festival.
Years after it closed to the public in 1990 and officially became a “dead mall,” the once brilliant five-building complex still remains a source of pride for many Daytonians. Yet others consider it an albatross that holds the city to a sparkling past long gone.
What should happen to the Arcade site is debatable. What is not debatable is what it was, and it was Dayton.
It was big, bold and busy.
Below are just a few of the cool things about the once-glistening gem of the Gem City.
We’ve pulled much of the info from Dayton Daily News archives, and from local historian Curt Dalton’s book “The Dayton Arcade: Crown Jewel of the Gem City.”
The Arcade’s glass-domed rotunda and its Third Street building with its chateau roof line are much celebrated. Great design can be found throughout the structure and on its exterior. Take a closer look at the building the next time you pass by.
Photo: Dayton Daily News and Dayton Journal Archive at Wright State University
The Arcade was a mixed use development before the concept “mixed use” was coined. It wasn’t just a place to shop, eat or do business. People called it home.
It opened in 1904 as a farmer’s market and later added retail businesses, restaurants and apartments. Dozens of Dayton residents lived there, according to Dalton’s book.
“It was 1937 when we moved into the Arcade,” Ethel Zwick wrote in 1980. “I had an apartment on the fifth floor — 451 was the number. It was five or six rooms with mahogany woodwork and doors. All the fixtures were brass, and there was a beautiful carved wood mantle over the fireplace, with a white marble hearth under it. They had evidently been used for heating once, but they were never used while I was there — we had steam heat.”
Signs of those apartments still exist, even in the Arcade’s current state.
Comedy legend Phyllis Diller was in the Gem City May 10, 1980 to cut ribbons strung across the entrance to Casual Corner and Red Cross Shoes when Arcade Square reopened after a nearly $15 million renovation, according to Dalton’s book.
“It’s fabulous,” she reportedly said. “I am in favor of restoring this magnificent old pole. When I was last here, it was just an open field.”
Photo: Dayton Daily News archive at Wright State University
The Arcade had a food court called “The Menu,” but it apparently wasn’t all-together welcoming for too long.
Here’s what Dalton wrote about the area that opened in 1986 on his Dayton History Online Facebook page:
“The food court idea was a good one, but it was too small to accommodate all of the people who wanted to eat there. And so eventually guards were hired to make people move on after they had eaten their food. This brought pressure on people to eat as fast as they could, which sort of negated eating at a place you wanted to relax and enjoy the beauty of. Pretty soon there were plenty of tables open as people decided lunch at the Arcade wasn’t worth the hassle.”
Photo: Dayton Daily News
Are we for real? Yep! This blurb about straight up shenanigans in the windows of Pandemonium Boutique actually appeared in the Dayton Daily News on March 2, 1971.
Photo: Dayton Daily News archive at Wright State University
The article about the Arcade, published March 3, 1904 on the front page of the Dayton Daily News, had not one, not two, but six subheads: “ARCADE OPENED WITH A GORGEOUS FESTIVAL IN INTEREST OF PHLANTHROPY,” “WILLING WOMEN HAVE BEEN HARD AT WORK,” “Interior of the Spacious Building is a Vertiable Bower of Beauty and Entertainment,” “MUSIC AND FLOWERS THERE IN A WEALTHY ABUNDANCE,” “Festival marks the Birthday of One of the Country’s Most Modern and Complete Structures of Its Kind,” "Stands As a Monument.”
And they don’t write headlines like “Beautifully Dedicated By Labor of Charity” anymore. The three-page story seemingly listed the name of everyone in the city: workers, Young Women League members, Women’s Christian Association members, hospital officials and more.
Photo: Two of three pages the Dayton Daily News devoted to the first day of the Arcade’s three-day opening festival
Love of the Arcade persisted even in its dark days.
“The Arcade, when it flourished, was the mecca of perfect, unusual unique foods to delight the eye and titillate the palate. If guests praised the beauty of your winter fruit bowl with the fresh white grapes, you were proud to say ‘they came from the Arcade.’ If you surprised your family with the first fresh strawberries that came all the way across the county for December tables, you excused your extravagance by saying, ‘they were in the Arcade and I couldn’t resist…,”’ Marj Heyduck said in 1967, according to Dalton’s book. “Think of how the Arcade must have looked 60 years ago when townsfolk converged upon it as upon an art museum elsewhere, when visitors couldn’t leave the city without going through the Arcade. Think how it could be again — flower stalls, wonderful aromas, exotic foods… If that wouldn’t bring downtown to life again, you haven’t talked with those of us who remember how it used to be!”
Photo: Dayton Daily News archives at Wright State University. The arcade decorated for its opening and a 1979 photo of an Arcade sign being loaded on a flat bed truck.
No matter your feelings about the Arcade’s future, you have to admit the complex and its supporters are“fighters.”
It survived the 1913 flood, the Great Depression and chain grocery stores like Kroger and Piggly Wiggly. (Piggly Wiggly is a thing of the past in this area nowadays, but it started opening stores here in 1919.)
The nonprofit group Friends of the Dayton Arcade has advocated for the complex in recent years.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley formed a task force for the complex in August.
Dayton commissioners in December hired Cincinnati and Cleveland firms to analyze the Arcade’s nine interconnected and surrounding buildings for condition, restoration potential, demolition costs and reuse feasibility.
Photo: Dayton Daily News Archives at Wright State. The Arcade dome in 1978 and renovation work in 1979.