Make No Small Plans

This place where our founders carved out a city—this place with its steep hillsides and its sinuous river—demands suitable architecture: Beautiful. Thoughtful. Provocative. Inspiring. Could there be a better building code?

On a sunny Saturday morning in May, I am taking an architectural tour of the city’s central business district just south of Fountain Square. Much of what I’m hearing is a revelation. Consider, for example, the tops of the old Union Central Life Insurance tower (now PNC Bank) and the old Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company (now Duke Energy): They’re shaped like pyramids. So is the top of the Art Deco–styled Cincinnati Times-Star Building (now occupied by the Hamilton County Court of Domestic Relations). When the architects of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates surveyed the city in the 1980s to determine how the proposed twin towers of the new Procter & Gamble complex might best fit in, they decided to give them pyramidal tops too.


My guide is Terry Girard, a young man in a bright red polo shirt bearing the logo of Architreks, a walking tour service backed by the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati (AFC). Somehow, the color of Girard’s shirt and the enthusiasm of his delivery match. Two skyscrapers on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, he says, and two more close by were designed by the renowned Chicago firm of Daniel H. Burnham & Co. between 1901 and 1905. Their simple but rhythmic facades, characterized by tripartite windows, remain as handsome today as they must have seemed more than a century ago, when Burnham’s Commercial style defined “modern” for office buildings across the country.

Architreks, launched in 2002, and the AFC, established 20 years earlier, are testaments to just how noteworthy Cincinnati’s architecture is—not only for its aesthetic appeal and historical significance but for its variety and abundance. Girard directs my attention to The Lombardy at 322 W. Fourth, with its ornate, cut-stone facade, explaining that it was the city’s first fashionable apartment “flat” building. Built in 1881 and designed by Samuel Hannaford, it is a fine example of Second Renaissance Revival style. How many times have I passed by it without paying attention? A fire escape down the front disfigures the facade; age and neglect have left scars. Even so, upon the close inspection that Girard demands, The Lombardy remains beautiful. One of the countless treasures that make Cincinnati what it is—and one that most of us rarely notice.

“The range of a city’s architecture determines its essential outward character,” says John Clubbe in the introduction to Cincinnati Observed: Architecture and History, published in 1992. “The buildings a city erects express its history, its values, its tastes. To understand Cincinnati’s architecture is to begin to understand the city itself.”

Having lived away from Cincinnati for 21 years, and returning here in 2007, I found myself reconsidering my hometown with fresh eyes—to, as Clubbe says, “understand the city itself.” Concluding that what makes Cincinnati distinctive is the way the river, the hillsides, and the old buildings come together, I am also of the belief that it doesn’t happen quite this way anywhere else in America. We all have our reasons for loving this city—finding it a great place to live and feeling good when it makes one of those “most livable cities” lists—but I think this convergence of the natural and the man-made is something special. Recently, in these pages, I have explored this idea, focusing in part on how the river and the hillsides are impacted by the advance of technology and shifting political and commercial priorities. Our buildings deserve the same consideration.

In the years since Clubbe’s work came out, two other books—Architecture in Cincinnati, by Sue Ann Painter, and Great Houses of the Queen City, by Walter E. Langsam (both with photos by Alice Weston)—along with the opening of the new Contemporary Arts Center in 2003 and the transformation of the University of Cincinnati campus over the past 20 years, have made us all look again at the possibilities for reshaping our environment.

It is this surge of interest that Terry Girard reflects as he points out landmark buildings with undiminished spirit: the Rookwood facade of the old Gidding-Jenny store; the Dixie Terminal, with its spectacular glass and marble arcade; the Ingalls building, the world’s first reinforced concrete skyscraper. Between and behind these Fourth Street icons are the narrow, aged structures of late Victorian vintage that—even when they’re unkempt, or vacant in their upper stories, or soot-smudged and shopworn—tie us to the past and enrich the present.

Most Cincinnatians know about the wealth of Italianate architecture that distinguishes Over-the-Rhine. But what we have is so much broader and deeper than any single category. Downtown is a microcosm of this bounty, but the beauty of it, the incredible thing, really, is that fabulous and fantastic architecture is all around. It’s on the east and west sides, in our parks and zoo and neighborhoods and suburbs; it’s on both sides of the river. John Clubbe likens us to European cities, where architectural history is a marketing tool. “Americans,” he says, “think their own cities less interesting, less ‘historic,’ less worthy of studying or visiting than European cities.” Cincinnati, he notes, gives reason to rethink this.

