Bellevue at 150: Bonnie Leslie "An Ideal Suburb"
Editor's note: Bellevue’s Sesquicentennial celebration has been postponed for a year because of COVID-19, but resident, attorney, and writer James Dady has written some articles to celebrate the river city in the meantime. This is one in a series.
Bellevue’s Bonnie Leslie neighborhood came to life as the town’s first suburb, and flourishes today as its newest historic district.
When development of the neighborhood began in earnest in the 1920s, Bonnie Leslie was touted by promoters as the “ideal suburb”; an escape from crowding, bustle, and small homes and lots in the river-bound lowlands.
The Kentucky Post adopted the argot of the real estate booster in article of June 26, 1927:
“Each lot has a panoramic view that is magnificent. Its high altitudes puts it far above the fogs and clouds of the valley. ... [But] it is but a short ride to the downtown sections of Newport and Cincinnati.”
Most Bonnie Leslie homes have a front yard, a driveway, and a comparable setback. Many were built with basement garages, suitable for stowing a Model T Ford, which sold in 1925 for $300.
Situated south from Covert Run Creek, west from Taylor Avenue, east from Berry Avenue, and north from Memorial Parkway, Bonnie Leslie as conceived was an example of a planning concept popular in the late nineteenth century and known as City Beautiful.
City Beautiful developments, primarily residential, are marked by curvilinear streets, as can be seen in Bonnie Leslie and Glazier avenues, large landscaped lots, and coordination with transportation systems — Bonnie Leslie was served by a streetcar which plied Memorial Parkway.
A common style of a Bonnie Leslie house is a Craftsman bungalow with a gabled roof, wide overhanging eaves, exposed rafter tails, brackets and brows, porches with battered columns, and double-hung sash windows. Among other styles found in the neighborhood are Free Classical, Tudor Revival, American Foursquare, and the American Ranch. Masonry construction is a common building material.
Bonnie Leslie is exclusively residential. There are no houses of worship, gas stations, bars, or stores.
Not all of many Bonnie Leslie houses are completely visible from the street. Because of the hilly terrain, they are often larger than they appear.
The development of Bonnie Leslie carried with it one of the regrettable social attitudes of the era. By restrictive covenants running with the land, purchasers were required to be Caucasian. This unhappy rigidity was done away with by the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Shelly v. Kramer. (334 U.S. 1). The court held that racial deed covenants were unenforceable in state courts under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Three of the nine justices abstained from voting because, it was said, they themselves owned property covered by the color bar. One of the abstainers was Stanley Reed, a native of Mason County, Kentucky
The human intellect is seldom of just one cast of mind. To give him his due, Justice Reed wrote the majority opinion in Smith v. Allwright, the 1944 decision effectively banning all-white primary elections, which had served to disenfranchise Black voters.
Like thousands of neighborhoods in the second half of the twentieth century, Bonnie Leslie was buffeted by construction of the interstate highway system. Blasting and earth-moving for I-471 in the late 1970s shattered windows, caused floods and mudslides, and sent rodents scurrying up and down Bonnie Leslie’s hills and dales.
I-471 brought a perpetual traffic din, especially in winter when it is unbuffered by the leaves of trees. The highway also shortened the commute to downtown Cincinnati, to Florence, and to Northern Kentucky University, and helped knit northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati into a more cohesive whole.
Bonnie Leslie was accepted as a national historic district in 2018 by the U.S. Park Service upon recommendation of the Kentucky Heritage Council’s Historic Preservation Office, and with the help of a considerable local effort. The writer of this piece is indebted to the authors of that application.
Today there is still something of the other to Bonnie Leslie; that it is in but not really of Bellevue. It doesn’t look like Bellevue’s nineteenth century urban core, with its many Italianate shotgun houses, small lots shorter setbacks, narrower streets. From mid-Bonnie Leslie, walking to Fairfield Avenue is a hike of nearly a mile. Long-time residents of Bonnie Leslie can be heard to refer to the urban core as ‘Down in Bellevue.’ The urban core of Bellevue is predominantly Democratic; Bonnie Leslie is a swing area. Commuters from the urban core tend to access I-471 at Route 8; those from Bonnie Leslie at Memorial Parkway.
An educated guess about the origins of the name of the neighborhood is that a developer wanted to make known his fondness for the late eighteenth century Scottish poet Robert Burns:
“O, saw ye bonnie Leslie
As she gae’d o’er the border?
She’s gone like Alexander
To spread her conquests farther.”
— Parting and Absence