The Terrace Plaza Hotel

The Terrace Plaza Hotel (its original name) is the most important Modernist building in Cincinnati and is of national and even international significance. Designed in 1945-46 in the New York office of the renowned Modernist architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), and built between 1946-48, it was the most progressive American hotel of its day and the first building by SOM to be widely published and receive national attention. It was the first International Style Modern hotel in America. So advanced were its design, aesthetics, and technology that it was jokingly called “the pushbutton palace.” It contained spectacular interiors which featured Modern art and design by major artists, architects and designers; indeed, it was acclaimed as the best synthesis of Modern art and architecture in America.

Developer John J. Emery, Jr. commissioned SOM for their Modernism and because he felt their lack of hotel experience would generate new ideas. The site was an inconvenient 90′ deep x 400′ long. SOM responded with a narrow, 20-story steel frame skyscraper clad in a veneer of brick with vertically-aligned joints. A seven-story base contained two department stores, Bond’s and J.C. Penney’s, both opening at street level through continuously-glazed two-story windows; above rose five stories of blank brick. At the eighth floor the hotel, a slender, setback slab, rose a further eleven stories from a landscaped roof terrace, floating serenely above the street noise below. This revolutionary urban form, a vertical slab atop a horizontal terrace-base, with a mixed-use program, echoed the Emerys’ previous Carew Tower-Netherland Plaza Hotel complex of 1929-31, and forecast some of SOM’s most famous buildings, such as Lever House, in New York City, of 1950-52. The first fully automated elevators in any American skyscraper whisked guests from the street-level vestibule to the eighth-floor hotel lobby. Three restaurants served an increasingly stratified clientele: the Plaza Cafeteria occupied the ground floor, the Skyline Restaurant served the eighth-floor terrace, while at the hotel’s 20th-floor rooftop, the exclusive Gourmet Room, a faceted cylinder of glass and steel, cantilevered over the edge of its own small terrace.

Emery commissioned modern artists to adorn the interiors. The Gormet Room received a curving, 30-foot mural by Joan Miro; the Skyline Room contained a satirical mural of the Cincinnati skyline by New York artist Saul Steinberg, while a mobile by Alexander Caulder enlivened the eighth-floor hotel lobby. It was one of the most successful art and architectural collaborations of any Modernist building. SOM’s design team included Louis Skidmore (from nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana and a graduate of the University of Cincinnati) with William Hartman as project manager; because SOM’s key designer, Gordon Bunshaft, was away in WW II, much of the building’s design fell to Nathalie DeBlois, a rare woman Modernist architect, trained at Columbia University while so many men were at war. She also did much of the interior design, assisted by Benjamin Baldwin, Ward Bennett, Davis Allen, and others. They designed furniture, textiles, staff uniforms, tableware, graphics, and even ashtrays and matchbook covers. Morris Lapidus, a controversial architect later famous for his extravagant hotels (such as the Fountainbleu in Miami), designed the lower-level Bond’s department store interiors.

The Terrace Plaza (under various names) has been a continuously operating hotel from 1948 through 2008. The Emerys sold the hotel to the Hilton chain in 1965. The two-story, street-level Bond’s department store windows were reduced to one story; the entrance on Sixth Street was altered to create a drive-through entrance; the Miro, Steinberg and Caulder artworks went to the Cincinnati Art Museum and numerous other interior changes have occurred. Despite these, the Terrace Plaza remains one of the most significant buildings of the mid-20th-century and many original interior materials and detailing remain, such as entire walls of beautiful marble veneer, stainless steel-clad columns, woodwork, railings, balustrades, ceiling canopies, lighting fixtures, etc. Shawn Tubbs has recently written a history of the building titled “Cincinnati’s Terrace Plaza Hotel, An Icon of Modern Architecture.”IMG_2515

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