What Will Come of the Terrace Plaza Hotel?

Once the “most modern hotel in America,” the Terrace Plaza is downtown’s most conspicuous empty building. Is redevelopment finally at hand?

If you’ve ever strolled past the deserted Terrace Plaza Hotel at Sixth and Vine streets, one of two things has likely gone through your mind: “What is this giant, red brick shoebox atop our beloved Batsakes Hat Shop?” or nothing. At first glance, the structure is unremarkable at best; to many, its windowless lower exterior and ripped vinyl awnings are an eyesore. It wasn’t always this way.

Illustration by Matthew Lyons

The Terrace Plaza Hotel opened its doors in 1948, drawing a crowd of 10,000-plus on its first day alone. The International-style structure—a type of design from which Americans birthed “Mid-Century Modern”—had nationwide media outlets like Harper’s Bazaar, Life, and Time lauding its design, art, technology, and future-thinking architecture.

Originally owned by local real estate development titan John J. Emery (see: Carew Tower and Netherland Plaza Hotel), the Terrace was designed by then-fledgling architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), now world-renowned for icons like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Willis Tower in Chicago. The completed structure was among the first mixed-use buildings in the world, housing two department stores in its seven brick-clad lower levels and an 11-story hotel on top. It was one of the first hotels designed largely by a woman: Natalie de Blois, then 24, served as lead designer and had a hand in everything from the furniture to the staff uniforms to matchbox covers. Every guest room had its own television, user-controlled A/C unit, and push-button couch beds—tech marvels you couldn’t find in most hotels then. A circular glass-walled French restaurant, the five-star Gourmet Room, perched outside the 20th floor like a giant terrarium, offered impressive views of the city. Specially commissioned artworks by Joan Miró, Saul Steinberg, and Alexander Calder drew more acclaim, an unprecedented symbiosis between art and corporate design.

Emery sold the property to Hilton Hotels Corporation in 1956, beginning a series of ownership changes from which the building never really recovered. By the 1960s, International and Modernist structures were largely considered “out of style,” and interest in the Terrace Plaza dwindled. Today, roughly a decade after the hotel officially closed its doors, the question looms large: What will happen to it next?

Ownership disputes over the last calendar year have reignited preservationists’ campaign to save and restore the Terrace. One longtime champion of the building is Beth Sullebarger, of local historic preservation firm Sullebarger Associates, who helped the building land on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. She stresses the importance of preserving it in its historic form. “The Terrace Plaza demonstrated in a concrete way that Cincinnati could be modern, progressive, and innovative,” she says. “To be a vibrant city, we need to hold on to those values while preserving the best of the past.” Representatives from SOM, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the international historic preservation firm Docomomo have written letters of support and campaigned for restoration as well.

Restoring historic structures is an expensive proposition, to be sure. Yet there’s some monetary incentive: as much as 45 percent of development costs in tax credits on the state and national level.

Lately, though, the tide is turning in favor of historic renovation: In August, an out-of-town developer—one interested in re-envisioning the hotel, without historic regard—filed a lawsuit against the previous owner, believing it had a contract to purchase the property. The previous owner disagreed, instead selling the building and transferring the title to JNY Capital in Brooklyn, New York. This is good news for preservationists, among them Andy Scott, former senior project director for JNY, who says the company seeks to restore the Terrace Plaza in a manner that honors Emery’s original Modernist vision. Scott is well versed in the building’s historic value—he also worked on redeveloping the property on behalf of the previous owner, and played a key role in getting the Terrace Plaza added to the National Register. “JNY has every intention of utilizing those tax credits to develop the building in such a way as to preserve its historic integrity,” Scott says.

While the lawsuit between the former owners is still in federal court, its outcome shouldn’t affect current plans. “JNY remains confident that we will continue to own the property in the future and have continued to invest in our pre-development planning program,” says Abe Zeigerman, the firm’s managing partner.

While all of this seems like good news for the Terrace Plaza, we’re nowhere near a grand reopening. JNY’s bullishness and the presence of historic tax credits may not be enough to save this gem. But it’s a fight worth having, as Greg Tilsley, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the AIA, explains. “[Because of technology] we can do things now [with architecture] that are fascinating,” says Tilsley. “But what I’m a little concerned about is losing the sense of place. Like, if you were blindfolded and taken in a taxi to a bunch of different cities, and then you got out and couldn’t tell where you were because they all looked the same. You’d lose the history and uniqueness. That’s what preserving these old historic structures is really about.”

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