Business

JOHN JOSIAH EMERY
 
(1898 - 1976)

 

      He was a courtly man, tall, gracious, polite - a patrician in both taste and  bearing. His impact on Cincinnati's culture, commerce and downtown development was enormous and lasting.

 

      Jack Emery was a pioneer in core area real estate development, in the promotion of ' good government' and in the advancement of Cincinnati's cultural program.

 

      It was characteristic of him that Cincinnati was where he spent his adult life because as a young man he came here on a quick mission, saw something that needed fixing, and wouldn't leave until he'd fixed it. By that time he had become deeply involved in the affairs of the City - a status that never changed from then on.

 

      His grandfather, Thomas Emery, came to Cincinnati in 1832 and opened a downtown store to sell lard oil. The enterprise grew, until, the Enquirer of October 9, 1988, reports, he "eventually became a major supplier for the eastern part of the nation."

 

      Thomas became even more successful when he invented a dripless candle and established the Emery Candle Co., which later developed into the nationally important Emery Chemical Co. Thomas also invested in real estate, and the family owned important sections of downtown Cincinnati.

 

      The family moved east, however, and young John Emery's visit was made to see how things were going. He was dismayed. The two enterprises, candles and real estate, were sliding down hill through lack of management; no one seemed to be minding the store.

 

      In a Town & Country article, August, 1969, Jack Emery is quoted as saying, "I was going to go into the publishing business with Cass Canfield in 1924, but I came out here to look around. I found that Emery Candle Co. was just a grease factory with obsolete equipment and a sort of Dickensian office. I decided the family was going to go bust if someone didn't hang around and fix things up."

 

      "He was a family man," his daughter, Lela says; "he had a strong feeling of responsibility to the family. When he found nobody in charge of the family business, he felt a responsibility for taking it over." Take it over he did, and Cincinnati became his home. He was born in New York, January 28, 1898, the son of John J. and Lela Emery. His father died when Jack was seven years old. He received his early schooling in private schools, completing his preparatory studies at Groton. He entered Harvard but his education was soon interrupted by World War I, which found him serving as an ensign in Naval Aviation. Back to Harvard, he received his BA degree, cum laude, in 1920. He spent one year at Harvard Law School and then went to England to attend Trinity College at Oxford University and there received a diploma in Economics in 1922.

 

      His mother thought at that point he should travel to see the world, and John voiced no objection. He spent a year visiting "all sorts of exotic places," his daughter, Lela, Mrs. John Steele, reports. He wrote it all down in journals, she says, and "loved it all." It was an interest he sustained in later life. "He loved the big wide world," says Lela.

 

      In 1926 he married Irene Langhorne Gibson, daughter of the famous artist, Charles Dana Gibson, creater of the 'Gibson Girl'. Their children, all born in Cincinnati, are Ethan, Irene E. Goodale, Lela (Mrs. John Steele) and Melissa (Mrs. Addison Lanier). He called his wife 'Babs' and for the next forty-six years, until her death in 1973, he was deeply devoted to her. He married Mrs. Adele H. Olyphant on December 3, 1975.

 

      He was 26 when he paid his fateful visit to Cincinnati. In an editorial after his death the Cincinnati Post commented "Mr. Emery's family were pioneers in Cincinnati business life, going back to 1840. His own parents, however, had moved to New York by the time he was born. After schooling at Groton, Harvard and Oxford, young Jack came to Cincinnati in 1924 to settle some family business matters before returning east. Shortly after reaching Cincinnati he became involved in the family businesses. He became president of the Emery Candle Company, a business that had been founded by his grandfather in 1840. Under his guidance the company, now Emery Industries, Inc. became a leading manufacturer of specialty chemicals, with 13 plants in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Australia. In 1968 he retired as Chairman of the Board but remained a member of the Board and the Executive Committee. He also became president of Thomas Emery's Sons, Inc. in 1925, held that position until his death. This firm had been established to handle the extensive real estate holdings which had been acquired and developed over the years by Jack's grandfather and later by his father and uncle. It had built the first apartment houses in Cincinnati as well as numerous other buildings downtown and in the immediately adjacent hills."

