Monday, March 19, 2018

The Terrace Plaza | Part 1 - The Past

In the time I’ve been putting this website together/been a professional photographer, there have been a lot of places I wanted to see and document locally. With many of them, I eventually had the opportunity either through my own resources, invitations, or through organizations I’ve worked with. There was always one that seemed to escape me, though.

It was always on the cusp of redevelopment, still active, changing hands, or in some other state of flux. I knew a little about its history, knew it was significant, but I didn't know all of the details. Often, I forgot it even existed. Occasionally, I’d catch glimpse of this UFO-like structure hiding amongst the city’s skyline and I’d think “I really need to see that place.” But among day jobs, other projects, and the shifting priorities of life in general, I never quite got around to looking into it.

Then one day, the opportunity presented itself.

Thanks to a heads up from my friends Phil and Ryan, as well as the Cincinnati Preservation Collective, I had the chance to photograph the Terrace Plaza Hotel.

- The Terrace Plaza Hotel seen to the right of the Huntington Center in Downtown Cincinnati.

There’s a lot to this story and a lot of photographs, so I’m going to break it up into three parts. To start, let’s take a walk in the city. Even those of us who are deeply familiar with Cincinnati’s streets and urban landscape can forget this historic building is there. It can’t be seen from all over like the Great American Tower and it’s not anywhere near as ornate like the Carew Tower, Union Terminal, or Music Hall. However, it's still historically significant.

If you’re standing at the corner of Sixth and Vine in Downtown looking southwest, you’ll have a modern office tower behind you. A parking garage hidden behind decorative camouflage and sitting above a row of restaurants will be to your left. On your right is the Cincinnatian Hotel, an upscale lodging establishment housed in a beautiful building from 1882. It’s a street corner that represents the typical facets of the Downtown grid. Then, if you stare straight ahead, there’s a hat shop at street level underneath some old, tattered awnings. Above it, nothing but bricks. The monotony is obstructed solely by a tarp-covered sign and a vent.

- The corner of Sixth and Vine Streets.

If you happen to glance up further, you’ll see a small amount of overgrown foliage hanging over the masonry.

There’s another structure on top of all of that, which has windows, some boarded over with plywood. You can just barely make out the curved structure that I described earlier as looking like a “UFO.” That’s if you happen to look up at all, though.

You can see part of this structure from the Carew Tower’s observation deck, but not the most interesting parts of it. If you work Downtown in certain office towers, you may have a clear view. But even then, do you notice it? Can you tell that it’s sitting quiet, with no one in it? That it has historical significance? Most likely, it appears as just a mash of bricks providing an ordinary backdrop atypical of most major American cities.

- The monotony of the Terrace Plaza's bricks.

I knew something special was hidden in there, but I had no idea how special. Then I went to lunch with Phil.

On top of being an awesome photographer, writer, and keeper of local history, Phil is probably one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject of the Terrace Plaza. Sitting in the back booth of a Downtown gyro place one afternoon, he spun his computer around to show two images on top of each other: The Terrace Plaza at its zenith, above, and the current, dilapidated condition, below.

- Terrace Plaza's current condition as photographed by Phil Armstrong contrasted with its original condition as photographed by Ezra Stoller. Compilation by Phil Armstrong.

I’d seen diptychs like this before; it’s always interesting to see a contrast between historical and present, but Phil had taken painstaking care to line things up just right. On top of that, I couldn’t believe just how beautiful the interior of the building looked, or that it wasn’t in use or coveted as yet another revitalization project. I’ve seen a lot of abandoned spaces over the past 10+ years, and I can often understand the historical context of how structures end up like this. This one, however, was puzzling. As urban cores all across the nation, especially our own, have been flooded with developers and investment, the scenes from the Terrace Plaza seemed like the perfect place to set up an eatery, a great bar, a space for social gathering, a boutique hotel, etc. I couldn’t believe that this was just sitting there, seemingly forgotten. And I wanted to see it in person for myself. Before we get to that in Part 2, though, let's first look at the building's history:

- The Terrace Plaza building as seen from the corners of Sixth and Vine Streets.

