The Terrace Plaza Hotel: Recognizing Greatness

March 3rd, 2019  |  Published in Winter 2019  |  1 Comment

S.O.M.’s Terrace Plaza Hotel is shown with its step-backs or “terracing” from the corner of 6th and Vine Streets in Downtown Cincinnati, with John J Emery’s Carew Tower/Netherland Plaza Hotel in the distance.

Cincinnati is fortunate to have a number of noteworthy examples of architecture and history, recognized with numerous listings on the National Register of Historic Places. Placement of buildings on this list is important in order to bring recognition, but offers little protection from insensitive remodeling and destruction, except where federal dollars are involved. Designation of a building as a local historic landmark, however, places it in a higher realm, protecting it from unsympathetic renovations or demolition with the intent of preserving for posterity a structure of great significance. To be placed in this latter category, a building must undergo much review, so that it can be considered worthy. Often times, the list of local historic landmarks so honored seems obvious to us today with such buildings as Union Terminal, Cincinnati City Hall, Cincinnati Bell offices at 7th and Elm Streets, Plum St. Temple, and St. Peter-in-Chains Cathedral— even our city symbol, The Tyler Davidson Fountain, is listed. Other times, though, a listing may not seem as obvious at first glance, possibly due to its proximity to modern times or a lack of understanding or appreciation of its history and importance. In addition to individual listings, Downtown Cincinnati contains five historic districts in which a collection of buildings have been identified for protection in order to preserve the city’s remaining early character: West 4th Street from Race St. to Central Ave.; Court St.; West 9th St.; Lytle Park; Main St. from 4th St. to Central Parkway.

A building for this local historic landmark designation category is currently being considered in Downtown Cincinnati: The Terrace Plaza Hotel at 15 West 6th Street between Vine and Race Streets. John J. Emery, who also earlier developed, constructed, and owned the Carew Tower/ Netherland Plaza Hotel complex, hired the young firm of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (S.O.M.) to design The Terrace Plaza, America’s first International Style hotel. Upon opening in 1948, it  received worldwide attention for its avant garde approach to architecture and interiors, including even a backhanded compliment published in Time Magazine (July 19, 1948): “Dowdy, old-fashioned Cincinnati gets a new hotel this week.” The article went on to describe its owner John J. Emery as “revolutionary”; not even New York City at the time had an $18,000,000 hotel dream realized, much less one designed utilizing Bauhaus principles.

When the Netherland Plaza Hotel opened in 1931, Mr. Emery always regretted that he had not built it with an extra 400 rooms for an overall total of 1200. After waiting for the conclusion of The Great Depression and World War II, he decided to utilize a half block north of the Carew Tower/ Netherland Plaza Hotel complex that he owned on the south side of Sixth Street to construct a new hotel with the additional rooms desired.

In beginning the planning process in 1946, Mr. Emery contacted 5 or 6 architectural firms and asked each of them to make a recommendation on what the best use of the property should be. Established in 1936, the New York firm of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (known by its initials of S.O.M.) was selected because they conceived an ingenious plan for this long, yet narrow, site which was restricted by both zoning and building height requirements. Because the property was so narrow, the entire first floor would have to be utilized for office and retail space without any possibility of a ground level setback, which might have allowed for more daylight on Sixth Street. Since the site’s entire footprint was being extended all the way to the edges of its sidewalks, height restrictions were imposed by zoning. Cleverly, S.O.M. overcame this problem by stepping back (or “terracing”) the structure’s design above its office/ retail base with a hotel on top— thus the name: Terrace Plaza Hotel. S.O.M.’s design allowed the first seven floors to contain offices and retail, while making the eighth floor the “sky lobby” for the hotel (first of its kind in the world) with restaurants, a meeting room, and gift shop. Floors nine through nineteen were dedicated to 400 hotel rooms, and the top 20th floor was reserved for one of Cincinnati’s finest French restaurants, The Gourmet Room, offering unobstructed views.

Through the years, many have wondered how S.O.M. received this commission considering that they had no hotel experience whatsoever. At that time, Thomas Emery’s Sons, Inc. had seventy years of hotel management experience, and Mr. Emery felt that he and his company would lend the expertise to this part of the Terrace Plaza’s planning. They did not need to be told by architects how to run a hotel: what was needed from them was a dramatic design. Thus, S.O.M.’s lack of experience in designing hotels was seen as an advantage, since they approached the project with fresh concepts and not with jaded, pre-conceived notions based upon years of building in a certain way.

The Terrace Plaza Hotel had the first “sky lobby” in existence, located on the 8th floor, where Alexander Calder’s mobile greeted guests.

