Room With a View

In the glory days of Cincinnati dining, the Gourmet Room loomed large, with its five Mobil stars and starry-eyed views. But times and tastes changed, leaving the restaurant—and the Terrace Plaza—behind. A look back at the rise and fall of a landmark.

It was a hot and humid July day when The Gourmet Room opened.

Not that anyone inside noticed much, since Cincinnati’s newest French restaurant was perched at the tip-top of one of the first buildings in the world with central air conditioning throughout. The tables were set with white linens and the signature china—black plates with a gold rooster medallion—sat ready to receive the first diners. A bright blue 30-foot-long mural, commissioned by John J. Emery and created by surrealist painter Joan Miró, curved along the back wall and light poured through the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The day before, manager Andre Ballestra had posed, menu in hand, for a picture that would appear in The Cincinnati Post—the first glimpse the public had of the sophisticated new dining room crowning the Terrace Plaza.

Just 10 days earlier, spotlights had flanked the Vine Street side of the building’s seven-story brick curtain wall for the hotel’s grand opening. Cincinnati had been waiting for two years to see Emery’s latest project—a hotel set atop two department stores in an ultra-modern building. It marked the beginning of a new era for architecture enthusiasts in America; there wasn’t much else in the world like it, and it was being built here.

Shoppers had already been coming and going for months at JCPenney and Bond, which occupied the building’s base. Hotel patrons and curious onlookers had already toured the Terrace Plaza hotel with its automated couch-beds and its summer terrace garden/winter ice rink overlooking Fountain Square, not to mention art installations by modernist sculptor Alexander Calder and renowned The New Yorker illustrator Saul Steinberg. But until July 29, 1948, few in Cincinnati had ever set foot in a restaurant so elegant as the one on the 20th floor. On that day, no one could have imagined what would eventually become of “the most modern hotel in America.” In just 60 years’ time, the Terrace Plaza would go from a feature story in Life and Harper’s Bazaar to a ghost of its former self, an almost completely empty building.

And the Gourmet Restaurant? Stripped of its artwork, its decor, and the diners who once loved it so dearly, the former five-star penthouse would become little more than an empty “fish bowl” standing sentinel over the downtown rooftops—a space so ahead of its time, the city around it is still trying to catch up.

A mixed-use building was an ambitious project in the years immediately following World War II, but it was nothing new for real estate developer John J. Emery. He “had done this all before at the Netherland Plaza,” says Patrick Snadon, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. Emery had opened that Art Deco hotel and retail development in 1931. This time, he wanted something stripped down and modern. He tapped New York–based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to develop the structure that would include two department stores, a handful of smaller shops and apartments, and high above it all, a 324-room hotel.

“The initial programming and schematic designs were created by Louis Skidmore and Bill Brown,” says Shawn Tubb, who did his UC architecture master’s thesis on the Terrace Plaza. Because so many of the country’s young men were drafted for service during the war, a 24-year-old woman named Natalie de Blois was named senior designer of the project, making this one of the first hotels largely designed by a woman. “De Blois did the space planning, designed the structure and interiors, and finished the sections and elevations” for the entire building, says Tubb.

That included the building’s most unusual feature: The unbroken curtain wall of brick which sheathed the first seven stories. As Tubb noted in his thesis: “Since the entire building was being air-conditioned and since windows only hampered the display of merchandise in department stores, everyone agreed to make the curtain wall largely windowless.”

If that wasn’t strange enough, onlookers were entirely puzzled by what eventually became known as “the UFO on top of the building,” says Tubb. It was a small, round, plate glass and steel beam structure that looked like it had been plunked down as an afterthought. In fact, it was something of an afterthought. The building’s design was well underway when Emery requested the addition of a penthouse restaurant. Louis Skidmore approached de Blois with the idea. As she told the Chicago Architects Oral History Project, “Mr. Skidmore said, ‘Well, what do you think about putting a dining room up there on the top floor? You think you can fit it in?’”

The circular design provided almost 360-degree views of the skyline and suburbs. “They tilted the glass out, so there wasn’t a glare,” says Tubb. “You could see right though.”

