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Site of the Wright brothers’ first bike shop could be saved

Published February 22, 2022

A version of this article ran in the February 2022 issue of BRAIN. Subscribe to the magazine

By Amelia Arvesen

DAYTON, Ohio (BRAIN) — When Matthew Tepper enters Dayton’s West Third Street Historic District, he looks for a two-story brick building as a waypoint. If it’s demolished, he says, its absence would completely alter the neighborhood’s cornerstone and historical context.

“It adds to the neighborhood’s character,” said Tepper, president of the nonprofit, volunteer-run Bicycles For All and a trustee for Preservation Dayton, Inc. “To purposely let something go and demolish it always needs to be a big decision.”

The building at 1005 West Third Street is of historic cycling significance because Wilber and Orville Wright brothers ran their first bike shop at the site for six months in 1892. According to the Dayton Aviation Heritage Historical Park, however, “Little, if any, of the structure (the bike shop) occupied is extant.” 

However, other historians say the current building, called the Gem City Ice Cream Building, was built around the building that housed the shop. The building remains a stop on a guided historical tour of the district and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. It also is one of Preservations Dayton’s “Top Ten Most Endangered Properties” in the city.

In November, Dayton’s zoning appeals board approved the city’s request for demolition of the building. But on Jan. 13, the city said it released a request for proposal, or RFQ, to attract a developer to either rehabilitate the building or raze it for new construction. Veronica Morris, the site’s project manager, said the city has owned the property since 2005 and it has been in disrepair since 1993. Plywood covers the windows. Caution tape lines the perimeter.

“The city wants to encourage historic preservation,” Morris said. “However, as keepers of the public trust, we have to make sure our residents can walk down the street and don’t have to deal with nuisance properties, and that we can bring some type of civic and community pride to our neighborhoods.”

Much of the Wright brothers’ history is preserved locally by the Wright Family Foundation, Wright Brothers National Museum, and Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, which is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

Historical Park Superintendent Kendell Thompson, in a letter to the city’s landmark commission, said the site was retrofitted in 1917, around the time it became the Gem City Ice Cream Building. Regardless, Thompson said it still “would have been a familiar part of the landscape in which Orville and Wilbur Wright continued to live, and travel to work, in the West 3rd Street area for the following five decades, respectively.”The building in 2021. Photo by Alex Jackson/, used by permission.

Thompson, along with Monica Snow, president of Preservation Dayton, Inc., is requesting that the façade be saved in any future developer’s proposal. Snow added that the building could also qualify for tax credits, a major financial incentive for creative and successful developers. The city is slated to select a project from the submitted RFQs at the end of February.

“The whole idea of having a national, historic park is to tell the whole story of the culture and the economy and heritage of the people who lived there,” Snow said. 

For Chris Tegtmeyer, general manager at Dayton’s Kettering Bike Shop, the building as it stands is an eyesore when he rides by, and he worries about bricks falling from above.

“I’m absolutely for getting rid of a lot of these dilapidated buildings, especially if it’s a hazard to citizens, to try to clean the lands and potentially make access for new development,” he said.  But, he added that he might feel differently if he knew more about the building’s history. 

Dayton, rich in history from the Wrights’ time period, is home to other notable buildings that have been fiercely protected by locals. The Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park manages five structures within the West Third Street Historic District, including the Setzer Building owned by Aviation Trail Inc. Morris said the Setzer is the best example of a building that was modernized, but with the historic façade kept intact at preservationists’ urging.

Also part of the park is The Wright Cycle Company Building, a Victorian commercial shop built in 1886 at 22 South Williams Street. It’s where the brothers operated their printing and bicycle sales, repair, and manufacturing businesses from 1895 to 1897. And building upon their mechanical skills, it’s also where they began their aviation experiments. 

That property and 1005 West Third Street are the last two remaining Dayton buildings related to the brothers’ bicycle business, according to Preservation Dayton.

The building during its Gem City Ice Cream era.

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