Autopsies and ice cream usually don’t intersect.
A three-story brick building, quiet and unassuming, served as the unusual nexus of melancholy and delight at the southeast corner of North Summit and Park streets in downtown Akron.
The Mendenhall Building stood for nearly 70 years, although Summit County residents can be forgiven if they don’t clearly recollect the structure at 31 N. Summit St.
Built in 1930, it was named for businessman Ross Mendenhall, who made a mint as manager of the Furnas Ice Cream Co. He introduced the curiously labeled confection (shouldn’t it melt?) to Akron when he moved here in 1909.
Mendenhall, 29, was a native of West Newton, Ind., and a 1907 graduate of the University of Indiana. He taught mathematics and coached football at Wilmington College in Ohio before joining Furnas as an ice cream ambassador.
Robert W. Furnas (1848-1916) founded an Indianapolis dairy in 1877 and began manufacturing frozen treats a year later after being asked to make ice cream for a church social. He lived to see his brand become a national phenomenon with plants in Columbus, Huntington, W.Va., St. Louis, Fort Wayne, Ind., Birmingham, Ala., and Des Moines, Iowa.
Furnas Ice Cream, whose motto was “The Cream of Quality,” promoted itself as “a health-giving food which adds vim, vigor and vitality to mind and body.”
“Made of the finest materials money can buy,” the company boasted. “True vanilla flavor, rich sugared fruits mixed with rich sweet cream (pasteurized). That’s what makes it so good, and why it is so good for you.”
The company worked tirelessly to promote its product as a year-round food instead of a summer-only delicacy, and had no qualms in exaggerating the health benefits of ice cream to enhance sales.
“Its nutritive value has long been recognized by the medical profession and it is prescribed and generally used for invalids and convalescents in a wide variety of cases where other foods are forbidden,” Furnas spokesman W.R. Griffith noted.
Mendenhall opened Akron’s first Furnas plant at 28-30 N. Main St. in 1909 and moved it two blocks east to 34-42 N. Broadway a few years later. Coincidentally, the factory was only two blocks south of Furnace Street, prompting many Akron consumers to misspell the product’s name.
Historian Scott Dix Kenfield once wrote of Mendenhall: “Through close study and deep thought, he has instituted well devised plans for the upbuilding of the business and under his management the small plant has been replaced by a large modern structure containing every appliance for expediting the work.”
Furnas Ice Cream was served at drugstore fountains and five-and-dime counters throughout town. Today’s oldest citizens might want to attribute their “vim, vigor and vitality” to a childhood dessert of the early 20th century.
Mendenhall and his wife, Mary, and their children Robert and Sarah resided on Payne Avenue in Cuyahoga Falls. The businessman, a 32nd degree Mason, belonged to Yusef-Khan Grotto, Tadmor Shrine and Knights Templar. He also served as vice chairman of the Ohio Dairy Products Association.
As the Furnas business boomed, Mendenhall reinvested his profits into real estate, buying up several properties in downtown Akron. One such purchase was at North Summit and Park streets.
In the 1920s, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church held services in an old, cramped house at 31 N. Summit St. The growing congregation was happy to sell the property to Mendenhall for $22,500 in 1929 and even happier to celebrate the dedication of its new church in 1930 at 129 S. Union St., which remains its home to this day.
Mendenhall tore down the old house and built a three-story brick building with his name inscribed in stone over the front door. The Mendenhall Building’s first tenants in 1930 were the Clark, McDaniel, Fisher and Spelman advertising firm, Barstow & McCurdy civil engineering, Wynber Engineering and Woods Office Service.
After more than two decades in the ice cream business, Mendenhall retired in 1931 and moved to a 200-acre farm in Suffield Township. Borden Dairy Co. bought the Akron interests of Furnas Ice Cream.
Mendenhall was only 59 when he died in 1939 at Akron City Hospital while being treated for an appendicitis attack. It was his first time in a hospital. He was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Cuyahoga Falls.
His namesake building became a union hall for Milk and Ice Cream Drivers & Dairy Employees Local No. 497, a private club that became a popular watering hole for newspaper reporters in the 1950s.
No one could have guessed the building’s next incarnation: the Summit County morgue.
In the 1960s, Dr. A.H. Kyriakides, Summit County coroner, beseeched local officials to find him a headquarters. More than 400 autopsies were performed each year at local hospitals — at $50 per procedure — because the coroner and his staff did not have proper facilities.
“Only by performing an adequate number of autopsies can we discover the cause of death accurately and uncover any attempt to hide foul play or perpetrate a civil injustice,” Kyriakides explained.
However, Summit County Commissioner John Poda balked at the expense of using public funds for the building.
“It is my duty as an elected official to protect the interests of the Summit County taxpayers,” he said.
Poda and Kyriakides battled over the proposal for years before the county bought the Mendenhall Building for $67,000 in 1966 and spent another $200,000 in renovations.
Shiny, clean and sterile, it reopened in early 1968 as the County Morgue Building and served the public adequately for nearly a decade. However, the facility became notorious for structural issues and fire-safety problems. When it rained, the ceiling leaked and buckets had to be positioned to catch the water.
Kyriakides and his successor, Dr. William A. Cox, who both left office following highly publicized charges of financial impropriety, grew to rue the leaky building.
Ohio fire marshals repeatedly cited the building, saying it failed to meet state safety codes. It didn’t have sprinklers, alarms, fire walls, proper ventilation or storage areas for flammable chemicals.
In 1997, the office moved a block north to a state-of-the-art laboratory on North Summit Street. Today it’s called the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The Mendenhall Building, leaky roof and all, was demolished in the late 1990s. The property was sold for $21,000 in 2005 and turned into — what else — a parking lot.
From religion to ice cream to alcohol to autopsies, the corner has witnessed its share of bizarre transformations over the past century. The next 100 years ought to be interesting.
Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.