 

      In the Town & Country article Jack describes the Emery property he found when he first visited Cincinnati. "Our property was the oddest bunch you ever saw - apartments, tenements, hotels, stores, vacant lots allover town. I tried to round it out to three or four blocks for downtown redevelopment." He was most successful, acquiring among other areas the choice downtown block near Fountain Square, and soon embarked on a course of innovative and highly productive real estate development. The Carew Tower, at the time the tallest building west of the Alleghenies, and the Netherlands Plaza Hotel were opened in 1931. They have been called "the most modern sky-scraper and hotel of their time."

 

      After World War II, Thomas Emery's Sons, Inc. built the Terrace Plaza - with the lobby on the eighth floor. "When it opened in 1947 its contemporary approach to hotel design became known throughout the world."

 

      Emery was "an outstanding administrator," according to his nephew, Paul Ilyinski, son of Jack's sister, Audry. "He really built the companies from nothing." He was also a tough one. "If he's there on the job, you'd better be there." He would not put up with stupidity. Another thing that upset him: someone seeing something that wasn't right and not doing anything about it.

 

      He was still a dominant figure on the real estate scene in the early '60's. The Working Review Committee headed by Mark Upson had completed its work, and the resulting plan called for development of the Fountain Square area. Jack Emery combined with Don Knutson of Minneapolis to form Emery-Knutson Co., and succeeded in getting this important commission.

 

      About that time, however, Jack made a public statement to the effect that at age seventy he was "crazy to want to develop the Fountain Square block." He turned over the Emery side of the enterprise to his son-in-law, Addison Lanier, who incidentally had been on the Working Review Committee.

 

      But nothing happened. Eugene Ruehlmann, then the very-active and constructive Mayor of Cincinnati, picks up the story.

 

      After two years of , 'spinning our wheels and getting absolutely nothing out of Emery-Knutson," Ruehlmann reports, Jack Emery and the City reached a '.mutual agreement." At a press conference in City Hall, Emery announced that he and the City had agreed mutually to terminate the contract. Jack said, according to Ruehlmann, that .'in the best interests of Cincinnati" it was proper now to "let someone else do it."

 

      He handled this "in a high class manner," said Ruehlmann; "he was a classy person."

 

      Paul Ilyinski's slant on this incident is that the Emery group suddenly found out things about the partnership that they had not foreseen - the sharing of investment and costs, for example. Also, according to Paul, Jack Emery's enthusiasm was not in it; he did not agree entirely with the concept of downtown Cincinnati that had been developed by the Working Review Committee and its architect, Archibald Rogers.

 

     That marked the end of Emery's personal participation in downtown development. It came at the end of a broad scope of activity.

 

      As reported in Louis Tucker's 'Cincinnati Citizen Crusaders', Alfred Bettman, head of the City's Planning Commission, was getting nowhere with City Council in his attempt to get started on a pilot planning study for refurbishing the core area; he "enlisted the support of influential business leaders and community organizations (the Commercial Club, for example)." Among those responding were "Frederick V. Geier, Stanley M. Rowe, Sr., John J. Emery and Neil McElroy. These men exerted the kind of pressure upon City Council that Bettman was unable to apply and the result was, not a pilot study, but a comprehensive master plan!"

 

      To exert such pressure, these men in 1944 formed the Citizen's Planning Association, which in 1948 was renamed the Citizens' Development Committee (CDC), "the civic group responsible for the creation and implementation of the Cincinnati master plan, covering among other things the expressway system, urban renewal, the medical center and the great downtown redevelopment now all around us," as the Commercial Club memorial reported. In 1948 he headed the United Citizens Committee for the Joint Bond Improvement Program, to obtain passage of a $34 million bond program on the November ballot to make possible some of the projects in the Master Plan of that year.

 

      He was one of the five founders of the Cincinnati Country Day School. For many years he was a trustee of the Cincinnati Children's Home. He served as vice-president of the Cincinnati area of Boy Scouts, and was an original member of the Cincinnati Public Recreation Commission.

 

      His Boy Scout activities were particularly important to him. He put together a yearly outing at Peterloon, the family's 1200 acre estate in Indian Hill, with two or three hundred Boy Scouts camping in tents. One year, Lela recalls, the Indian Chief who is on the U.S. nickel appeared there in full feathered regalia, creating a sensation. Boy Scouts now grown to manhood still remember those outings, Lela says; the Boy Scouts still have an outing they call their 'Peterloon'.

