Saturday, December 10, 2016

Shuller's Wigwam

Shuller's Wigwam (originally called Shuller's Restaurant) was on the NE corner of Hamilton Avenue and North Bend Road in Cincinnati for 78 years from 1922-2000. Max Shuller, a Russian immigrant started the place in 1922 after a few years of selling food from a cart in Downtown Cincinnati.

People from the area have fond memories of the popular College Hill eatery and I found many articles but I was hard-pressed to find many good photos of Shuller's online.

I have a couple of memories of my own.
inside the Wigwam

I was very late to the scene but I remember bringing a date here in the mid-1980s as it was the fanciest place I could afford. I kind of wonder now how I even found the place as it was a pretty good distance from West Chester. At age 20 I wasn't hip to nice restaurants so I recall when they brought out the dessert tray, I picked something different than my date because I thought we were limited to the ones on the tray. We had a good laugh about that one. I don't recall thinking of this as an old place at the time.
In the late 1990s, I moved to the area and came here again a couple of times with family toward the end of Shuller's run. This time, 14 years later, I thought of it as very old-timey with dim lighting, dark wood, and Naugahyde seats. Almost museum-like. Something you just didn't see anymore. They had photos and newspaper clippings on the lobby walls from its golden era. At that point, it really seemed like a relic but the food was still pretty good. I was sad when I learned it was closing. One of my cousins visited again a few years later and asked if we could go back but it was closed by then.
Max's son Leo Shuller at the table in the 1960s lounge
Unfortunately, no one from the Shuller family wanted to take over the business in part due to dwindling crowds, aging clientèle, and new competition. The restaurant closed in 2000 and the building was razed in 2006. Mixed-use development of the property was promised then but fell through but brand new re-development is underway once again by the College Hill Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation. By this time next year, there should be new mixed-use buildings at this intersection. It's nice to see this area start to spring back after a period of decline.

1920s pre-wigwam original
So back to the Wigwam...and what's with the "wigwam" anyway?
The original 1922 building was added on to in 1932. The addition was shaped like a tee-pee and customers thought it looked like a wigwam, so it became Shuller's Wigwam and they just ran with the pseudo-American Indian theme. I wasn't able to locate any pictures of the tee-pee shaped building. There was another Shuller's Restaurant (and motel) on Reading Road in Roselawn in the 1940s. It's possible folks started calling the one on Hamilton Avenue "wigwam" to differentiate between the two. As I understand it,  the owners were cousins but the businesses were unaffiliated. If anyone has more info on that, please contact me.

1954 un-wigwam like remodel
The tee-pee shaped addition and the original building was torn down in 1954 and a larger more modern looking restaurant was built which looked nothing like a wigwam but the name stayed put. Up until the 1970s, the sign out front had a wigwam shape, but again, I couldn't find any photos online.
Inside, from 1954 to 1980 there were several Indian Village murals on the walls that were painted by a woman named Ruth Listerman. It's too bad these weren't preserved somehow. I was able to locate one photo with one in the background.

interior view with one of
Listerman's Indian murals visible
In keeping with the theme, the menu at one point featured items such as the Mohican French-fried Seafood Platter Deluxe and the 12-ounce Squaw Steak Special. On the kid's menu, there was PB&J on Toast called a Pocahontas. Oh, and there is a Fire Water cocktail menu for the grownups. The names of these items would certainly raise an eyebrow these days.
I wish I had a better photo of the menu, but you get the idea
History must be viewed in context. This, as they say, was a different time...and times change. I'm sure they considered it as an homage in the by-gone days of radio, movie and TV Westerns.
1940s Bailey-Walker China, made in Bedford, OH
Other menu choices from days of old rarely seen today included liver and onions, turkey croquettes, herring salad and hot slaw with bacon. Aside from eating liver as a kid, I've never eaten any of those things but I must say that the hot slaw with bacon sounds pretty good. Here is the real deal recipe straight from Leo Shuller himself if you want to try it out.
Reagan and a fan at Shuller's
Many celebrities such as Perry Como, William Holden, Woody Hayes, Doris Day, Edie Adams, and Foster Brooks came to dine at Shuller's during its glory days. Actor and future US President Ronald Reagan visited when he was in town with the General Electric Theatre.

Jean Shepard broadcasting from Shuller's
From 1950-1954 Jean Shepard, co-author and "adult Ralphie" narrator of the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, was a WSAI disc jockey and did shows from the restaurant.

matchbooks through the ages
Jer-ry, Jer-ry!
(Bob Shreve to his left & #13 on the podium)
Now here is the oddball stuff I like...
Every January beginning in 1980 and lasting for about seven years, a shindig was held by The Chopped Liver and Wine Society in celebration of the mediocrity of 13th President Millard Fillmore. They called themselves Fillmorons. Fillmore was from Buffalo, New York. The only President from Cincinnati was mediocre William Howard Taft but I guess they didn't want to offend the prominent Taft family. Also, you don't get to have that funny nickname. The first event was emceed by former Cincinnati Mayor, Channel 5 anchor, and future tabloid talk show host Jerry Springer. It figures.

If anyone has a photo of the actual namesake wigwam building or the sign outside, I'd love to see them! I've already scoured the internet. eBay seems to always have some nice matchbooks from the restaurant's different eras. Also, if you are a geocacher, I placed a cache on the property in September 2016.

UPDATE 6/26/2017: Ken Shuller contacted me and provide a couple of old photos. One is the "wigwam" building and another is the neon sign from the 70s.

newspaper ad from 1950

A Little Piece of Paradise - College Hill, Ohio by Betty Ann Smiddy
College Hill - Images of America By Gail Deibler Finke
Historic Restaurants of Cincinnati: The Queen City's Tasty History By Dann Woellert
- Old Photos of Cincinnati
Cincinnati Enquirer January 2, 1982
Cincinnati Magazine July 1990
Cincinnati Magazine May 1987
Cincinnati Magazine March 1980