Skidmore and Emery’s afterthought paid off. The restaurant caused “an instant sensation,” wrote Polk Laffoon IV in the December 1977 issue of this magazine, noting that the “Gourmet Restaurant” was not its original name. “The place was to have a French name as well—Chanticleer, after Chaucer’s vainglorious rooster—but at the last moment Emery dropped it in deference to his monolingual clientele. (The rooster motif on the Gourmet’s plates and menus remains.)” Although officially named the Gourmet Restaurant, Cincinnatians quickly took to calling it “the Gourmet Room.” (It’s a peculiar local tradition to warp the names of beloved Queen City food institutions; see also, “The Maisonette,” “Krogers,” and “Buskens.”)

Only one elevator went up to the penthouse, an express from the hotel’s eighth floor lobby. Visitors would step out into a windowless hallway, follow a curved wall around a bend, and then climb a short set of stairs before being rewarded with sweeping views of the city. “The narrow space leading from the elevator to the Gourmet Restaurant created drama,” Tubb says. Inside, it was impossible not to notice the room’s only wall, graced with Miró’s massive mural (which now hangs opposite the Terrace Café in the Cincinnati Art Museum). On art dealer Pierre Matisse’s urging, Miró had been commissioned and was brought in from Europe to install it himself. It was a “sort of artificial window,” says Tubb.

The room itself was tiny (which automatically bequeathed exclusivity) and could only seat about 45 people—20 or so along the banquette below the Miró, and the rest at freestanding tables. The menu, like much of the staff, was decidedly French, and included favorites like coq au vin, lobster bisque, soufflé Grand Marnier, Dover sole, steaks, and wild game in season. A perennial favorite, recalls Josef Reif, former maître d’ and founder of L’Auberge in Dayton, was the Gourmet Room’s tasting menu, mainly because it took so long to prepare. “People liked to sit longer because when the sky changed and the lights came on, it was just a beautiful setting,” he says.

In 1970, the Gourmet Room was awarded the coveted five-star status by Mobil in its travel guide. It was a rare honor, but even more unusual was the fact that there were two other restaurants in Cincinnati with the same elite status—Pigall’s and Maisonette. All three were French, but as John Kinsella, Master Chef at the Midwest Culinary Institute and Executive Chef at the Terrace Plaza from 1975 to 1977, recalls, they each had a slightly different take. “Pigall’s was a provincial French restaurant, the Maisonette was more haute cuisine, and we were more Parisian-style. We did a lot of nouvelle cuisine,” he says. “People used to fly into Cincinnati and go to us [for dinner], then the Maisonette the next night, and then Pigall’s after that.”

“The little penthouse up there was always booked,” says Reif. Like so many others, he knew that the Gourmet Room’s appeal was heavily tied to its setting. “The penthouse look was so charming—it was just romance all the way.”

“It was the quintessential French restaurant,” says Paul Kelley, Cincinnati native and longtime Gourmet Room patron. “Pigall’s and Maisonette were superior restaurants also, but they did not have the view. The view was unbelievable.”

The unique setting eventually drew all the area’s big names—Johnny Bench, Theodore M. Berry, Carl Lindner—but it attracted national celebrities as well, often those who were in town performing at the Beverly Hills Supper Club. “It was nonstop paparazzi time,” says Reif. “We had all the stars, from Ella Fitzgerald to coochie-coochie Charo.”

The icing on the cake was the Gourmet Room’s staff. “You talk about a high standard of service? It was unbelievable,” Reif testifies. “It was a professional group of people…a great place to work.” That tradition was established long before Reif started working there; Vito Locaputo, the Gourmet Room’s first chef, had been trained in France and patrons credited much of its initial success to Henri Guglielmi, who manned the maître d’ post for more than 20 years.

The Gourmet Room had only one real flaw. “Only a hotel could afford to have a penthouse setting that small,” says Reif. “The restaurant couldn’t have made it otherwise.” In other words, if the hotel ever faltered, the restaurant would go down with it.

Which brings us to 1956, when John Emery sold the building to the Hilton family. For a number of years, everything seemed to be fine under the new management. The hotel, whose name was changed to the Terrace Hilton, maintained its stature; the Gourmet Room flourished, eventually earning those five stars. But ever so slowly, things were changing.

