Ault Park in Mount Lookout survived a checkered past to become ‘alive’

Leyla Shokoohe
 |  Special to Cincinnati Enquirer

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you get married in Cincinnati, you must take your wedding pictures on the steps at Ault Park. Or if you’re an aspiring ballerina posing on pointe. Or if you’re celebrating a quinceanera. At least, that’s what it felt like on my recent trips to this Mount Lookout staple. And who could blame anyone? We should take advantage of fine-weather photo-ops – and appreciate the park all the more because it came very close to obsolescence. 

After my Bellevue Hill Park story/profile was published, Rob Kranz, a founding trustee of the Ault Park Advisory Council (APAC), reached out to me with a very intriguing message: 

I can share the stories of when the park was run by a motorcycle gang, when the Parks were going to tear down the Pavilion, and how the citizens banded together to raise the funds to save it. 

Obviously, I had to give him a call. 

As the story goes, in 1966, the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club (founded right here in Cincinnati) took over Ault Park. One of the group’s leaders lived nearby, and members of the IHMC caroused in the park, riding around the pavilion and generally doing motorcycle club-related activities. This behavior intimidated regular park-goers, and the number of visitors dramatically dwindled. 

[ Check out the other odds and ends Leyla’s written about recently ] 

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In 1971, according to Kranz, a rival motorcycle club leader wanted to oust the Iron Horsemen. So he threw a stick of dynamite through their leader’s window. Which, like, wow. Not subtle, my guy. But hey, it worked? The Iron Horsemen vamoosed, but the park sat in disuse for the next decade or so. And in 1982, the Cincinnati Parks Board announced they were going to tear down the pavilion due to a lack of funding to make the necessary repairs. 

“So a group of neighbors, including my mother, got together and said, ‘No, we’re not going to tear it down. We’ll raise half the money and you raise the other half to get it fixed,’ ” said Kranz, who has been involved with Ault Park since his adolescence.

That compromise worked. The APAC officially formed in 1987 (an all-around great year that also gave us Brood X and yours truly) and raised $1.5M to fund fixing the pavilion. Even before the nonprofit was officially formed, locals were hard at work trying to restore Ault Park to its former glory … with the Adopt-A-Plot gardening program. 

On one of my recent ambles through Ault, I wanted to focus more on the grounds than the pavilion, because I’d never really explored them. I wandered through the Ault Park Gardens and came upon a little plot of garden with a sign that said Friendship Garden, Regina Johnson Phillips, 36. I thought, “How sweet of Regina to bequeath this little garden area to the park.” I kept walking, entranced by gorgeous snowballs of white hydrangea. I mean, I kept walking for several feet and then I thought, “Wow, Regina, you must have been really important or a really big donor to have all of this named for you.” Then I came upon another sign that said The New Secret Garden, Jennifer Smith, 37. So then I thought, “Oh, maybe if you donate a certain amount, you get to name a section of garden.”

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But then I saw a lady with a trowel and a sun hat on, and a sink in one section, and a tiny dog statue in another, and it finally dawned on me that these little pieces of garden must belong to individuals, somehow. And this is where I met Chris Ryan, a very friendly woman who just adopted her first plot this year. I asked her what the deal was, and why she wanted to adopt a plot.

“Because I love flowers,” she said. “I love digging in the dirt.” 

Makes sense to me. Ryan went on to describe her plot, named Terra Firma. The basic design is set around the perennials and to add some vibrancy and color, she tossed in some annuals. I asked her a million and one questions about the plots, and will share with you a little of what I observed, taken straight from the notes I typed on my phone: 

  • Cone flower looks like a firework.
  • Rose citronella.
  • You can bring in your own picket fence.
  • Perennial garden is shade oriented.
  • Oak leaf hydrangea.
  • Snowball hydrangea.
  • Absolute massive snowballs.
  • Almost shoved my face into a daddy long leg of terrifying proportions holy (redacted).

I asked Ryan how much her plot cost, and she told me you don’t pay for a plot; you sign up on a waiting list and volunteer to care for it. Cooperative, long-lasting, sustainable ecological care; that’s beautiful. But why gardening, specifically? 

“Back in those days, the gardening thing was much more common,” said Kranz. “The idea was, we needed to get people involved, we needed to get people aware, and we needed to fix up this derelict space.”

And so the Adopt-A-Plot gardening program was born. Check. 

At the end of my chat with Ryan, a very sharp-dressed man (cue ZZ Top) and two storybook-looking children came down the path, followed by a very well-dressed woman. Then two more men in expensive-looking suits, this time carrying long wooden benches. The first man told us a wedding was happening there – in 15 minutes. I mean, how incredibly charming. 

More verbatim notes: 

  • Essentially trespassed on a wedding ceremony in Ault Park.
  • Prettiest group of people I’ve seen in a really long time.
  • You can 100% just get married in Ault Park like I am stunned by it and I wanted to stay to listen to the ceremony.
  • Family flying kites.
  • All of these concurrent beautiful parts of life happening at once and it’s truly gorgeous to witness.
  • It’s a park that’s really alive.

In keeping with that “alive” theme, here’s a question: Should parks adapt to people, or people to parks? I’ve always been a fan of pragmatic compromise because I think that’s what a lot of civic engagement boils down to. As long as integrity is preserved, I think compromise can work. (Apropos of nothing, I’m also an idealist, lol.)

On that note, APAC is currently trying to install Wi-Fi in the park, but it’s in waiting because bureaucracy. Keep that in mind lest you end up like me on one of my visits, desperately trying to use APAC’s park map with absolutely zero internet service. Take a screenshot of the map before you go. But don’t spend too long looking down at your phone, because you might miss something beautiful. 


I did not mention the park’s many trails here, but you should check them out. With a friend. I set off down the Shattuc Trail but have listened to one too many murder podcasts and thoroughly freaked myself out, convinced I was going to be murdered in broad daylight on the very dense foliage-lined trail, and sprinted back to civilization. (Yes, this is also commentary on how sad it is that women feel that guttural fear nearly everywhere when alone.) 

There’s a handicap-accessible trail and new exercise equipment APAC helped get installed. 

Park lore has it that in the 1930s, 1,000 Japanese Cherry blossom trees were gifted to the city. They’re not in bloom now, but the Weeping Cherry Grove is a must-see when they are. 

Levi Addison Ault is the park’s namesake. He was the park board chair for several years, donating 204 acres to establish the park. Fun fact: He donated land to a town on an island in Canada, and it’s also called Ault Park. Road trip!

In 1991, Ault Park was rededicated, symbolizing “the completion of the 10-year community struggle to restore Ault Park. The Ault Park Advisory Council, as an integral part of these restoration efforts, pledges its continued efforts to keep park deterioration from ever occurring again.”