Holy Toledo! Ohio’s ‘Glass City’ is worth a trip.

Toledo, Ohio, has plenty to offer, from a fantastic art museum to great restaurants and a revitalized downtown.
Alan SolomonChicago Tribune
Spain’s Toledo, according to an unimpeachable source (Wikipedia), has been called “Imperial City” and “City of the Three Cultures” for good reasons, which we won’t get into here.
Ohio’s Toledo is “Glass City.” Because they made glass here. Still do.
Which helps explain why Spain’s Toledo is on just about everyone’s list of must-sees when visiting the Iberian Peninsula, and why Ohio’s Toledo had been bypassed by most of us driving across northern Ohio on the way to someplace … well, someplace interesting.
But now, in honor of Mr. Libbey and Mr. Owens and Mr. Fiberglas, we’re going to shatter your image of Toledo, Ohio.
For starters, the Toledo Museum of Art will blow you away — and we’re not talking “nice little museum for a little glassmaking town like Toledo.” Also: the zoo, the sports venues, the restaurants and more.
So let’s talk briefly about America’s Toledo.
Like many Midwest industrial metropolises — particularly those linked to automaking (Jeeps have been cranked out here since 1940) — it’s had its ups and downs. It’s also had its share of local color. Example: Its geographic position at the western tip of Lake Erie made it a natural crossroads for those who controlled the import and distribution of Canada-produced intoxicants during Prohibition.
“Al Capone used to come through here,” said a gentleman named Reggie, lifelong Toledoan and a custodian at Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral. “Toledo was considered a haven for gangsters.”
What they didn’t do was shoot up the place. The mobs declared it a neutral zone, Reggie said, because there were so many churches here. There still are, particularly along Collingwood Boulevard, and the cathedral is one of them.
“They came up with ‘Holy Toledo!’” said Reggie. “You came to Toledo, you couldn’t feud here. It was a holy city!”
Now, about this “Holy Toledo!” business. The late baseball broadcaster Milo Hamilton made it his “Holy cow!” — but he didn’t invent it. Neither did Reggie, nor the glass people, nor other native notables, among them Gloria Steinem, Urban Meyer, Art Tatum, Jamie Farr, Jim Leyland, Anita Baker and the two football-coaching Harbaughs.
So who did?
“There’s two answers,” said the woman at the Museum of Art’s welcome station, “and I don’t know which one’s the truth.
“One is that it’s some kind of exclamation somebody made on a TV show, but I don’t know what TV show,” she said. “And somebody said it’s because we have a Sister City in Toledo, Spain, where there’s so many churches, like here in Toledo. It’s like ‘Holy Toledo’ because there’s so many churches.”
The manager of venerable (opened 1932) Tony Packo’s Cafe, Kevin Knepley, said he knows which TV show it was.
“Robin said it on ‘Batman,’” insisted Knepley.
“No, he never said it,” countered author Jim Beard, a local history buff who runs Packo’s gift shop when he isn’t writing for Marvel comics. “He said many ‘Holy this’ and ‘Holy that,’ but as far as I know, no one’s actually been able to trace it to its exact origin.”
So back to our travel story.
The art museum, founded humbly in 1901, took on its current Greek temple appearance in 1912, doubled in 1926 and, with ongoing early support from Edward and Florence Scott Libbey (of the glass-family Libbeys), achieved magnificence. Its collection — all the impressionists you know and love are represented, plus masterworks ancient and contemporary — are on display, generating the inevitable response: Are we in Toledo?
Other glassmakers and benefactors joined in financing more expansions and, in 2006, added the Glass Pavilion across Monroe Street from the art museum to house examples of the glassmakers’ art, dating to the pharaohs.
Admission to either or both: free. Terms of the Libbeys’ endowment made sure of that.
Back to Reggie’s church: It’s what everyone here calls, simply, the Rosary Cathedral. It’s dazzling, Spanish in style and worthy of that other Toledo. Inside, eyes are immediately drawn to a large, inspiring oak and walnut crucifix that seems to float above the altar. Ceiling frescoes and stained glass are stunning.
There are other attractions that make Toledo worth a stop. The National Museum of the Great Lakes, with its neighbor, the restored freighter S.S. Col. John Schoonmaker, provide a sense of the economic, meteorological and recreational impact of the lakes. The Toledo Zoo, with its newly expanded aquarium, is among the Midwest’s finest.
And there are: the Botanical Garden and a Butterfly House and the restored Valentine Theatre (1895) and other good things. The obligatory kids science playground (Imagination Station). Plus restaurants, old (Tony Packo’s and its autographed hot dog buns, Georgio’s Cafe International, Lebanese favorites), cutting-edge new (Registry Bistro, more on the way) and some on the river (Real Seafood Co., more).
But without dismissing any of the above, what’s irresistible is a sense that Toledo not only is shedding its rust and coming back, but — especially downtown — coming back strong.
“Things were probably as bad as they were going to get,” said Dean Monske, president and CEO of the Regional Growth Partnership of Northwest Ohio, a development force that’s helped coordinate the effort. This was around the year 2000. “There were strip places, and people would see prostitutes just walking up and down the street. It was really bad. That’s when you saw the private sector become involved.”
In 2002, the minor league baseball Toledo Mud Hens moved from suburban Maumee to a spiffy new downtown ballpark, Fifth Third Field, in what had been the smarmy Warehouse District. It’s been a smash hit. (In August, the 9,000-seat ballpark drew 30,000 for a three-game series against Louisville.) The 8,000-seat Huntington Center, home of the minor-league hockey Toledo Walleye and a busy entertainment venue, opened a couple of blocks away in 2008. The Walleye regularly sell out. Restaurants (much of the action in Hensville, behind the ballpark) and other businesses filled what had been empty or underutilized buildings.
“The confidence is being built,” said Joe Napoli, CEO of both the baseball and hockey operations. “What’s happening here is we’ve got the 30 or so private-sector business leaders working in sync.”
The key leader, according to everyone: Randy Oostra, president and CEO of health care giant ProMedica, which in August moved the company’s headquarters, once scattered in multiple buildings in the region, downtown. What was a nuisance — a long-dormant power plant on the Maumee River — has been converted into a sparkling facility bringing an estimated 2,000 people into the heart of the Toledo every workday.
“The city has never been in better shape,” said Toledo-born financial planner Bob Savage, another civic leader. “It’s the rejuvenation of downtown that’s making it happen, and the guy that’s responsible for that is the boss at ProMedica.”
Condos are created and instantly sell out, and more are in the works. The city’s Metroparks system just opened a 28-acre park downtown; more development is planned along the Maumee, after generations had turned their backs on the river as an eyesore.
As for “Holy, Toledo!” — that mystery remains. Napoli has heard the theories, about the concentration of churches and the gangsters and all that.
“I’m not sure which one is true,” he said. What he does know: The future is as clear as the glass still being produced in Glass City.
“We’ve got all these people that see the opportunity and desperately want it to happen,” Napoli said. “The attitude is, we are going to get this done.”
There’s a homegrown swagger here that’s, well, wholly Toledo.
Alan Solomon is a freelance