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People of NKY: Urban rehabber Damian Sells, lured by ‘the Sirens,’ found Covington — and pressed on

By Ginger Dawson
NKyTribune reporter

It is an amazing thing to witness. Covington, in the last several years, has exploded with a new energy that seems incredible, particularly to some of us who have been here a while.

I, myself, can hardly believe it sometimes. I have always loved living here — in fact, I have always rather liked the louche, gritty energy. I felt right at home.  

Damian Sells

I never did see Covington as a sinking town. I always poo-pooed those who denigrated Covington and said it was a dead end. I knew better. I always wondered where on earth those people had been and why they had no memory of what had actually happened (I guess that’s probably not polite to comment on). I know for an absolute fact that Covington has always gotten better — two steps forward, one step back. But, always better. I was happy to be along for the ride, wherever it ended up.

But, it takes people with a certain vision, optimism and drive to look at a place and see something that is better; to see something that may just end up being even better than it ever has been. Someone had to be that energy that was pushing Covington two steps forward after each step back.

After growing up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Damian Sells was finishing his third year of studying business at the University of Cincinnati. This was 1986. One day, he happened to make a foray across the river into the City of Covington.  

Driving around looking at houses and neighborhoods, he was completely taken by a “stack of bricks” (his words) located on E. 7th. St. in the Licking-Riverside Neighborhood.  

This structure called to him with the lure of the Sirens. It beckoned with all of the bells and whistles that any old building can have to bewitch its next owner. Balconies, bay windows, dormers….it was all there.  He could see what it was and what it could be again. 

He was smitten. And like any interaction with a Siren, there was a dark side. This lovely was a burned-out mess.

An early photo of the Siren on E. 7th St.

Damian fearlessly bought it and started his journey as one of Covington’s earliest, and most tenacious urban rehabbers.

Covington was like the Wild West back then. There are plenty of stories floating around about this era, and some are not fit for prime time.  

Here is one that I can recount: Damian told me that he hired a few boys from the neighborhood to help out with the initial stages of the renovation. During this work, they confessed that after the first fire in the house, they came back and set it on fire again!  In that era, Covington was so neglected, and kids were so bored, with little to do, it was a fait accompli.  
I can’t help but think that there must have been a least a little concern about having budding pyromaniacs in your employ, but it was not an issue.  

This initial experience was just the beginning.

Over the next several years, he became increasingly engaged in Covington — it’s civic organizations and boards; helping to found Renaissance Covington and including a thirteen-year engagement with The Carnegie, a visual and performing arts center.

Down memory lane. Check out that early work truck!

Always primarily focused on renovation and historic restoration, he would change the fate of many properties.  

The Covington Brewery Building, located at 621-25 Scott Blvd. was one of his more interesting projects.  His restoration of this great old building garnered a Covington Revitalization Award and also a Friends of Covington Beautification Award.

Part of a much larger, long-gone, brewery campus, the building had a basement, naturally, but also an even deeper sub-basement. This was a common thing in old breweries and was used to keep unpasteurized beer stored at the magic 55-degree temperature. This particular basement was also the site of an artesian well; the water itself being used in the brewing.

With the construction of a system of locks and dams on the Ohio River in the early part of the Twentieth Century, the water table in our area raised, and the sub-basement of the Covington Brewery filled with water and has been that way ever since. The artesian well makes sure that it is.

The Covington Brewery Building in 2016. (Photo by Ginger Dawson)

Damian, a fearless sort, naturally, had to check this out.  Attached to a safety line, he descended into the open hole in the basement floor, into that black water, to see what was down there.

Nothing exciting was discovered, but I can tell you that going down into that hole, in my mind, would be akin to the nightmarish rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. NO THANK-YOU.

This was a fitting step toward a much bigger project.

The Odd Fellows Hall at 5th and Madison is one of the most significant properties in Covington. Built in 1856 by the fraternal organization, it is an enormous, handsome brick building that occupies almost a quarter of a city block.

Over the course of the second half of the Twentieth Century, like the rest of Covington, it slid into a long period of neglect. The upper floors, which were wide open ballroom-type spaces, had been unoccupied for years. The ground floor storefronts hosted a strip joint and a package liquor store.

Damian and partners purchased the building in May 2001 with intent to restore and revitalize it into an impressive new commercial space.  

It was a bold move. Other than on the river, it was one of the first major projects in Covington’s downtown in many decades, and it was intended to send a message that the city was ready to move forward.

The property was vacated by the tenants, an open house for the public was held, planning was underway, and then, about a year after the purchase, tragedy struck.

In the early morning on May 21, 2002, The Odd Fellows Hall caught on fire due to an electrical problem in one of the storefronts. The entire structure, with the exception of most of its exterior brick walls, was destroyed.

It was a crushing moment for all of Covington.

The Odd Fellows Hall, May 2019. (Photo by Ginger Dawson)

Damien and his partners were devastated. There was a real possibility that the remaining brick walls could not be salvaged and the project of restoration would end. It was not to be, though.

After much wrangling with insurance companies, attorneys, code inspectors and the other usual suspects, the project found its footing and was finally completed and ready for business at the end of 2004.

The Odd Fellows Hall went on to win the 2005 Ida Lee Willis Award for the State of Kentucky Preservation Association and the 2005 Cincinnati Preservation Award. 

It is one of Damian’s proudest achievements; one that was hard fought for and hard won.

Covington thanks you for that big step forward after those more than two awful steps back.

More recently, Damian has continued on as a member of the Covington Business Council and the Wallace Woods Neighborhood Association, which he is currently president of. 

In addition, he is lending his expertise in helping the Frank Duveneck Arts and Cultural Center gear up for a much-needed revitalization of its house and activity center.

Covington’s renaissance these past few years has been a very satisfying thing for Damian to witness. It has given him a confident sense that his initial instincts were right. As he remembers from those many years back, “I saw the potential.” 

Yes, he did.

On a more personal note, Damian’s other proudest achievements are his two daughters, Claire and Julia.

When Damian went away from home to pursue his destiny, his father provided him with this maxim, neatly framed for future reference:

Covington is lucky that Damian took this advice to heart. Thanks Dad!

Ginger Dawson writes about the People of NKY — the neighbors you need to know and people you need to meet and understand. The feature appears periodically at the NKyTribune. If you have ideas for subjects please share them with Ginger at ginger@fuse.net.

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