Rethinking Cincinnati’s Fountain Place

February 19th, 2018  |  Published in January/February 2018  |  1 Comment

In the foreground, Macy’s entrance at Fountain Place is currently located at Fifth & Race Streets. In the background on the left is the closed red brick clad Terrace Plaza Hotel and on the right is the Huntington Bank Building.

One of America’s most important potential development properties is the current Downtown

Macy’s Department Store’s and Tiffany & Co.’s site called Fountain Place {formerly Fountain Square West}, situated from Race to Vine Streets along Fifth Street. Located on the western edge of Fountain Square, it is in the heart of our city and across the way from the Carew Tower/Netherland Plaza Hotel complex, an Art Deco masterpiece, as well as Saks Fifth Avenue.

With Macy’s and Tiffany & Co.’s recent announcements that they both will be leaving Downtown, it allows the possibility of this currently underutilized block to rise to the top of important parcels available for development in any downtown in the United States. City officials, however, should resist this development temptation in favor of extending a Cincinnati success worth perpetuating.

Prior to the construction of Fountain Place, for decades there had been a collection of former retail establishments, including Mabley & Carew Department Store, Woolworth’s, and Potter’s Shoe Co. From the early 1980’s, the City of Cincinnati entertained the possibilities of a half dozen different developments for this site, including skyscrapers designed by internationally recognized architects. What resulted was the current underwhelming 3-4 story Fountain Place, built of gray pre-cast concrete panels accented with narrow bandings of gray and maroon granite with gray tinted glass and designed by Cooper Carry of Atlanta. After reviewing and listening to years of exciting plans for this site, the reality represents a tremendous architectural disappointment with this much reduced and diminished structure and underground garage constructed in order to secure a Lazarus Department Store {renamed Macy’s} and Tiffany & Co. Now, both are leaving for Kenwood Towne Center, making Fountain Place almost entirely vacant.

Today, merchants have the added competition of Internet customers who shop at their convenience 24 hours a day, avoiding expensive downtown parking. This realization makes one conclude that downtown department stores are the latest examples of dinosaurs on the brink of extinction.

Cincinnatians must not despair, because there is a viable alternative to this Fountain Place dilemma. Instead of a “bricks-and-mortar” solution to this parcel, city officials should extend Fountain Square by demolishing the Fountain Place building. The Square and its usage is successful—in fact, maybe too successful given its site limitations and activities. For example during winter months, the outdoor skating rink has become quite popular, yet its space and fencing requirements and temporary out-buildings overwhelm Fountain Square and make apparent the existing site constraints. From an aesthetic viewpoint, this skating rink is really unattractive, made especially so, since the Square was not designed to accommodate it. Like many things in life though, it is the serendipity of this rink and Fountain Square’s ability to adapt to users’ demands that continues to make it a popular destination. However, just because something is favorably received does not give it license to be unattractive. Ice skating rinks can be a thing of great beauty, and New York City’s Rockefeller Center is an excellent example. Adorned with the golden, heroic, mythological fountain sculpture, “Promethius” by sculptor Paul Manship, it represents one of Manhattan’s most visited tourist destinations, enhanced with surrounding restaurants and shops. Besides skating, the space is also an outdoor sculpture court and provides a restful reprieve from the noise and congestion of the city. In addition to the beauty it provides at street level, it allows daylight to penetrate the downtown canyons of stone and glass, and gives viewers from their perch in the towers enjoyment watching the skaters’ artistry and agility.

Obviously, ice skating is a seasonal endeavor and, with the advent of Spring, the Fountain Place site should become a bastion of greenery composed primarily of flowers, grass, and trees. With the latest reincarnation of Fountain Square, it has become hard-edged with few shade trees in evidence. This Fountain Place site could provide the “softness” and natural beauty which would be in juxtaposition with Fountain Square’s paved surfaces. Yet, this extension of the Square would enable and encourage events which are too confined by its existing boundaries of Fifth and Vine Streets, and the Fifth Third Bank & Tower. This new outdoor space should provide “spill-over” possibilities for events at Fountain Square, but should not be over-choreographed to allow things to occur and evolve naturally. Primarily, it should be a contemplative place, not subject to the Square’s constant stimulation of people, traffic, and activities. Creating Fountain Place to become a park would permit visitors to escape from the stresses of the day and make life in the city more bearable.

