Southern Ohio Museum & Cultural Center

“The Kricker family’s long-term faith in the economic strength of Scioto County is a matter of historical record,” noted the Portsmouth Daily Times in May of 1978. Edmund J. Kricker, the seventy-nine year old chairman of the board and chief executive officer at First Federal Savings & Loan Association, had just kickstarted the first fund raising campaign for the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center. Clay Johnson, a founding board member of the Museum who has been credited with soliciting Kricker’s $100,000 challenge gift, told the Daily Times, “It is wonderful that the involvement of the Kricker name in this city block will be perpetuated forever as a result of this outstanding contribution to the Southern Ohio Museum.”

The Portsmouth city block that will forever be associated with the Kricker family is that upon which the museum now stands, on the north side of Gallia Street, just off the Esplanade. The story of the Museum and its home, the old Security Central Bank Building, illuminates the industrial and banking past of southern Ohio. The structure’s survival and its repurposing as the region’s premier museum of art, Native American artifacts, and historical photographs, points to the critical role of local philanthropy, such as that of an Edmund Kricker, in the preservation and exhibition of the art, culture, and history of Portsmouth and its environs.

Since its opening as a museum in 1979, it has hosted hundreds of temporary exhibits and sponsored thousands of hours of educational programing. Yet, it is the museum’s three main permanent collections that are its greatest strengths and which give the museum its historical significance. The Wertz Collection’s Art of the Ancients exhibit displays over 10,000 objects and transports visitors to the time of the Adena and Hopewell and even earlier to the Paleo Indian era, when the Ohio and Scioto Valleys were first inhabited by humans. Art historians, the general public, and students from nearby Shawnee State University regularly visit the museum to study the life and work of Clarence Carter, the most famous painter of Portsmouth origins. The museum’s collection of Carter paintings resonates with the city’s more recent past, the years of the Great Depression and the Flood of 1937, before deindustrialization transformed the city and region. The museum’s acquisition of the Carl Ackerman Historic Photograph Collection in December 1996 rounded out the museum’s holdings and marked the fulfillment of its multifaceted mission. The Ackerman Collection encompasses the photographic record of Portsmouth from the early 1860s through the 1980s, capturing in black and white, and color, the rise and fall of industry in this Ohio River city. The Ackerman Collection is a treasure trove of images that will long shape our vision of life in mid-twentieth century Portsmouth.

Carl Ackerman began his collection in 1948, when he acquired “four old postcards of Portsmouth street scenes.” By the time he and his wife Dorothy donated the collection to the museum, it had come to include early area maps, advertisements, theatrical programs, handbills, books, and newspapers. Beginning in 1952, Ackerman also began photographing the city, adding a couple thousand negatives and prints from his own camera work to his photographic records. In an interview from 1972, Ackerman discussed his work and lamented the fate of much of the city’s past: “Time and neglect, floods and fires, and this thing we call progress have destroyed much of our Portsmouth area history.” In hopes that “generations of tomorrow can see what Portsmouth looked like in the past,” Ackerman explained, he went door to door collecting old photos from area residents; he climbed to city roof tops and overlooks to photograph the city from a bird’s eye view. Ackerman added hundreds, if not thousands of his own photos to the collection, which now totals over 10,000 items.

While much may have been lost and is gone forever, thanks to Ackerman and the Southern Ohio Museum we are able to envision the past of Portsmouth. In the 1990s, when area residents combined their resources again in another major effort of public art and history — the creation of the city’s famous flood wall murals — the artist, Robert Dafford, worked with Carl Ackerman to bring many of his photos to life on the city’s downtown flood wall. Ackerman, who died before the completion of the murals, was painted into a panel, just next to the one immortalizing Clarence Carter.

Without a building to house the museum, however, there never would have been a repository for these priceless collections, nor would there have been a place for their further development and display. The story of the museum is thus inseparable from the story of the building it calls home.

The Southern Ohio Museum is located within a magnificent example of the beaux arts style of architecture, dating to 1918, when it was erected by George D. Selby — the city’s most famous shoe manufacturer. The building was originally designed and constructed specifically to house Selby’s Security Savings Bank & Trust Company. His likeness, along with his hero, Abraham Lincoln, can be found in friezes on the building’s ceilings. The Portsmouth Daily Times, which once offered its take on the building’s appearance, noted that "the exterior gives an impression of massive strength, while the interior is suggestive of quiet dignity combined with every facility devised by modern ingenuity for the efficient conduct of the business.”

In 1904, Selby had joined with others in the local shoe industry, including members of the Williams and Heer family, to organize the bank. Its first location was on Gallia Street, across from the museum’s current location, in a building that stands to this day. Its first floor, where the the old teller cage once stood, is now the bar of the popular Royal Lounge, or what is more commonly known simply as “The Royal.”