We come to the Carew Tower, stopping on the Vine Street side and looking up. The tawny brick shines in the sun. The building’s setbacks, Girard says, were designed to allow more air and light to reach the street, and to make the tower seem taller; the bronze medallions around its Art Deco entrance illustrate the history of transportation. Girard tells us that the complex was conceived as a “city within a city,” with a hotel, offices, shops, restaurants, even an automated garage that brought cars from below to the lobby level for departing hotel guests. It was a marvel of tis time—1929—and remains one today.

I am reminded of a discussion I had with Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and an architectural scholar, shortly before my trek. Betsky’s view is that the skyscrapers that punctuate our compact downtown are a celebration of human power and energy. “And the greatest of all of these is the Carew Tower,” he said. “It is one of the most beautiful urban structures in America because of the way it combines everything that makes a downtown a lively place. It rewards your eyes because of its complexity, yet it remains unified. In its vertical reach, it represents human ambition standing against the sweep of the landscape and the river. In its composition, it brings all those pieces into balance.”

His words remind me how easy it is to take something familiar for granted. And what a loss that can be.

My interest in urban environments has its roots in my undergraduate education, when I took classes from arguably the greatest lecturer on architecture who ever graced a podium, Yale’s Vincent Scully Jr. Scully taught us not only to see, but to care. I will take to my grave memories of Scully reading the last page of The Great Gatsby before a slide of a contemporary house at sunset, by the sea, telling us how this image captured perfectly the “decline of New England—commercial, intellectual, and moral.” I still see him rapping his pointer at the screen, at a picture of suburban sprawl cut into a woodland, declaring that in post-war America (this was 1964), “we are still living off fat, but someday we are going to have to stop.” He hated what he perceived the automobile to be doing to our cities and our countryside. He talked about the city of Buffalo contemplating tearing down the famed Guaranty Life Insurance Building by the great turn-of-the-20th century architect Louis Sullivan, and he had to choke back tears.

Today, thanks to Scully, and thanks also, I think, to time spent in cities that have eradicated their pasts, I am especially grateful for what we have here. Sometimes, I kid, it’s the turrets. Is there another city with as many turrets? Big ones like those on the Hyde Park School and the Krug Building at Woodburn and Clayton in East Walnut Hills, and smaller ones gracing homes in the older residential neighborhoods all over the east side. We have the baronial mansions of Clifton and North Avondale, steamboat Gothic homes along the river, whole blocks of Italianate structures in Over-the-Rhine and Northern Kentucky, Mid-Century Modern offerings scattered across the suburbs, and in Price Hill, the handsomely restored Elberon apartments.

I am grateful for these, but I wonder: It is a lot to care for. In the mid-19th century, Cincinnati was the fourth largest city in the nation. In the late 19th century, and well into the 20th, it was a very large city with the wealth to support its infrastructure. Today, things are different. Population within the city limits has dropped precipitously and poverty has climbed disproportionately. Do we have enough resources—and the civic will—to hold on to what we’ve built?

It’s a concern to Kit Anderson, executive director of the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati. “People talk about how lucky we are to live in such a livable city, and they point to the river, the arts, and sports, but they don’t point to the architecture,” she says. “Yet that’s critical to our enjoyment of our environment.” Our symphony flourishes in a historic building, she notes; so does our natural history museum. “These institutions thrive in part because they’re in these terrific buildings. They enliven the life of the city, but people don’t realize it.”

Her choice of examples is not random, of course. Music Hall and Union Terminal—both beloved, historically significant, and in heavy use—are badly in need of major repair. Where the money will come from to make those repairs is not clear. Only a fraction of it, at best, will come from the city. The administration has virtually no discretionary cash, and its priorities lie in other venues.

Good people will debate a community’s priorities, and some may even regret our landmarks. Without them, we could move on to other projects without worrying about upkeep or squabbling about funding. We could be like, say, Detroit and San Jose, where I lived for many years and where the truly old buildings can be counted on one hand. But we do have the old buildings, and as Clubbe, Anderson, and Betsky all make clear, they are essential to our character. They stand for something elemental to what we are all about, and our willingness to protect and preserve them will be a referendum on our values. Hear Aaron Betsky on the Union Terminal: “It is the other great structure in our city, and if not the greatest structure in the Midwest, it is among them. What I love about it is the way in which this single iconic image really stands for people coming together in one place. That arch is a giant portal into another world…that you reach by train travel. Then there is a series of public spaces that reach out to draw you in. And there are decorations to bring you further in, to show you what the city made and what made the city. And when you come out of the portal, you come into the City of Cincinnati. Everything else is secondary to that gesture; it’s just extraordinary.”

How do you turn your back on that?

