My southern Ohio birthplace is surrounded by historic German communities, schools, and other institutions. One of the coolest neighbourhoods I am personally familiar with is the Mainstrasse Village in Covington, Kentucky, just a few minutes south of Cincinnati and right across the Ohio-Kentucky state border.
Covington is a rad city in its own right, but this blog will just cover the small Mainstrasse Village on the city’s old west side. The entire Mainstrasse district is on the National Register of Historic Places and is credited for its vital role in preserving German heritage and architecture in North America.
Don Heinrich Tolzmann of the German-American Hall of Fame has authored a guide about German ancestry in Covington, and he names Covington as one of the three main centers of German heritage in America.
Back in the 1800s, Covington had a serious BOOM of northwestern German immigrants, sometimes receiving more than 200 new people each day. The population doubled between 1840 and 1845, and city officials recognized the need for some new accommodations.
My song for this blog is “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” by the Passions:
This park was one of the first places created to support the growing community and it has several historic markers paying homage to locals who became famous, like movie star Una Merkel of The Maltese Falcon, 42nd Street, Destry Rides Again, The Parent Trap, The Merry Widow, The Kentuckian, Some Like It Hot, and other films that eventually landed her a Tony Award and an Oscar nomination.
Una Merkel, shared from IMDB.com
William Goebel was one of Kentucky’s late governors and a native of Covington. After his death, city officials decided to name the park after him. The name has absolutely no connection to Nazi Germany’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels.
In 1908, Goebel Park opened to the public. Decades later, in 1978, the neighbourhood went through a series of revitalization projects to make it “The Rhineland of America.”
One of the first tasks was to build a 100-feet tall German-Gothic glockenspiel called the Carroll Chimes Bell Tower.
The Bell Tower has four clock faces, one facing each direction, and the largest of its forty-three bells weighs nearly one thousand pounds.
The carillon plays music at various scheduled times and its characters tell the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. You can visit the tower where 6th Street and Philadelphia Street intersect.
Following the Carroll Chimes Bell Tower, the next revitalization task was the Goose Girl Fountain, by Greek sculptor Eleftherios Karkadoulias, in honour of Grimm Brothers’ Goose Girl story.
Construction of the glockenspiel and fountain was just the beginning. By this time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the area was said to be experiencing “white flight” due to an influx of crime and destitution. The city sought ways to encourage new business development, economic growth, and stable residency. Some may call this the beginnings of gentrification but I do not believe it has been overreached here.
The “Rhineland of America” development was supervised by the newly formed Mainstrasse Village Association and the Northern Kentucky Visitors & Convention Bureau opened up by the Bell Tower.
Plans for a visitors center, new sidewalks, landscaping, and assistance grants/programs to restore old facades were put into place.
One such grant was from the Commonwealth of Kentucky for $2.5 million in 1977. This helped many new businesses open inside restored 19th century homes, keeping the neighbourhood’s original aesthetic and structures.
Mainstrasse Village was formally dedicated in September of 1979 and is centered around the corner of 6th and Main Street, and continuing along five-six city blocks along Main Street. One thing I love most about Mainstrasse Village is that it was created to honour its actual history and heritage, with a real population of German descendants still living in the area, running the town, and contributing to its progress.
As much as I love places like Helen and Gatlinburg, there really is no historical German population in those towns, and they were created to be kitschy and fun. In Covington, over half its residents proudly claim German ancestry and can trace their roots back to the homeland. It lends a bit more authenticity.
Speaking of authenticity and original structures, the most striking visual feature of the Mainstrasse Village are its rows of unique, vibrantly coloured 19th-century buildings that have been restored and now host many of the village’s bars, pubs, cafes, and shops.
Older residents have stood by as witnesses for countless changes over the decades.
Otto’s Restaurant used to be the storefront for three sisters with a sewing and seamstress shop, and the popular, upscale New Orleans/Dixieland Jazz Hall & Restaurant, Dee Felice (below), used to be EL Pieck Pharmacy.
Old westside Covington used to be packed with factories and the people who worked in them. Not all of the homes were built in the same style you see along Main Street, and many intersecting streets like Greer and Emma showcase a collection of additional architectural styles. Those two streets are also known to be where wealthier residents built their homes.
Varied classic styles of other architecture, such as Federal, Victorian, Italianate, and Queen Anne can all be found here and there, decorated with attractive mosaics and gingerbread woodcarvings. Bean Haus Bakery & Coffeehouse (below) is nestled into this former residential home.