It was here, around the Esplanade that Portsmouth’s banking firms established their offices at the turn of the twentieth century, during the city’s Gilded Age. Portsmouth’s first banks had been located in the Boneyfiddle District, on Market Street, between Front and Second. In the years following the Civil War, the expansion of the city’s shoe, steel, firebrick, and other industries shifted the city’s central business district out of the Boneyfiddle and up Chillicothe Street to the intersection of Sixth and Gallia Streets. The “Esplanade,” formerly “Gallia Square,” emerged as the new town center. This was a time when capital was local, a time when control of industry and financial institutions was largely local, with local boards of directors. Some companies, like Selby Shoes began selling shares on the New York Stock Exchange, but most shares were regionally, if not locally traded and owned. It was a time of rapid industrial growth, large influxes of German immigrants, a time that saw the rise of commercial and investment banking, a time of incredible technological change.

Just after the stock market crash in 1929, George D. Selby’s Security Savings Bank merged with Central National Bank of Portsmouth, the first bank to establish its headquarters on the Esplanade. In June of 1893, James W. Newman, the former proprietor and editor of the Portsmouth Daily Times, became president of the newly formed Central Savings Bank, which opened its business in what was then the brand new Kricker Building, named for its owner and builder George E. Kricker — the father of museum benefactor Edmund Kricker. Newman’s bank presidency was followed by that of Levi D. York, the former owner of Portsmouth's Burgess Steel Mill. Eventually, after reorganizing under a federal charter in 1905, George E. Kricker became president of Central National Bank, and it would be Kricker who presided over the newly merged Security Central National Bank during the Great Depression.

George E. Kricker, it must be noted, was a second generation native of Portsmouth. His father, Mathias Kricker, had come to the city in 1840 and bought the northwest corner of Chillicothe and Gallia Streets (the land fronting the northern side of the Esplanade), the spot upon which now stands the 5/3 Bank Building. And, so, here is where the story’s thread comes back around to Security Central Bank and creation of the Southern Ohio Museum.

Back in 1974, Harry Kuhner, the president of Security Central National Bank decided to move out of Selby’s and Kricker’s old beaux arts building and into a modern, remodeled former department store, the old Montgomery Ward building. Like with so many other Ohio Valley downtowns in the 1970s, deindustrialization had begun to take its toll. Kuhner and the board of Security Central hoped that the redevelopment of the Montgomery Ward building would help spark the redevelopment of the Esplanade and, in turn, help boost Portsmouth’s downtown business district.

Thus, if one is looking for original causes, if one is telling an origins story, one could argue the closure of Portsmouth’s Montgomery Ward department store in 1971 set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the creation of the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center in 1977. It was then that Clay Johnson arranged for Edmund J. Kricker to make the Museum’s most important charitable donation. His promise to "donate one dollar for every two dollars raised, up to $100,000" ensured the success of the initial capital campaign, which brought in some $300,000. With funding now secured, the museum’s board and directors could then remodel the interior of George Selby’s and George Kricker’s old bank building and begin acquiring, developing, and displaying top quality temporary exhibitions, alongside the museum’s growing permanent collections.

But how was it that the museum came to make its home in the old Security Central Bank Building? The Wertz, Carter, and Ackerman Collections undoubtedly draw the most attention and interest of scholars and the general public, but a good case can be made that one of the museum’s smaller and lessor known collections — the Russell Leiter Collection — deserves recognition for its critical role in the museum’s origins. Dr. Russell Leiter, a native of California, served as Chief Psychologist at the Portsmouth Receiving Hospital from 1955 to 1964 and taught at the local branch campus of Ohio University, the predecessor of today’s Shawnee State University. Leiter’s obscurity in Portsmouth history is striking as he continues to be well-known in psychological studies as the developer of the Leiter International Performance Scale, a non-verbal method for testing intelligence. Dr. Leiter’s decision to place his estate (which included a small collection of relatively rare silverware) in a trust to be managed by Security Central unexpectedly helped trigger the creation of the Southern Ohio Museum.

“Dr. Leiter had reached an advanced age,” writes Clay Johnson. “He had no natural heirs, no spouse, children, or grandchildren. He was not a wealthy person, but he had accumulated property which was meaningful to him and felt some intangible obligation to dispose of that property prudently.” When Leiter died in November 1976, his estate was in the hands of Dale Sielaff, the new trust officer at Security Central. Sielaff had been handed a nut to crack and he wisely sought the advice of Sara Johnson, Clay’s wife, who had, among other achievements, “founded a volunteer program to teach art to public school students.”

Dr. Leiter’s last will and testament, it turned out, had stipulated: “My trustee may, in its sole and unqualified discretion, make an outright gift of all or any part of the foregoing items to the Columbus Academy of Fine Arts, or to a Portsmouth or Scioto County gallery, should one be established and which could guard, protect and provide the public an opportunity to appreciate such items, on a permanent basis.” Sielaff had determined that there was actually no such institution as the “Columbus Academy of Fine Arts” and he wondered, as there was then no gallery or museum per se in Portsmouth, whether the Leiter Collection might be donated to a new entity, “should one be established.” Thus the fates and muses intervened when Central Security donated their now vacant property to the city for use by the Southern Ohio Museum.

Thanks to the founding board members of the museum, whose vision was only matched by the civic spirit of Edmund Kricker, and those who met his challenge, the Russell Leiter Collection found a permanent home, as intended, and Portsmouth and the residents of the region, as well as future generations, benefited greatly from the museum’s establishment.