The afternoon after my trek with Terry Girard, I settled into the downtown public library for a 3 p.m. discussion in its ongoing series, My Cincinnati House. The speaker, Chuck Lohre, was talking about the Frank Lloyd Wright House ( in Clifton that he purchased nine years ago. With its famous pedigree, it is a grand example of the Mid-Century Modern style that abounds in Greater Cincinnati. “People who like Mid-Century Modern are a strong, small segment,” Lohre tells me later. “It’s not really growing, but they’re passionate.”

Characterized by brick, wood, stone, flat roofs, carports, and large planes of glass, Mid-Century Modern houses appeared here after World War II, mostly in Wyoming, Glendale, Amberley Village, and Indian Hill. A number of local architects, including Carl Strauss and Ray Roush, Abrom Dombar, the Henn brothers, Rudy Hermes, and Woodie Garber (whose downtown public library, completed in 1955, remains a landmark) designed them. To recognize their legacy, Lohre and others launched the nonprofit CF3—Cincinnati Form Follows Function—a group of Mid-Century Modern enthusiasts. They tour private MCM residences from time to time, and they are currently documenting—sad duty—some Woodie Garber houses under demolition in Indian Hill. Unofficially, they regard themselves as a sub-committee of the Cincinnati Preservation Association.

Founded in 1964, the Preservation Association’s passion is protecting the city’s historic sites, structures, and even its small, distinctive details (like securing the Rookwood bas-relief on the aforementioned Gidding-Jenny store). CPA received a lot of ink this year for its acquisition of Pinecroft, the Powel Crosley estate in Mt. Airy, and the Rauh house in Woodlawn. The former is a classic Tudor mansion of the 1920s robber baron school (not to cast aspersions on Crosley); the latter, a first-rate example of the International Style circa 1938. Both are trophies that any community would be proud to claim.

The mission of the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati, by contrast, is to make people aware of architecture (the “built environment,” as Kit Anderson says), and then, through education and programming, to make them better consumers of it so that they may be more inclined to pass a levy, fight for preservation, or use green materials when they redo a kitchen. A streak of idealism colors Anderson’s credo. “It is important that we all have some idea of what we look at, live with, and take responsibility for,” she says. “It’s our responsibility to inform ourselves, so that when we’re asked to play a role as taxpayers, we do so from an informed point of view.”

Her view is pragmatic. “Preserve everything at all costs? No, that’s folly,” she says. “We would burden ourselves unnecessarily if we tried. Some things do ultimately become white elephants. That’s the reality of the way we live. If someone grabs hold and finds a way to repurpose, that’s great. But it’s the process of asking questions that’s really important. If the answer is, ‘Gee, I don’t think so,’ then the community has to do something else.”

In recent years, a number of high-profile architectural projects have generated renewed awareness of our built environment—and garnered varying reviews in the process. Included are the long-awaited Banks complex on the riverfront, the Eric Kunzel Center for Arts and Education at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, Paul Brown Stadium, the Freedom Center, The Ascent condominiums in Covington, the Contemporary Arts Center, the Great American Building at Queen City Square, the condominium complex at 2801 Erie Avenue in Hyde Park, Cincinnati Country Day School, and the many buildings, constructed over a 20-year period starting in the mid-1980s, that face-lifted UC into a national spotlight. Each of these has born some criticism. In various conversations, I found plans for The Banks and Horseshoe Casino most strongly condemned; I heard mixed reactions on SCPA. All of which may attest less to any flaw in their design than to the propensity of some to resist anything new, different, or daring. Time will tell.

Dick Rosenthal—whose name graces the widely hailed Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, and who chairs the city’s Urban Design Review Board—told me that he has long been interested in architecture, but took a “deep dive” when he became involved with the CAC. His experiences since have left him wiser—and willing to be candid concerning much of what is happening here currently. “I think the Daniel Libeskind building [The Ascent] is wonderful,” he says. “The Paul Brown Stadium goes well beyond accomplishing something where grown men play a child’s game; I wish I could say the same for the baseball park, but I’d be lying. I think The Banks is a nightmare…a missed opportunity.”

The Urban Design Review Board reviews major municipal development projects (not including the public schools) whenever there is some city involvement—financing, tax incentives, street improvements, easements, et cetera. A local businessman or civic leader serves pro bono as chair, joined by four architects. They focus on what architect and board member John Senhauser calls “the public realm rather than the internal function of the structure. In other words, what are the citizens getting for their civic investment?”

After every review, the board makes recommendations to the city manager—who is not required to follow the advice. Moreover, exogenous circumstances can affect the ultimate impact of the board’s advice. Senhauser was disappointed with the designs for Horseshoe Casino. “There was little that was ‘urban’ about it,” he says—an important consideration, given the site. And he felt that neither the developers nor the city demonstrated a genuine desire to alter the plan. “It was more show than substance.”