After he sold the building, Emery asked that some of the hotel’s more important works of art be donated to the Cincinnati Art Museum, particularly Miró’s mural, the Calder mobile, and a Saul Steinberg mural that hung in the Skyline Restaurant on the eighth floor. Hilton agreed. However, the removal of the Miró necessitated an overhaul of the Gourmet Room. Hilton had a wall of wood paneling installed in its place and hung an ornate bronze chandelier in the middle of the ceiling’s sleek can lights. “They thought that would make it look more French,” says Tubb.

Instead, as Laffoon noted in his 1977 piece, “the rather spare, 1940s metallic furniture gave way to a sea of French Empire. Now all is blue and salmon and velvet, relentlessly carpeted and curtained.”

By the mid-1970s, the restaurant had lost a star in Mobil’s travel guide. The star’s loss was easily overlooked by management, though, because sales at a new street level addition called Joe’s Bar, where peanut shells littered the floor and Johnny Bench was a frequent visitor, were through the roof. “Our cocktail waitresses had so much tip money,” says Kinsella, “they gave it to the night manager to put in the night safe. Some of them were working eight hours and making $1,200 a day.”

The city’s taste for fine French food had not waned, though; even in 1975, when Kinsella came on the scene, the Gourmet Room was sold out on Friday and Saturday nights. Unfortunately, the rest of the tenants weren’t doing quite as well. By the 1960s and ’70s, Cincinnati was losing population. “Hemorrhaging,” says Tubb. As went the population so went the department stores: JCPenney closed in 1968, Bond in 1977.

With modernism’s shine on the wane, “many people ridiculed the building as not being very attractive,” says David Ginsberg, president of Downtown Cincinnati Incorporated. Plus, who was going to lease the six-story windowless space that JCPenney and Bond had vacated?

It took a while, but AT&T eventually stepped in and bought the building in 1983, converting the second through seventh stories into a call center. The second story of Bond’s original two-story windowed entrance was bricked over, making the curtain wall that much larger and more uninviting. The building’s first floor was subdivided into several smaller spaces to accommodate retail shops, and a covered turnaround was added on Sixth Street for hotel guests’ cars. The hotel continued to operate as the Terrace Hilton, but its occupancy rates began falling and it began attracting a different clientele—the kind of clientele who preferred places like Joe’s Bar.

Unable to sustain itself without a successful hotel beneath it, the Gourmet Room closed its doors for good on July 4, 1992. “People are calling, making reservations for the final two seatings,” then–maître d’ Walter Herzig said at the time. “It’s sad and it’s a shame, they tell us when they call. I told George Coorey that we should bring his piano down to Fountain Square and the staff will stand behind him with a sign: ‘Will work for French food.’”

To the staff’s credit, the food and service never faltered. “It was good until the end,” says Kelley. “I thought it was the best kept secret in the whole of Cincinnati.”

After the Gourmet Room closed, the building continued to change hands, first in 1994 when AT&T sold it to the Oliveye Retail Limited Partnership, a group that included developers Emanuel “Manny” Organek and Marc Blumberg, who leased it to the Crowne Plaza. Occupancy rates were dismally low and the Gourmet Room, once heralded as “a crystal ball in the sky” by Ford Magazine, was reduced to a mere banquet room. Late in 2004, Organek and Blumberg proposed revitalizing the hotel, retail, and restaurant facilities by adding condos to the mix. The project was branded The NEXT; Cole & Russell architects were hired to draw up plans.

“We talked about taking the brick off the first seven stories and putting in a glass curtain wall,” says urban designer Nique Swan, The NEXT’s project manager. “The idea was two stories of retail…three stories of office space, and then two stories of loft-style apartments.” Above, a new hotel was going to occupy much of the old hotel’s footprint, but the top few floors were going to be penthouse-style condos.

“The kicker of it being a condo,” says Christine Schoonover, NEXT’s listing agent, “was that you would still have all the facilities of a hotel—room service, valet parking. Some people from big cities thought, ‘Hey! That’s how I want to live!’” And the Gourmet Room? It was going to be the mother of all penthouses; Schoonover has the promotional video to prove it.

The project seemed promising at first. A few hotel rooms were renovated into model units. “The opening party was the gala of all galas,” says Schoonover. “There were hundreds of people there. It was hysterical. The rest of it…wasn’t so hot.” Only a handful of units ever sold. “While it’s considered a great historic spot,” Schoonover says, “it was never designed to be condos. In order to be a successful condo project, you have to be able to sell 95 percent of your condos. Ninety percent of that building was facing an alley or a brick wall. God knows we gave it our all.”