Some additional ideas for this park might include making it interdisciplinary, allowing multiple strategies to encourage its enjoyment and success. It could become a leading laboratory for art, education, and the environment while maintaining its prime purpose of being restful. These could include: the creation of a sculpture garden containing truly comfortable chairs and benches with tables designed by local artists; have ArtWorks create more colorful and delightful bicycle racks for park visitors; usage of terraces on the neighboring Terrace Plaza Hotel for urban vegetable gardens whose harvest could be supplied and donated to the Freestore, while other vegetables could be sold to Downtown restaurants; trees, flowers, and plants in this park would be native species to our region and be respectful to our environment; to further the park’s contemplative and meditative purposes, it should be declared a “cell phone-free” zone—eliminating annoying irritations contrary to its usage. This Fountain Square extension should be a public/private collaboration between city officials, business leaders, and citizens young and old dedicated to ensure the park’s success.

In the mid-1850’s, New York City officials had the foresight to purchase an 843 acre site for the enjoyment of its residents. Today, the idea of Manhattan without Central Park is truly unthinkable, even though its acreage represents a tremendous extravagance considering the city’s real estate values. Analogous to this is the notion to transform one of Cincinnati’s most valuable tracts of land in the heart of the city into park. At the outset, this idea may seem outrageous to some, but the proposal merely takes advantage of Downtown’s greatest success and embellishes it. One hundred years from now, our descendants will be forever thankful for accentuating the beauty of our city’s core. Surrounding properties with views of this Fountain Square park extension will soar in value, because it will be considered the place to be.

Besides the current Fountain Place complex, there also exists another structure in the block that is currently unoccupied, but of prime significance: the former Terrace Plaza Hotel. Completed in 1948 and designed by the renowned architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill {SOM}, it represents one of the earliest and finest examples of the International Style in the United States. With the conversion of the Fountain Place site from building to park, this development also must take into consideration the restoration of this structure which is quickly gaining attention for its design importance. The only other structure in this block is the Huntington Bank Building at 525 Vine Street which, like Fountain Place, should be considered architecturally expendable in this overall site proposal as it assumes the greater role as Fountain Square’s extension. With the bank’s removal, the Terrace Plaza Hotel would have rooms directly overlooking the Square and its activities, while returning natural daylight to interior spaces presently cast in its shadow. One of the deterrents in the Terrace Plaza’s sale and restoration has been the fact that the Huntington Bank Building was constructed on a too narrow adjacent site, causing it to be against the former’s south façade and eliminating any views from that side. Current plans are to convert the Terrace Plaza into apartments or condominiums, rather than its original use as a hotel. With this new proposal next door, maybe potential developers interested in the Terrace Plaza might reconsider restoring it to its original hotel usage. Built with 350 guest rooms, today’s expectations would probably necessitate their enlargement, thus reducing the overall room total by half and allowing it to achieve boutique hotel status.

Fountain Place represents the western edge of Fountain Square and is the location of the popular outdoor “Jumbotron” large-screen TV above its upper floor.

This time, Cincinnati has the unique opportunity to achieve a lasting contribution to the center of our city after getting it wrong 21 years ago. Normally, it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have this kind of affect and impact: we have been granted a second chance to make it right. Having the vision to extend Fountain Square and perpetuate its success, while providing greenery and solace to Downtown, is clearly worth the investment in our future for this most important site. We deserve nothing less.

–Stewart S. Maxwell


  1. Shelly Foley says:

    February 22nd, 2018at 3:53 pm(#)

    Fantastic ideas!

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