 

      Jack Emery's impact on the cultural life of Cincinnati was great. For nearly fifty years he served the Cincinnati An Museum as trustee, president, chairman and perpetual benefactor. It was he, a Sept. 29, 1976 editorial in the Cincinnati Post states, who brought Philip R. Adams in as Museum director and "together they deserve major credit for converting a mediocre museum into one of innovation, variety and excellence." He himself often purchased and gave to the An Museum rare paintings or sculptures which would not otherwise have been acquired, his Memorial states, and adds: "Perhaps the most remarkable example of his many great achievements as a procurator for the Art Museum is the outstanding Near East Collection, a field in which there was virtually a national vacuum."

 

      He was one of those who sparked the creation of the United Fine Arts Fund, which solicited funds to divide among the Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Summer Opera and Taft Museum, and headed the Institute of Fine Arts which administered the program.

 

      He "had extraordinarily good taste," says Lela Steele. "He loved beauty, and knew what it was. It didn't have to be complicated or expensive; it could be quite simple." The house at Peterloon, she says, was "beautiful. It didn't have many art objects as some people have them." There were not even many paintings or sculptures; "that all went to the Art Museum. Our house was all filled with Charles Dana Gibson pictures."

 

      W. L. Lingle, retired P&G executive who served on the Art Museum board with Emery, draws a picture. Phil Adams, he says, would recommend to the board the purchase of a piece of Etruscan statuary or such at a fairly significant amount. The other board members would remain silent while Jack Emery examined the object carefully and questioned Adams about it. If Emery finally nodded, and said, "Yes, I think we should buy it," the favorable vote would usually be unanimous. On matters of taste and artistic values, confidence in Emery prevailed.

 

      Yet he himself had no artistic talent. "In particular, he could not draw," Lela says. "I saw him draw a cat once, and he did it the way a two-year-old would: the line goes right here, then it goes left. . ."

 

      The Emerys traveled fairly extensively, and when in a city would visit every museum there "and discuss things they saw," the family reports. "Art was an important part of their lives."

 

      When the company sold the Terrace Plaza, his Memorial recalls, Jack Emery "characteristically arranged to have the three major works of art he originally had had commissioned for the hotel - Joan Miro's colorful abstract mural, Sol Steinberg's cartoon mural, and Alexander Calder's giant mobile - set aside for donation to the Art Museum."

 

      In addition to' being president of the Art Museum and of the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts, he was a trustee of the Children's Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Summer Opera, the Conservatory of Music and the Taft Museum, as well as a trustee of the National Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.

 

     "If anyone individual can be said to have been the leader in the cultural life of Cincinnati, Jack Emery was surely that man," the 1976 Post editorial states.

 

     He was a very effective money raiser. When someone asked him how he did it, he said, "It's very simple. I make them feel like a bastard if they don't give."

 

     Emery became deeply involved in civic matters. He was in on the start of the Charter Committee, becoming a director at its founding in 1925, a vice-president from 1928 to 1935 and its president for the next two years. From 1927 to 1935, he was a member of the Public Relations Commission. His interest, however, was in Charter as a reform movement for cleaning up the City; by his very nature he had little interest in politics, and his activity declined.

 

      He served as director of the Fifth Third Union Trust Co., the Norfolk & Western Railway, the Cincinnati Equitable Fire Insurance Co., and the Chatfield- Woods Co.

 

      Jack Emery received many awards. The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce presented him with the "Great Living Cincinnatian" award; the Salvation Army honored him with the William Booth Award; he received the "President's Award for Excellence" from the University of Cincinnati. He also received the honorary degrees of Doctor of Music from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Cincinnati.

 

      What sort of a man was he to deal with? "He was a dominating figure," Ruehlmann recalls. "When he spoke, I listened attentively. He was revered." Gene confessed to being a little in awe of him. "After all," he says, "he was not only the sole developer in downtown Cincinnati, but also the number one philanthropist in Cincinnati."

 

      The manners and the bearing of the aristocrat came naturally to Jack Emery. His daughter reports that he dressed for dinner every night, even when it was just he and his wife.

 

      A colleague recalls most vividly the aristocratic presence of the man, and his kindly manner. "He was always polite, considerate of others," he says. "His manner had the grace and complete poise of one who has total self-confidence." He agreed he was "dominating" but not through a bullish or aggressive manner; in fact, he says, the opposite; if he was dominating it was because of who he was, and what he stood for.