In 1948, a large brick structure appeared in Downtown. Lining Sixth Street between Race and Vine Streets, the imposing brick structure was considered an architectural marvel. A Chicago-headquartered firm known as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed this building. SOM is known for breaking height records with iconic skyscrapers such as John Hancock Center, Willis (Sears) Tower, and the Burj Khalifa. Their first hotel project, though, was the Terrace Plaza in Cincinnati. To the untrained eye, it may not look like much from the outside, but both its simple structure and ornate interior were a result of SOM’s attention to detail and of their desire to create a truly Modernist structure. Harper’s Magazine raved about the building, stating:

“If you want to discover what your grandchildren will think of as elegance of this postwar era, you will have to go to Cincinnati.” 

Department stores took up residence in the bottom levels of the large, windowless, brick structure. The hotel was built on top of that structure, accessible via elevators that skipped past the retail floors.

- Artist's renderings of the Terrace Plaza Hotel. Images via Wikimedia Commons.

The hotel’s interior may be viewed as nostalgic or casually labeled as “retro” these days, but back then it was a radically different, new look that attempted to envision and evoke the future. It was simple, elegant, and sleek, with unique details and large windows for natural light all around.

- Postcard view of the Terrace Plaza's Gourmet Room. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

There was also a significant collection of modern art. Joan Miro’s “Mural for the Terrace Plaza Hotel” featured bright colors and abstract shapes along the wall of the hotel’s marquee restaurant. Iconic cartoonist Saul Steinberg’s mural of cleverly drawn Cincinnati icons filled another room. Alexander Calder created a mobile that was suspended above the lobby.

- Postcard view of the Terrace Plaza's main dining room. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A patio on the actual terrace offered a dynamic view of the cityscape as well as a unique place to grab a drink, but a few stories higher, the hotel’s Gourmet Room restaurant sat in a round, glass building which offered a panoramic view of the surrounding Queen City. Several similar “mid-century modern” hotels would be built across the world, but the Terrace Plaza was the first and one of the finest. It was revolutionary and it was acclaimed, a unique icon in post-war architecture that was a departure from the conservative nature Cincinnati would start to take on in many aspects.

But it didn’t last.

- From street level, the Terrace Plaza barely stands out and at first glance and can often hardly seem significant.

By 1956, the hotel’s original operator sold to Hilton. Over the years, the art was removed and the interior altered. A few sources echo the sentiment that the design elements which had originally made the building an icon had also been responsible for making it look "old-fashioned" or "outdated." I can see their point, but I have to wonder how much of that is attributable to mixing this modern icon with the policies and designs of ownership over time. I’d argue that the classic interior of the Terrace Plaza has certainly held up better than that of 1970s-era Hiltons, Holiday Inns and Howard Johnsons. Not to say Hilton is a slouch brand; they’re known for quality and they kept things going at The Terrace Plaza, in their own way. Several of the hotel's modern features were renovated with a French-inspired style, to appear more "elegant." Still, the Gourmet Room and its Parisian fare was well regarded up above the streets, holding a coveted Mobil 5-star rating for a time.

- The Gourmet Room of the Terrace Plaza's as photographed by Phil Armstrong contrasted with its original condition as photographed by Ezra Stoller. Compilation by Phil Armstrong.

In a wonderfully detailed story of the building’s history, Lisa Murtha of Cincinnati Magazine reflected oo the Gourment Room in 2011:

“…the former five-star penthouse would become little more than an empty ‘fish bowl’ standing sentinel over the downtown rooftops - a space ahead of its time, the city around it is still trying to catch up.” 

I like Murtha’s assertion because it represents so much of Cincinnati’s attitudes towards things over the years. That’s not to say this city is some cultural backwater, but it can often be overwhelmingly conservative in both tastes and trends. The Terrace Plaza perhaps seemed more fitting for the metropolis of New York or the clientele of Boston. There were other factors too, such as the shifting of development from downtowns to suburbs and the decline of urban centers across America as the 20th century waned. Cincinnati was not unique in those circumstances: many mid-tier American cities became plagued by misguided attempts to mirror their suburban counterparts. Murtha writes of these changing attitudes, describing how despite being well reviewed, revered among certain locals, and always booked on weekends, the Gourmet Room was struggling. Meanwhile, the peanut shell-laden floor of Joe’s Bar on the ground level was a more casual place where patrons might catch a glimpse of local hero Johnny Bench.