One of the oldest buildings in Mainstrasse is a simple, grey, stone-like building at 410 Emma Street. It was built in 1850 and now holds a few small apartments.
Near the Bell Tower there is a brick gothic-style mansion that was once given to a local newlywed couple in the 1800s, but it is now home to The Lawrence Firm.
Over at 511 W. Sixth Street there is an attractive mansion (below), built in 1860 by a wealthy coppersmith and water works commissioner.
His thunder-stealing neighbour to the right side was quick to compete by remodeling his wooden home with an impressive new stone façade.
One of my favourite places in Mainstrasse Village is Hail Dark Aesthetics, Records, & Oddities at 720 Main Street where you buy, sell, and trade all things odd. I like it sentimentally because it reminds me of my own home and other places I enjoy frequenting.
Where else can you pick up a new taxidermy piece, vinyl record, book release, horror memorabilia, occult and herbal lore, tarot decks, handmade beauty supplies for your pal’s birthday, and something tasteful for that Black Mass ceremony later?
For more shopping, M Flea is a cool outdoor flea market centered around the Goose Girl Fountain.
Unlike some of the southern types of sprawling pure junk flea markets I see a lot, this one was neat and tidy and offered mostly locally made items.
Restaurants & Bars
Numerous, eclectic dining options are available in and near the village. Over the years, cuisines from around the world have made their home here among those with German names and menus.
Aromas from Cedar, Mac’s, Cock & Bull English Public House, Dee Felice Café, Bouquet, Lisse Dutch Steakhouse, Herb & Thelma’s Hamburger Tavern, and the Mainstrasse Village Pub were torturing us as we passed by with already full stomachs.
Riverside Food Tours also offers a walking food tour of Mainstrasse Village if you are looking for a wide selection in a short amount of time.
Northern Kentucky’s Bourbon tour, the B-Line, takes guests along a dozen or more notorious Bourbon spots in the area. In addition to OKBB!, Bouquet Restaurant and Bourbon Haus 1841 are also B-Line stops. View the full list or stops here.
Most bars were not yet open when we visited, but I eagerly anticipate returning for a pub crawl and overnight stay soon.
When we were there in September, I noticed an interesting building. The old 1858 Main Street Methodist Church has undergone a few changes and is now the Leapin’ Lizard Event Space.
We poked around inside for a moment to admire the neons and gem tones lining the halls and filling its windows these days. Very funky.
We picked up some local history insights from a couple plaques along our walk. One of Covington’s first founders was an Irish ferry operator who had hoped to create a Utopian community called Hibernia, the Latin word for Ireland and which translates to abundant lands. Lack of funds ultimately dashed his dreams.
Near the Goose Girl fountain, there are signs detailing an incident of escaped slaves crossing this very street and unfortunately being recaptured afterward.
We learned that Pershing Avenue was originally named Bremen Avenue after a German banking bigshot, but later changed due to anti-German hysteria during World War I. We also learned the Steinford Park was once called Sixth Street Park, where the town’s government-subsidized market was held in the late 1800s.
You might notice that many establishments in Covington list the physical location in Cincinnati instead of Covington, or display some subtle attachment indicating it is part of the greater region beyond Covington itself.
Perhaps it is in an attempt to link more closely with a bigger city in Ohio than with Kentucky, or to give it a more worldly association. The towns are very close from point A to point B, but there is so much to be discovered in between.
Bavarian Brewing Company castle no longer in operation but was largest brewery in Kentucky before Prohibition. There are a few murals and vintage signs around town that throwback to the Bavarian Brewing days.
Mainstrasse has several annual festivals like Maifest in May, Goettafest in June, 4th Sunday Antique Shows May-October, a Classic Car Show & World’s Longest Yard Sale in August, Oktoberfest beginning in September, the Northern Kentucky Wine Festival in October, and countless holiday festivities in December.
With the recent buckling of the Mainstrasse Village Association, the official website and other legit online resources have become defunct and I was unable to find reliable information for future events. Hopefully this will soon be remedied.
If you have time to spare in Covington, check out Devou Park, the gorgeous Riverfront Walk and Roebling Murals, and the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge which connects Covington to Cincinnati and was the model for the Brooklyn Bridge.
The two German gothic cathedrals of Mutter Gottes Kirche, built with glass windows imported from Munich in 1890, and the St. John the Evangelist Church which is on the national register of historic places, are so worth a visit.
I’ll write more once I have had the chance to explore the rest of Covington outside of Mainstrasse Village.
In the area for a while? Follow me to the Tipp City Mum Festival!