Owners of Downtown's Terrace Plaza Hotel Announce Renovation Team

Owners of the embattled historic Modernist landmark are bringing in Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the building's original architecture firm, for a mixed-use renovation.

click to enlarge Downtown's Terrace Plaza Hotel - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Downtown's Terrace Plaza Hotel

The owners of one of Cincinnati's most prominent Modernist icons say they're working on a "top to bottom" mixed-use renovation of the property.

The Terrace Plaza Hotel, which opened in 1948, is a landmark of ground-breaking design and technology. Owners JNY Capital say they want to return the towering structure on Sixth and Vine to its former glory — including revived rooftop terraces, glass-walled Gourmet Room restaurant and other features — and have enlisted original architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to help. 

"The Terrace Plaza is a distinctive part of the Cincinnati skyline and its redevelopment is long overdue," JNY CEO Ezra Unger said in a news release yesterday. "We’ve put together an incredible team of design experts who will breathe new life into one of the most important Modernist buildings of its time. We can’t wait to get started.”

At the time of its construction, the Terrace Plaza was a futuristic effort. It was the first International Style hotel in the U.S. and one of the first hotel projects here after World War II. It was one of the first hotels to have fully-automated elevators and other high-tech touches.

It was also where a trailblazing architect got her start. Then-24-year-old Natalie de Blois designed the building for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

"In the 1940s, to have a woman design a building was extremely rare," Cincinnati Historic Conservator Beth Johnson told the conservation board last month.

But the structure has fallen into disrepair in recent years — the hotel portion has been empty since 2008, and last year, a chunk of the facade fell off and hit a car. The City of Cincinnati on March 12 filed public nuisance charges against its owners over some $60,000 in code violations. JNY has said they are working to address the issues. The group bought the property last August.

"We take stewardship of Terrace Plaza very seriously, and we will work tirelessly with our renovation team to polish and preserve its legacy,” Unger said in the news release.

Another interested buyer, Indianapolis-based developer Anderson Birkla, is suing JNY and the building's former owners over rights to buy the property. Birkla had been working to purchase the building prior to its sale to JNY, going so far as to draw up plans for a $61 million, mixed-used redevelopment of the property.

That plan calls for stripping the Terrace Plaza's unique windowless brick facade — a move preservationists say would destroy the character of the building.

The current owners say they will also do a mixed-use project.

"JNY and its renovation team will take a dynamic, mixed-use approach in restoring the building and infusing it with a new energy that will blend hotel, office, and entertainment space, all inside the historic façade," the group said in its news release.

SOM was still a fledgling firm at the time of the original Terrace Plaza project but is now a famed Modernist design powerhouse.

"There are not many firms in America that have the opportunity to revisit their own projects seven decades after they were completed," SOM historic preservation studio head Frank Mahan said. "This is an extraordinary chance to breathe new life into this exceptional building.”

JNY has also tapped local firms GBBN, Luminaut and HGC Construction for the project, along with historic preservation consultant Judith Williams. 

The group has pledged a design preview in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, an effort to designate the Terrace Plaza a local historic landmark spearheaded by Cincinnati City Council member David Mann is working its way through the city's approval process. The Cincinnati Historic Conservation Board approved that designation Feb. 25. Next, the proposal goes to the Cincinnati Planning Commission, then Cincinnati City Council.

Ulmer & Berne attorney Brad Kaplan represented JNY at the HCB meeting last month. He said his clients aren't planning on tearing the building down or punching windows into the building's distinctive blank brick facade — but they also don't want to be subject to more regulations because that would entail gaining extra permits every time they make alterations to the building.

Kaplan asked the board to delay recommending the historic designation until JNY finishes a development plan.

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