 

      "He was not at all a snob, in any way at all," says Lela. "He was reserved - extremely shy. He was not condescending. But he was not a buddy-buddy type . . . He liked people who had expanded intellects." But Lela attended a party for the employees of Emery Industries. "He knew every one of the employees," she reports, "their names, what they did and something about them. They adored him."

 

      "A person's character was important to him," his daughter says; "Don't destroy it by doing something that taints your character." He himself was "totally incorruptible: the truthful way was the only way. . . There was never any question about the right way to do something. And if you didn't do the right thing, you'd feel rotten."

 

      He was brought up strictly, and followed that course with his children. He had "an intense loyalty to tradition, and expected others to have that loyalty. He was upset when others stepped over the line of tradition."

 

      "He was not a cozy father," Lela says. "He liked for one to, as they say today, 'keep your space'." But it was "fun to go out with him as a lone daughter with her father. . . He was there when I needed him. If I had a problem I could go to him; he'd drop whatever he was doing and listen - and try to be helpful."

 

      He had, as Paul Ilyinski put it, "an enormous pride of possession - his buildings and his homes." He was proud of the fact that Carew Tower was the tallest building between Chicago and New Orleans. When his sister asked him why he didn't call it Emery Tower, he said, "Everybody in town knows who owns it."

 

      He loved Peterloon. He put in the brick walks himself, digging the spaces, leveling, laying the bricks. "He spent hours at that."

 

      He ran it "like a fiefdom," Paul says. People had jobs to do, and he would not put up with anyone who didn't do his job. Every year there would be a great gathering at Peterloon of all the grandchildren, grand-nieces, the whole family, singing the old songs under his genial guidance. "He was an outstanding master of ceremonies," according to Paul.

 

      He "cared about how he spent his time," Lela recalls. There was no 1V in the house. He loved to sail, and to read. "He practically never heard of baseball," Ilyinski says. Paul took him to a game once, but he left early; the game was too slow. His "was probably the only major Cincinnati company that never had a box at Crosley Field." Paul finally talked him into taking a box at the new Riverfront Stadium, "but I had to pay for half of it myself to get him to do it." Incidentally Jack was opposed to putting the stadium on the riverfront, one of his two major lost battles. The other: he wanted Cincinnati's major airport to be at Blue Ash.

 

      The family would go to Pennobscott Bay for a month every summer, and then to Europe. The house, actually at Dark Harbor, Maine, on an island, had belonged to Babs' father, an artist who lived there, raised cows, chickens, ran a regular farm - and sent pen-and-ink sketches off to New York to be sold.

 

     Jack was a good sailor, won many races in the waters of Pennobscott Bay. "But if you sailed with him you had to do it just right: 'Pull in that line. . . now!' "

 

      The Emerys enjoyed the social life; they did a great deal of entertaining - quite frequently in the wintertime, and non-stop during the May Festival and Opera seasons. Their standard dish was a kidney stew, and Jack was delighted when someone said to his wife, "Babs, I just love your kidneys."

 

     But his first interest was the development of Cincinnati. His wife was known to say, "He has a mistress, called Cincinnati." Paul Ilyinski said, "He had an overpowering love for Cincinnati. I never heard anyone express as much love for Cincinnati as he did. He would say, 'Look at the environment. Look at how many trees we have.' " He was proud of "the lovely suburbs, ten or even five minutes from downtown."

 

      Furthermore, he was a true humanitarian; he told his children, "it is important to work toward leaving the world a better place. Since we are fortunate, and are able to do something, it is our responsibility to do it."

 

      He came here "to accept a challenge he saw in a city at a standstill," the Cincinnati Enquirer said in an editorial at the time of his death. "He tackled the challenge he saw by daring to invest huge sums of money in structures and philanthropies and a large amount of time in civic and cultural endeavors. . . He carried on the work of his family in spending millions on hospitals, orphanages and recreation centers in Cincinnati and in developing the Cincinnati Art Museum and other cultural enrichments."

 

      He was an active member of the Commercial Club, and served as president in 1951-52. He was a member also of the Queen City Club, the Camargo Club, Cincinnati Country Club and the Brook Club and Racquet & Tennis Club, both of New York City. He was a Republican and an Episcopalian.

 

      The memorial refers to "his warmth, his gentleness, his delightful sense of humor and the modesty that went with all his achievements."

 

      A gracious, warm - and very effective - aristocrat.

 

(With permission of the author.)