- The Terrace Plaza Hotel's windows can be seen to the left, above its brick structure.

The retail hidden behind the brick facade took a hit too. JCPenney was gone by 1968, and nearly ten years later, the Bond department store also vacated their space. Faced with the challenge of finding a tenant who would occupy several floors with no windows and department stores consolidating and fleeing to suburban malls, it took until 1983 for someone to come in. AT&T set up a call center on several floors, and the ground floor was converted to street level retail. The Terrace Hilton began to gradually decline. Visiting guests dropped and several sources indicate that the quality of clientele had become a far cry from those seeking luxury in the hotel’s early days. As the hotel sagged, so did the Gourmet Room, closing for good in 1992. Two years later, Hilton sold to a group that brought in Crowne Plaza, who operated the hotel and relegated the Gourmet Room to be a simple banquet facility, a far cry from the five-star French restaurant of its heyday.

- Doormat from the Crowne Plaza years still remaining in the Terrace Plaza's downstairs lobby.

Like Hilton, Crowne Plaza is a brand also known for its upscale accommodations with notable properties all over the world. However, their Cincinnati operation within the former Terrace Plaza wasn’t one of them. Various building owners came and went, all of them touting various renovation proposals. There were ideas for boutique hotels and condo renovations as the years wore on. While out scouting for abandoned buildings in late 2007, some friends and I were surprised to find that the Crowne Plaza was actually open, its overhang at street level appearing dingy and dilapidated. We has mistakingly suspected it for a shuttered structure. Around a year later, it closed.

- The Terrace Plaza's overhang and once grand entrance now looking bleak.

Over the years, you could peer in through the dusty windows and see the water-damaged ceilings. You could visit the retailers on the street, Batsake’s Hat Shop being one of the iconic mainstays. Most of the others have closed through the years. The hotel would pop up in an article every now and again, but any progress on renovations never came. The AT&T call center was also long gone. As the Terrace Plaza sat idle, the city around it finally started to seem like it was “catching up” as new investment, redevelopment, and events occurred within the urban core. I figured it was finally time to pursue a chance to see the place. I sought out Phil, hoping he might have a lead, but he was already a few steps ahead.

- Longtime street level tenant Batsakes Hat Shop is still going strong. 

An acclaimed local photographer and the guy behind a lot of the interesting content at Cincinnati Refined, Phil was walking in the footsteps of Ezra Stoller. Stoller had been an iconic photographer, known for the way he documented modern architecture. He had been in Cincinnati as the Terrace Plaza neared completion. He carefully crafted compositions that captured the building’s iconic and revolutionary style. These days, his photographs are just as classic as the building itself. Phil was now channeling Stoller’s work, lining up his camera and editing the color palates to mirror Ezra’s compositions. While documenting an interesting contrast and showing a unique place, Phil was also documenting another time in the building’s history.

Phil’s work is great and I’d be content to live vicariously through him, but there was a part of me that wanted to see the place for myself. To bring my camera. To step out into the panoramic glass of the gourmet room and breathe in the building’s history and what it represents. I was prepared to bribe Phil with lunch or get on my knees and beg if it came to that. Thankfully, Phil already had something in the works. Thanks to him and the fine folks at the Cincinnati Preservation Collective, I was able to get on to one of the limited tours recently offered.

On December 2, 2017, I joined an enthusiastic group of people crowding into the ground level lobby.

- The tour group assembles.

The story continues in Part 2 with a look inside.


  • All photographs by Ronny Salerno for Queen City Discovery unless otherwise credited.
  • Editing by Andrea Ward.
  • All of Phil's Terrace Plaza diptychs can be seen on his website.
  • Lisa Murtha's story on the Terrace Plaza is available on Cincinnati Magazine's website.


  1. Really appreciate the perfectly lined up before and afters. It makes a difference. Interesting read. Thanks

    1. Phil did some great work with those. You can see quite a few more on this site here:

      Thanks for checking out the story!

    2. Very interesting! I always wondered about the history behind this building.

    3. It'll be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of it. Thanks for checking it out.