May 10, 2018
Long ago replaced by a failed shopping plaza, the El Rancho Rankin Motel still fascinates Tristate residents.
It was built by William Rankin Harrison, a colonel in the Honorable Order of Ohio Colonels, an organization of his founding. He created the group ostensibly after failing in his attempt to be made a Kentucky Colonel, an honor bestowed by that Commonwealth’s governor and secretary of state.
According to Harrison, the Honorable Order of Ohio Colonels had many distinguished members. However, as it was a private organization and he resisted naming any of his fellow Colonels. In a 1983 Cincinnati Magazine article by Stephen Koff, he did reveal that John “Socko” Wiethe, a Hamilton County politician was an Ohio Colonel. He also showed Mr. Koff photos adorning his office walls of other Ohio Colonels, some later revealed to be local clergymen. That office, of course, was the command center of the El Rancho Rankin Motel & Apartments.
The complex stood for 57 years at the junction of Beechmont Avenue and State Route 32 in Anderson Township and was Harrison’s greatest achievement.
He arrived in Cincinnati in the 1920s from Tennessee and worked at the old Stinton Hotel on Fourth Street and later the Elks Hall. He wound up going to barber school and subsequently opened his own barber and beauty shop on McMillan Street. He later developed a device which he claimed grew hair.
By 1940, he had amassed enough money to purchase 7 acres of land just past the Beechmont Levy and build the El Rancho Rankin. While the location is prime, but challenged, real estate today, it was particularly desirable at the time Harrison purchased it. Across the levy is Lunken Field, which at the time was still the city’s commercial airport. Route 32 was and still is, a major highway bringing travelers to the Queen City from eastern Ohio.
Despite commercial air traffic being moved across the river to Kentucky in 1947, the motel thrived, aided by the lack of any real competition in the area. However, the El Rancho Rankin did not age well. By the late 1970s, the pool was closed and turned into a storage area. At the time, Harrison claimed having the pool made him a target for potential lawsuits and wasn’t worth the trouble. In 1978, the restaurant, once a fried chicken emporium, was leased to another operator and turned into the Canton House.
Harrison’s eccentricities interfered as well, some benign, some not so. On the harmless side, he insisted there be no silverware but goldware (or gold-plated). To that end, when he drove his fiberglass horse-adorned Cadillac (another quirk) in local parades he tossed silver dollars, gold-plated, to the crowd.
On the more annoying side, at least to those who saw the motel as an eyesore, he bathed the property in green neon light, which he loved but many found gaudy. In addition to the horses, other fiberglass animals, collected in the 1950s, dotted the property and were showing signs of ware by the dawn of the ‘80s. A collection of Cadillacs, most with fiberglass horses attached, sat in the parking lot.
By the 1990s the complex was no longer a motel, as much as it was an apartment complex for the working poor. While these folks worked hard keeping their heads above water, Harrison was less than dedicated to the upkeep of his property.
The Colonel died in August 1995 after suffering a stroke. Shortly after he passed away, efforts were underway to shutter the El Rancho Rankin, with then Anderson Township Fire Chief J. Robert Brown telling the Enquirer, “I would rather take the heat for closing the place down than standing out in the parking lot dragging bodies out after a fire.”
That fear was not unfounded. In 1990, four units of the complex were consumed by fire. Anderson Township firefighters, returning from a false alarm at nearby Lunken Field, were driving past when they spotted smoke and immediately took action, likely keeping the entire motel from going up in flames.
In 1999, the Skytop Pavilion opened, anchored by a Bigg’s supermarket, it featured a Starbucks, Subway, Radio Shack, and Fashion Bug. It was a vast improvement over the seedy hotel, but gradually the shopping center, perhaps haunted by the ghosts of the El Rancho, started to decline. The Bigg’s is now a Remke’s. Starbucks remains, but most of the other storefronts are empty.
Plans now call for the property to be redeveloped yet again, this time into an apartment complex. The Starbucks would stay, of course, as would the restaurant building which was once the ironically named El Rancho Grande restaurant, built as part of the Skytop Pavilion.
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