East Toledo’s Hungarian community lost the cornerstone of its architectural heritage when the City of Toledo demolished the historic Playdium in February. But, from its rubble may rise a new cornerstone.
Peter Ujvagi, an Hungarian-American who emigrated to East Toledo’s Birmingham neighborhood shortly after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, led an effort last week to reclaim original bricks and ornamental façade pieces moments before contractors hauled away the remaining debris and filled the hole.
Unfortunately, the most prized artifact—a shield which incorporated the flag of Hungary, the crown of St. Stephen and the Hungarian cross—that dominated the central dormer on the Front Street façade, was destroyed in the demolition.
“It’s really frustrating. It breaks my heart,” Ujvagi said. “When I saw the bulldozers out there, I practically stepped in front of them. But, nobody would listen….”
Ujvagi claims City of Toledo officials were more concerned with demolishing a dilapidated building whose roof and floor were caving in than it was in preserving the artifacts. But safety and liability trumped historical significance. The city issued an emergency demolition order on Jan. 25 and the next day the bulldozers arrived to raze the 40,800 square-foot landmark.
The tale of the Playdium in its last years is one of neglect and failed dreams. According to a story written by J. Patrick Eaken that appeared in a February issue of The Press, the building was appraised in 1999 at $199,000 but had fallen into such disrepair that the now-defunct River East Revitalization Corporation bid $22,000 for it in 2006. By 2010, it had so declined in value it was purchased by a south Toledo man for $1,500.
Over the years, a number of entrepreneurs offered plans to restore The Playdium to its former glory when it was the place in Birmingham to be and to be seen, but all failed. One of those was Rob Horvath, then chief financial operating officer of Tony Packo’s Café. He envisioned a Hungarian village to emulate the historic German village in Columbus. But, after determining renovation costs could exceed more than $1 million, he concluded he couldn’t make the numbers work.
In 1902, however, John Strick, a prominent Hungarian-American made the numbers work. He built Strick’s Hall, a lavish recreational-cultural center with a theater, bowling alley, tavern and a hall for dances, wedding receptions and meetings. Strick’s served people throughout Toledo, Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan, even as it changed hands and names. Ujvagi can remember attending meetings of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters with his father. In the late 1980s it was still in use, hosting beauty pageants and a vaudeville revue
The building was believed to be designed by David Stine, architect of the Lucas County Courthouse. It was constructed with Renaissance-inspired parapets and dormers and pale yellow bricks, according to the book Hungarian American Toledo: Life and Times in Toledo’s Birmingham Neighborhood by Thomas E. Barden and John Ahern.
“That building in its prime could have been dropped into any city in Slovakia, Hungary or Romania and it would have fit in with the architecture,” Ujvagi said.
While the building is gone, Ujvagi and others hope to use the artifacts and brick they have scavenged to construct a memorial gateway to the neighborhood. It would be located on the grassy area on the east side of Front Street just before Burr. The memorial would incorporate some of the artifacts along with new brick and, hopefully, a replica of the shield featuring the Hungarian flag, St. Stephen’s crown and the Hungarian cross.
Ujvagi is forming a committee to raise funds and commission concept drawings. There is no timetable, but the man who is currently the Lucas County Administrator and a former Ohio State Representative says the project is important for two reasons.
“One message is this community had a significant architectural heritage, and second it will be a reminder that we destroyed it but we won’t forget it,” he explained. “Before I leave that neighborhood for the final time, I will do everything I can to raise the money to make that happen because there is no other building like that. There just isn’t.”