In the case of The Banks, the pressure to get moving after a decade of delay trumped aesthetic considerations when it came time to select a developer. “So we got who we got,” according to Rosenthal. On a happier note, Rosenthal is a big fan of 3CDC, even though some of its work is shielded from board review. “What they’ve done is amazing, wonderful. They’ve woken up Over-the- Rhine and made Fountain Square a place where people go.

“The existence of the board,” Rosenthal continues, “sends a message that the city is interested not only in what a development looks like but its relationship to the environment, whether it makes sense from a pedestrian traffic point of view or many other things. But certainly the aesthetics of a building are key. The Great American Building did come before the board, and while I’m not a fan of the tiara, I think it’s a good building. There was a fair amount of conversation about accentuating the verticality of it. As a result, it now looks taller and more streamlined than it would have been according to the original design. That’s one where I think our input helped make it a better building.”

What might bring us more good buildings in the future? Betsky begins to answer like this: “The great challenge in Cincinnati, as everywhere, is: First, how do we make buildings that are great in an era in which we invest less and less? Everything is engineered to be as cheap and efficient as possible. So it becomes more and more difficult to create something that has the complexity and beautifully worked surfaces of older buildings. And second, how do we do sprawl right? Three-quarters of our population lives outside the city limits…. You would be hard-pressed to think of any significant structure of any impact that has been built beyond the I-275 beltway in the last 25 years, and yet that’s where most of the building is going on.”

As he continues to talk, however, he finds some possibilities for optimism. The city’s impressive network of parks provides one. “The fact that we continue to invest in making the areas around our buildings better gives me hope,” Betsky says. He believes there are younger architects doing good things. Michael McInturf, who designed the startlingly austere Cincinnati Country Day School, is one. José Garcia, who created the starkly contemporary 2801 Erie, is another. While both buildings can be challenging for traditionalists, they are exhilarating for others—for their demonstration of the possibilities when an architectural imagination is cut loose.

The final reason Betsky cites for optimism is rooted in his deep conviction that “architecture starts with landscape and geography,” that Cincinnati’s landscape—“all the energy and sweep of the plains bundled into these compacted hills and valleys”—is special, and that some of those charged with placing buildings on it are appropriately sensitive.

Take the University of Cincinnati. “In the ’80s,” he says, “it was a dismal place. George Hargreaves”—the landscape architect who re-envisioned the campus—“found a way to transform it to a place that makes all the qualities of this hilly landscape so great. He then tells you about that landscape in the hills and valleys that stretch out in front of the Rec Center—the pathway that leads down to that geometric abstraction, that goes from upper to lower campus, is one of the great pathways in Cincinnati.”

Much has been said about UC’s new buildings, and deservedly so. As a body of work, and as the fulfillment of the vision held by former UC President Joseph Steger and Jay Chatterjee, former dean of the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, they are exemplary. Michael Graves’s Engineering Research Center, Peter Eisenman’s Aronoff Center for Design and Art, Frank Gehry’s Vontz Center, and the Rec Center itself, by Thom Mayne and Morphosis—to cite four—stand alone as monuments to 24-carat taste and cutting-edge design; they stand with the buildings around them as a testament to enlightened stewardship and aesthetic aspiration. The new architecture frames the old, and both benefit by the contrast. Any Cincinnatian who takes the time to wander below McMicken Hall will find great visual reward and come away proud.

Recently, following a hurried interview with Chatterjee (he had gotten himself overcommitted), I did just that. It was a perfect May day, and just as Betsky had predicted, the walk down Main Street to the Rec Center and beyond was a sensory delight. Still ringing in my ears was Chatterjee’s recollection of how hard he had to fight to bring good architecture to UC—first with the state over regulations requiring use of local architects only, then with various deans who were skeptical of what he and his architects were proposing for their schools. But he had his vision, and he was determined to realize it.

As it was with UC, so it will be with the city. Where there is vision and determination—3CDC and Riverfront Park are good examples of both—what once seemed daunting becomes feasible. Our great gift from the past, a voluminous inventory of beautiful and stylish older buildings, is currently up for grabs. Whether they survive, well-tended and vital, or wither through neglect is our choice. Likewise, when we undertake new projects such as The Banks or the casino, their architecture is our choice—even when we choose to throw up our hands in frustration and say, “Just get it done.”

We have citizens who care and organizations to promote positive outcomes. We also have a great love of our past and a concern that our future be worthy of it. My fingers are crossed.

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