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Ravenna history walk, art festival big hits

Published: July 2, 2017 4:00 AM
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When he parked his horse-drawn Riddle Hearse in front of Jack Kohl Realty as an attraction at last Saturday's Main Street Ravenna tour during the "Art on Main" festival, Rick Bissler, the owner of Bissler & Sons Funeral Home and Crematory in Kent, had found a nearly perfect place.

Jack Kohl's large, four-story building at the corner of North Prospect and East Main Streets was once part of the Riddle Coach & Hearse complex, the very spot where Henry Riddle and his partner, Charles Merts, built their coaches and hearses that were so popular across the United States before the internal combustion engine.

Jack and Rick had worked out the location after a meeting of the Hometown Bank Board on which both men serve. Rick, understandably proud of his Riddle Hearse, enjoys showing it to others. He purchased it more than a decade ago from a Canadian funeral director, who had acquired it as part of a funeral home consolidation.

Seeing Riddle Coach & Hearse, Ravenna, Ohio, etched on the front axle, the Canadian contacted all the funeral homes in Portage County. Rick followed up. The hearse was in excellent condition. Rick maintains it well and would like the city of Kent to give him permission to build a small show room on his West Main Street property to display it.

He rents it out for funerals. Weather permitting, it is fine if one does not mind the horse and buggy pace proceeding to the cemetery.

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"One just has to accept that life was slower back then," Rick said.

Three U.S. presidents

I knew Riddle horse-drawn hearses had born the bodies of Presidents James A. Garfield and William McKinley, two presidents, both from Ohio, both assassinated. Ravenna industrialist Jack Schafer, an expert on architectural history and preservation, said a motorized Riddle Hearse was used to bear the body of President Warren G. Harding, who unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1923 at San Francisco's Palace Hotel.

Jack made his remarks while leading a Main Street Ravenna downtown Walking Tour, the first of a series of one-hour walks he will lead this summer to improve understanding and appreciation of Ravenna's downtown architecture. The city's architecture is unique, Jack says, because so much of it was constructed between 1870 and 1915 by one man, Henry Riddle, and then maintained very well by the Riddle family for nearly a century.

Riddle began his buildings by constructing Riddle Block #1, the castle-like structure immediately east of the Portage County Courthouse that has become a signature block for the city.

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Unique downtown

Reflecting Riddle's taste, most of the 14 buildings he constructed used brick and stone and featured arched Romanesque windows. All his commercial buildings had ornamental cornices. Ground floors were for commercial and retail tenants. The second floors housed lawyers, doctors, and offices. The third and fourth floors were for residential apartments or civic meeting rooms.

Since no air conditioning existed when Riddle built, many of the windows had small transoms that could be opened for air circulation. With no electricity, nearly all the buildings had sky lighting that brought sunlight into varnished golden oak woodwork trimmed staircases, which those of us on the tour climbed.

Riddle Block #9, the large four-story, yellow brick building on the corner of Main and North Chestnut Street, appeared to be Jack's favorite of the ensemble. Built around a large, sky-lit atrium, it mimicked the skyscraper in American architecture. Jack said that for its era, Riddle Block #9 is as impressive a business block as any of that period for small-town America.

Having world traveler and adventurer Tom Riddle on the tour gave it a poignancy. Riddle, the great grandson of Henry Riddle, served as a helpful reference for Jack as he led the group.

Festival success

"Art on Main" brought out many substantial exhibitors with handsome wares for sale and that drew a good crowd, larger than last year's, the first time for "Art on Main" which is a fund-raiser for Ravenna's fledgling "Main Street" movement. Including the music, there was something for everyone.

Student artwork displayed from several school districts around Portage County proved popular and reaffirmed that despite growing up in the age of the cellphone, many young people still enjoy expressing themselves artistically.

"We love featuring the student artwork and look forward to more schools participating next year," said industrialist Art Bowen, one of the movers and shakers for "Art on Main."


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