For the office/ retail base, S.O.M. placed the 200,000 square foot J.C. Penney Department Store on the west end of the block with seven floors, balanced by an 80,000 square foot, five-story Bond Clothes, Inc. store on the east end, designed by noted Miami architect Morris Lapidus for its interior. By accommodating these two major retailers and office space, no square footage remained for the hotel’s lobby on the ground level. It was imperative that retail be located at street level with as many store windows as possible for display. By studying Mr. Emery’s Netherland Plaza Hotel, S.O.M. realized that its hotel lobby, restaurants, and kitchen were not located on the ground floor but on the second. In using elevators to transfer guests, luggage, and food deliveries, they determined that the lobby and restaurants could be placed on any level: this is how the Terrace Plaza received its “sky lobby” on the eighth floor. This pleased Mr. Emery since the valuable ground level space would be reserved for leasing and not wasted by services generating little or no dollar volume, thereby earning him greater money and making it far more lucrative financially. The reason that this base has no windows between the second and seventh floors is primarily due to these two department stores: windows cause fading of merchandise and interrupt valuable interior wall space. Furthermore, S.O.M. felt that windows in offices were a distraction from the work to be done and therefore unnecessary.

On the hotel’s 8th floor, guests and workers in surrounding buildings enjoyed this view of a “celestial” park with dining outdoors on the terrace.

To accommodate zoning restrictions, the architects created step-backs for the upper hotel portion of the building— the first occurring on the eighth floor with its sky lobby. A terrace was designed to allow for an outdoor restaurant with greenery: an obvious homage to modernist visionaries Le Corbusier and Tony Garnier’s Cité Industrielle from the early part of the 20th century. Guests and workers in surrounding office buildings looking down upon this eighth floor rooftop were treated to this “celestial” park, which was infinitely more attractive than seeing one more flat asphalt roof. Also, this step-back allowed more daylight to penetrate this downtown canyon, and brought a lively, animated space high above street level with the placement of an outdoor restaurant on the terrace in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter. Regarding function, this terrace additionally made hotel rooms quieter by causing city noises at street level to ricochet away from hotel windows.

Between the time that the Netherland and Terrace Plaza Hotels were designed, almost twenty years had elapsed and the former’s Art Deco Style had begun to pass out of fashion. The Terrace Plaza Hotel’s architecture needed to be a new modern style, enabling it to become a trendsetter. S.O.M.’s senior partners, Louis Skidmore, Nathaniel Owings, and John Merrill, were confirmed modernists who embraced Europe’s developing International Style and its revolutionary design concepts of the Bauhaus. One of the iconic images of the International Style is Lever House in New York City, designed after the completion of the Terrace Plaza Hotel between 1950-1952 by S.O.M.’s younger partner Gordon Bunschaft who assisted in the hotel’s design. Lever Brothers leased office space in the Terrace Plaza Hotel when it opened, and it is significant that they became aware of S.O.M.’s excellent talented capabilities with Cincinnati’s hotel before hiring them to design their corporate headquarters several years later. For architectural historians, this connection linking the Terrace Plaza Hotel with Lever House is of utmost importance.

In receiving the Terrace Plaza Hotel’s commission, S.O.M. assembled a talented team of designers, who were given extraordinary responsibilities considering their youth. Because he had grown up in Greater Cincinnati, Louis Skidmore was the senior partner overseeing the project with William S. Brown as the partner-in-charge, William Hartmann was Design Coordinator, Natalie de Blois as his architectural design assistant and a woman who became a trailblazer for others in the profession, and Benjamin Baldwin as the interior designer. In addition, noted designer Ward Bennett was hired as a consultant to create light sconces for The Gourmet Room.  Mr. Emery allowed S.O.M. to design everything involving the hotel, including furniture, fabrics, china, matchbooks, silverware, uniforms, and even the liquor bottles.

The circular form of The Gourmet Room, cantilevered over the hotel’s second terrace on the 20th floor, offered panoramic views of the city while dining.

Innovations became a hallmark for the hotel’s design, both for its exterior as well as its interior. Besides the building’s terracing with its façade composed of elongated terra cotta red bricks, the most distinctive feature on the outside is a stainless steel circular room perched precariously over its northeast corner’s edge on the 20th floor of the building’s second terrace.  This cantilevered space is The Gourmet Room, dedicated to the pursuit of the highest gastronomic pleasures. On the interior, the hotel’s rooms were radically different for their time. They were designed to be multi-purpose: in the daytime, the rooms appeared to be a living room; at night, the couches converted to become a bed with a press of a button. Desks could be a bar or a luggage rack and acted as a room divider as well. As much as possible, furniture in the bedrooms was built-in, and there were no floor lamps or cords in order to reduce hazards and breakage. Lighting was designed for specific tasks, such as spotlights for reading areas and make-up lights for bathrooms. Mr. Emery made every effort to use local companies ( Formica and Ficks Reed , for example), and one of the last major commissions for Rookwood Pottery  before its recent resurrection was making monogrammed ashtrays specifically designed for the hotel. Additional innovations for The Terrace Plaza Hotel were the following: it became one of the first buildings to use completely automatic elevators; heat pipes were installed outside in the sidewalks to melt snow and ice; and it used a universal fire alarm and an internal audio-communication system broadcast throughout the building.