In 2005, the building’s owners got an offer to sell. “You can go to the expense of developing a project yourself or you can sell the building,” Swan notes. Without hesitation, the owners chose door No. 2. Terrace Plaza purists felt it was just as well. “Nobody who was involved in that project seemed to have any sense of the building’s importance to Modernism,” says Snadon. The building officially changed hands to a group called Sixth Street Cincinnati Association LLC in 2006, and continued operating as a hotel until October 31, 2008, when it closed its doors for good.

The only tenants in the building right now are those on the street level: a liquor store, a clothing store, Saxony Imports, Batsakes Hat Shop, and a Cashland check cashing place. Despite the various changes in management, one thing has remained constant: The hotel, restaurants, and office spaces have remained empty.

When word first went out that the 21c—the Louisville hotel cum art space—was considering a Cincinnati location, many a modernist heart went aflutter. Preservationists felt a renovated Terrace Plaza would be the perfect place for 21c to land. But the boutique hotelier settled on a smaller site on Walnut Street, closer to the Aronoff and the Contemporary Arts Center. “21c seemed like a real lost opportunity,” Snadon says wistfully.

Current owner Tommy Demetriades disagrees. “When you have 200-plus rooms, the boutique concept doesn’t work.” Demetriades and his father, furrier Alexandros Demetriades, bought the Terrace Plaza building in early 2010 via their New York-based real estate investment group, World Properties, LLC. World Properties owns one other local property—the Cincinnati Mall (formerly called Cincinnati Mills, and before that Forest Fair Mall), which they bought in 2009. Just this January, the Middletown Journal reported that new plans to redevelop the mall will include a hotel and an ice rink, among other things.

The announcement may have made Demetriades some friends in Fairfield, but not downtown; imagine what Demetriades could have done with the Terrace Plaza, says Gus Miller, owner of Batsakes Hat Shop. “If he put the money in the hotel instead….” His voice trails off. “If you don’t spend any money to fix something up, then why do you buy it?”

“We had a lot of plans when we bought the property,” says Demetriades. “The idea was to get the hotel open immediately.” The InterContinental Hotels Group reportedly had some interest in renovating and reopening the hotel space (ironically, they own the Crowne Plaza name), and Demetriades claims that Ramada made him an offer to reopen the hotel as is. “Unfortunately,” he says, “when you run the numbers on it—[even] just the hotel portion—the numbers just aren’t there. We know the history and how amazing it was…[but] it doesn’t make sense for us to make the investment.”

And even though the building is clearly historic, it has never been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This makes local preservationists nervous. “There is absolutely no protection for [the building],” says Snadon. “It is sitting there, endangered, in an economic freefall.” Which also means it could be demolished, though no one has openly mentioned that as an option. So far.

Demetriades says he has had “several proposals” to reopen the Gourmet Room, but even that may be too costly a venture right now. “You could spend a little bit of money and get it up and running, but honestly, it should be a lot of money,” he says. “Everybody has this romantic idea of the property and I think it should be like that.” While the building is not actively for sale, Demetriades is quick to note that they’d consider “an offer that’s interesting to us.”

In other words, the building is too expensive to renovate, all the hotel deals fell through, nobody’s going to want to pay to reopen a now-defunct restaurant on the top floor of an empty building, and the owners are willing to sell—again—for the right price.

Today, the words “Hotel Closed” are scrawled on a white markerboard propped just inside the main entrance. They’re hard to read through the dust-covered doors, which are all chained shut, save for one. That’s the one that Ron, the building’s lone maintenance man, who has been fired and re-hired every time the building has sold over the past 37 years, enters and exits through each day.

The water-damaged ceilings just inside the vestibule give some indication of the condition that the rest of the building must be in. The original elevators, complete with the “TP” logo, are mostly turned off, their doors closed indefinitely. Save for one—the express up to the Gourmet Room. Except that the Gourmet Room isn’t the Gourmet Room anymore. It’s just an empty banquet hall.

Demetriades doesn’t allow visitors. “It’s best to remember it as it was,” he says. But perhaps that’s the problem. Remembering it as it was makes it that much harder to see the state it’s in today.

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