Several weeks ago a local landmark of Modernist architecture was suddenly and unceremoniously closed. Although the future of the Terrace Hotel has been somewhat uncertain in recent years, the closure came as a shock to its employees, who were given just one day’s notice of their impending unemployment, and preservationists, who had planned to hold the Cincinnati Preservation Association’s annual meeting at the hotel on Nov. 9.
Designed by the prestigious New York office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the 1948 opening of the Terrace Hotel stands as a stark dichotomy to its quiet closure. On its first day of business, the Terrace attracted more than 10,000 curious citizens and garnered incredible national media attention. To say that it represents the cutting edge of mid-20th-century design is no mere understatement. According to 50 from the 50s: Modern Architecture and Interiors in Cincinnati, the Terrace was the most progressive American hotel of its day, featuring the first fully-automated elevators in any American skyscraper, new and state-of-the-art materials and — in a break from contemporary hotel design — a lobby on the eighth floor.
What made the Terrace such a singular experience, radiating with the highest aspirations of Modernism, however, was the harmonious merging of design, art and architecture. Commissions by contemporary artists imbued the building with unparalleled style and charm. Diners in the Gourmet Room and Skyline Restaurant were treated to both expansive city views and one-of-akind murals by Joan Miró and Saul Steinberg, while a delicate Alexander Calder mobile greeted visitors disembarking via the lobby elevators. In addition to these originals, SOM custom designed nearly all the interior detailing, from ashtrays to menus to staff uniforms, furniture, textiles, matchbooks and tableware.
Yet another facet that makes the Terrace’s history so extraordinary is one of its principal designers. Natalie DeBlois was one of very few female Modernist architects, literally left out of the “boys’ club” as meetings were frequently held in men’s clubs from which Ms. DeBlois was either excluded entirely or snuck in through the back staircase. Her first viewing of the Terrace was nearly cancelled along with the Preservation Association’s meeting, but she fortunately received a private tour.
Regardless of its former glory, to some the Terrace can make for an alienating viewing experience these days. Seven stories of unhampered, windowless brick wall are not for everyone, after all, and I understand the generic 1960s interior renovation failed to equal the superb achievements of the original. But when considering the Terrace’s fate, an important aspect to consider is the extremely endangered status of Cincinnati’s Modernist architecture.
Given its abstract, avant-garde and fundamentally anti-historic nature, Modernism has always been, in the words of UC Associate Professor Patrick Snadon, “marginal in every way.” As once-secluded suburban sites become overrun by “McMansions” and valuable urban land changes hands, Modernist homes and commercial properties frequently meet the wrecking ball to make way for new development. For example, 50 from the 50s was only published several weeks ago, yet 10 percent of the structures featured in the book are already in immediate danger of demolition.
Although Cincinnati’s Modern legacy is usually overshadowed either by the very old (19th-century architecture) or the very new (contemporary architecture), it offers a unique legacy worth preserving. Snadon emphasizes the significance of local architecture in this style with a quote by his colleague Udo Greinacher: “By studying Modernism, we find out that Cincinnati had a 20th century.”
So will the Terrace become yet another mid-century ghost? Preservationists, Modernists and those who remember its glory days hope that it can become a landmark to be proud of once again.
THE TERRACE HOTEL is/was located at 15 W. Sixth St., Downtown. CINCITECTURE, a column on area architecture, appears once a month.