Along the major wall in The Skyline Room (the hotel’s main dining room) was Saul Steinberg’s fanciful view of Cincinnati.

The Terrace Plaza Hotel was also one of the first public buildings in America to commission contemporary works of art specifically for its interior. Four locations in the hotel were identified by S.O.M.’s interior designer, Benjamin Baldwin, to receive major installations: the main lobby; The Skyline Room (the major hotel dining room); the back bar wall of The Terrace Garden restaurant and lounge; The Gourmet Room. Alexander Calder was commissioned to design a hanging mobile entitled “Twenty Leaves and an Apple” which was placed opposite the hotel’s elevators. This moving piece of sculpture was composed of piano wire and sheet metal, all painted black, except for the one red apple. Resembling one of Calder’s drawings, it has been given the added rhythm and space in the third dimension, allowing the slightest gust of air to set it in motion, recalling branches of a tree. Saul Steinberg was hired to create a wall mural in The Skyline Room which originally extended 120’ in length and 16’ high above banquettes. Best known for his New Yorker cartoons, Steinberg was selected to portray Cincinnati’s architecture, bridges, and daily life with the interweaving of very amusing caricatures of people dancing, dining, and preening on its vast canvas surface. For The Terrace Garden restaurant and lounge, Jim Davis was hired to design a long wall above the back bar. Both an artist and professor at Princeton, he created colorful plexiglass geometric forms which were dramatically spotlit from different angles, throwing shadows and reflections on the wall as the lights changed. Former Cincinnati Art Museum Director Philip Adams, with assistance from Paris art advisor Theodore M. Schempp, guided Mr. Emery and S.O.M. in selecting Joan Miró for The Gourmet Room mural. Placed on a sweeping, 30’ long curved wall surface, it equaled this length and measured 8’-6” in height above banquettes. Miró’s mural was the only opaque wall in the restaurant on the 20th floor: the other three/fourths of the room was entirely floor-to-ceiling glass placed on an angle, so as to minimize reflections on the glass at night for best seeing the spectacular panoramic view of the city, as well as to improve the acoustic quality of the space. Miró painted the mural’s background in a rich cerulean blue upon which were placed a vibrant cosmos of undulating lines and imaginative, colorful organic shapes.

Joan Miró’s mural in The Gourmet Room was the restaurant’s only opaque wall.

In 1956, Mr. Emery sold the Terrace Plaza Hotel to Hilton Hotel Corporation with the caveat that the murals and mobile would remain in the hotel until Hilton decided to redecorate. During sale negotiations of the building, Hilton decided it did not want the artwork as part of its purchase, because they did not want to pay for the insurance.  When Hilton chose to redecorate in 1965, Mr. Emery donated the Miró, Steinberg, and Calder to the Cincinnati Art Museum.  The Steinberg mural has been reinstalled recently in the museum’s Schmidlapp Wing after being off-view for a number of years.

Hilton continued the ownership of the hotel until it was sold to AT&T who particularly wanted the office/retail portion of the building to be their equipment and conference center, and used the hotel rooms for visitors. Eventually in the 1990’s, the hotel became the Crowne Plaza, a division of Holiday Inn. In later years, it has been allowed to decline in prestige and maintenance by out-of-town investors who ran it as a hotel with no restaurants and few services. On October 31, 2008, the hotel was abruptly closed and has been put up for sale several times. Hopefully, a developer will finally step forward and embrace this building’s celebrated story by restoring it to its original glory.

In the meantime, The Terrace Plaza Hotel’s consideration as a local historic landmark wends its way through the necessary review process of the Historic Conservation Board, the Economic & Zoning Commission, and the Planning Commission before advancing to Cincinnati City Council’s vote; one hopes that our civic leaders will recognize its significance to the annals of architectural history and grant approval.

–Stewart S. Maxwell

Responses

  1. Dan Newman says:

    March 4th, 2019at 4:07 pm(#)

    Very good coverage of a situation that I hope can be solved by saving the grand old Terrace Plaza Hotel. I worked in the building several decades ago and have performed a couple of weddings there before it’s closing. It would be such a loss to the Cincinnati skyline and history to have this place torn down and replaced with another boring “modern” ugly box. When you look at the history of Cincinnati where we once had a dozen show house’s – Albee, Schubert, and too many others to mention that were replaced by so called “new” architecture for office building that now we have lost that downtown “vibe” that drew so many people to the square. Thank you for a walk down memory lane and a glimpse that this jewel may still be saved.

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