Building Awareness for Cincinnati's Modern Design

CF3 spotlights this area's role in Modernist architecture and design

Although Cincinnati Form Follows Function — an organization for enthusiasts of Modern design and architecture called CF3 for short — has only been in existence since 2004, it already has come up with a potentially famous photograph of the city. It’s a panorama taken from Bellevue Hill Park in Clifton Heights.

And the success of it gives CF3 something special to celebrate at that very park this Saturday at 6 p.m., when it holds a cookout, Modernism-related swap meet and rare screening of historic footage from the construction of a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Modernist home in Amberley. This is believed to be the only documentation of construction of a Wright home ever made. Newcomers are being eagerly welcomed to the free event, but should bring their own food — CF3 wants more members and supporters. Those interested in attending should respond to an e-vite on the Web site.

The group uses its panoramic photograph as its signature graphic. It can be seen on its Web site; a slightly retouched and reformatted version accompanies this story. Like so many other memorable shots of the city’s skyline, it is looking out toward the urban basin from a hillside park.

But this is a little stranger than most. Looming over the skyline, so close they dominate the view, are two huge, rounded shapes. The top one is so close its circularity appears blurred. Flying saucers? Floating mushrooms? Lily pads? Giant vinyl LPs?

No, the visible concrete indentations give the origin away — as should the fact that this is Bellevue Hill Park. They are the concrete pergolas (supported by columns) that Cincinnati architect R. Carl Freund designed as part of a pavilion built in 1955, when optimistic, progressive post-war Modernism — with its emphasis on unadorned openness and shapes with strong, clear lines and curves — was sweeping American architecture and design. They provided shade and cover at an area once used for dancing.

Freund, the Cincinnati Park Board architect, was showing respect to Wright — similarly shaped lily-like columns were used to support the roof of his earlier Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wis.

The photograph CF3 is using was taken by CF3 member Chuck Lohre (who happens to live in a Wright-designed Clifton home).

“It almost feels like you can step off of them right into the clouds,” Lohre says of those pergolas.

His photo bears a loose similarity with Julius Shulman’s famous 1960 image of Los Angeles’ “Case Study House #22,” a glass house perched on a Hollywood hill with the lights of a great modern city below. And thus it communicates that Cincinnati, so often derided as stodgy and conservative, was right there in the thick of transformative American Modernism, a movement that lasted from 1920-1980 and reached its apogee in the 1950s and 1960s.

That makes this photograph fundamentally different from other Cincinnati shots that focus either on geography (the river and hills), older historic buildings (including Art Deco-era ones like Carew Tower) or conventional, newer downtown high-rises and stadiums.

“Well, then, this is a new iconic photograph,” says CF3 member Janet Groeber, also Lohre’s wife.

CF3’s major point is that Cincinnati was a national center for Modernism. (To educate about the city’s importance to the movement, CF3 has created banners about Modernist residential architecture that are on display at the Main Branch of the Public Library downtown.) Many local architects, influenced by Wright’s mid-to-late-career residential work, designed homes within city limits as well as in suburban communities like Finneytown, Wyoming and Anderson Township.

CF3 founders (L-R) Susan Rissover, Chuck Lohre and Chris Magee pose at the Bellevue Hill Park structure.

And downtown is home to the nation’s first Modernist hotel, the post-war Terrace Plaza. CF3 is working with the Cincinnati Preservation Association’s Modernism Committee to ensure the building, largely vacant, is redeveloped properly.

Because many people consider Modernist architecture too new to be historic, homes, schools and other buildings in this style have been demolished or are threatened.

“There are a lot of homeowners who didn’t realize or understand what they had, or what do with it,” says Susan Rissover, a realtor who co-founded CF3. “They have joined our group to get instruction on how to enhance and preserve the value of their Modernist house.”

The film screening at Saturday’s event chronicles the construction of the Wright-designed Gerald Tonkens home in Amberley. This concrete-block “Usonian Automatic”

home, as Wright called it, was built in 1954. Tonkens’ widow, Beverly Tonkens Vangrove, still lives in the home and has given permission for this special one-time screening. While Wright himself isn’t in it — he didn’t supervise on-site construction — his grandson Eric Lloyd Wright is. So, too, is Tonkens, a car dealer taken with Wright’s architectural vision.

“It’s not narrated but shows all the different elements that went into the house,” Groeber says. “The clearing of the property, putting in the supports, making the textile block.” (Groeber is also co-chair of this year’s Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s Annual Conference, being held Sept. 22-26 in Cincinnati.)

Modernism started to suffer in the public imagination in the 1970s-1980s, when it became associated with the dull glass-box towers that cropped up in cities across America, including here. In its wake came Post-Modernism buildings that were a stylistic pastiche in their use of materials and ornamentation. Post-Modernism has now been derided as backward-looking, while Modernism’s progressive, hopeful ethos has once again became something to cherish, especially as this difficult new century got underway with the contentious 2000 Presidential election and then 9/11.

“A lot of Modernism exemplified the prosperity of the post-war era,” says Chris Magee, an architect who is CF3’s other co-founder, during an interview at Bellevue Hill Park. “And I think Modernism still signifies prosperity, although it might be more in terms of the quality of life rather than monetarily.

“Will Post-Modernism be the next big thing people latch onto?” he asks, rhetorically. “ I don’t think it will, because it’s not great design to me — I don’t find it aesthetically pleasing. But Modernism — anybody can walk up to this park and if they tell me they don’t find it beautiful, they need to look again."

CF3 hosts a cookout/swap meet/film screening at 6 p.m. Saturday at Bellevue Hill Park in Clifton Heights. For more info on the group and event, go to

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