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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cincinnati's Lost Hotels: Adaptable Programming

The current economic situation has led to the closure of two landmark hotels in Cincinnati over the past six months: the Terrace Plaza Hotel downtown, and the Vernon Manor in Avondale. Both closings were rather abrupt, and came as a surprise to many Cincinnatians. While the reasoning for each closing differs, one commonality that exists is the danger these buildings face.

The Vernon Manor

The Vernon Manor Hotel

The Vernon Manor is one of Cincinnati's finest examples of the revival of the English Renaissance. Built in 1924 for a cost of $1.5 million, the Manor was one of the city's premiere hotels for decades, often providing quarters for presidents, musicians, actors, and millionaires. The original design was by architectural firm Garber & Woodward* (with Samuel Hannaford & Sons) and was based upon the famous Hatfield House of Hertfordshire, England. The initial hotel was mostly populated by permanent, wealthy retired persons, and had a limited number of rooms, restaurants, and shops open to the public. After just ten years of operation, the Vernon Manor faced impending bankruptcy in 1934. By 1945, the building was described as "considerably run-down-at-the-heels," when it was purchased by the wealthy Schott family (Giglierano). The 1960's and 70's saw racial tensions, crime, and poverty tarnish the reputation of the surrounding neighborhood, and the building ownership again changed hands in 1977, this time at a price of just $650,000. At that time, 80% of the hotel rooms were occupied by permanent residents.

Over the course of the 1980's several million dollars were poured into renovation and restoration of the hotel, and the permanent occupancies were slowly converted into transient rooms. By the early 2000's the hotel had again come upon hard times. The current state of the hotel may best be described as "dated." Competition from modern hotel chains located in more accessible and attractive uptown neighborhoods proved to be too great for the Manor, and it was closed indefinitely in March of 2009. The building is locked and heavily secured in order to prevent destruction via scrapping and vandalism. It's unlikely this blog will be able to produce current interior photos.

The Terrace Plaza

The Terrace Plaza Hotel

The Terrace Hotel's closing came as a much bigger surprise than the Manor. The closing was only announced one day in advance; reservations and scheduled conferences were cancelled, and guests directed to various area hotels. At the time of the closing (October 31, 2008) The Terrace was Cincinnati's 15th largest hotel in operation.

Built from 1946-1948 the Terrace Plaza was one of the nation's first post-war hotels, the first major construction project for the Central Business District, and the first Modern hotel in the world (Painter). The project was commissioned by Thomas Emery's Sons (also the owners of the Carew Tower/Netherland Plaza hotel/retail/office complex). J.C. Penny's and Bond department stores signed on to lease the proposed ground level retail prior to construction. Skidmore, Owings & Merril were sought to design the building that was proposed to be "decidedly Modern." The hotel was one of the first buildings that would propel SOM to become the preeminent American architectural firm post WWII.

The design consists of a slender eleven-story hotel set atop a stark, virtually windowless seven story retail and office block; the hotel lobby is distinctively located on the eighth floor of the building. The "terrace" is located atop the office block, and is a product of zoning height setback requirements. The famous terrace housed outdoor dining, and a winter ice-skating rink. Other novelties the hotel was known for were three restaurants - including the Gourmet Room which offers panoramic views from the penthouse - as well as being the first Cincinnati hotel to have TV's in every room. Another interesting aspect is the stack bond brickwork, a bond that demonstrates a non-structural masonry construct.

The Terrace Plaza Hotel, 1948

The interior design of the Terrace Plaza was groundbreaking, to say the least. As put by Sue Ann Painter in the book Architecture in Cincinnati:

"The Terrace Plaza initiated SOM's interior design department, founded by Benjamin Baldwin, the "dean of interior designers." Stainless steel, marble, leather, and textured fabrics distinguished the public areas. All hotel furnishings were custom-designed, including Thonet molded wood furniture, monogrammed Rookwood ashtrays, china, uniforms, matchbook covers, and even labels on the bourbon bottles in the bar. Motorized beds converted into couches, and decks doubles as bars or luggage racks. Movable partitions enabled conversion of two or more rooms into a suite. Specialized lighting included spotlights for reading, makeup lights for bathrooms, and filtered floodlights to enhance colors and textures"
The Terrace Plaza Hotel Interior

The interior was further graced by works of several key modern artists: Alexander Calder, Joan Miro, and Saul Steinberg; these pieces were donated to the Cincinnati Art Museum when the building ownership changed hands in 1956.

William S. Brown was the project manager from SOM, but much work was also done by the renowned architects Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois.

A 2004 plan called for the adaptive renovation of the Terrace Plaza. The design would have housed a 135 room boutique hotel as well as 68 luxury condos. The pre-sale for the condos only resulted in one sale, and the development eventually folded. A pair of New York investors purchased the building, and have since closed it. Staunch nearby hotel competition, as well as a proposed boutique hotel to be located at The Banks development on Cincinnati's riverfront may very well make the programmed space of the hotel obsolete in the near future.


The failure of both the Vernon Manor and the Terrace Plaza can be attributed to a breadth of causes, including (but not limited to): location, inherit design flaws, economic competition, poor upkeep, and poor management. These reasons are debatable but nevertheless create a similar situation at each location: a dated piece of architecture with an expired program, yet a possession of architectural and economic value.

In a world were buildings need to be programmatically and physically adaptable to rapidly changing technological, financial, social, and cultural needs the necessity of preservation, renovation, and reuse is often called into question. Traditional architectural concepts are often at odds with rapidly changing needs of people. Buildings are designed to fulfill a static programmatic need at the time of construction. Modern needs are not static, but rapidly changing. Often, buildings have a life expectancy of 15-20 years. In the realm of unspectacular architecture this may be unavoidable, if not actually viable (in certain specific cases).

The following figures are simple diagrammatical depictions of conceptual program characteristics:

Figure 1:

Figure 1 is an illustration of the typical building space, specifically tuned to meet a certain program. As the needs of that program vary and change over time, there are moment when the building cannot provide everything it needs in order to suit its inhabitants, and other times that it cannot provide a solution at all. These times result in a necessary abandonment of the building.

Figure 2:

Figure 2 illustrates the concept of an adaptable building. As users' needs change programmatically over time, a readily adaptable building should be capable of suiting those needs. The architectural firm Alonso, Balaguer and Associates is a forerunner in such concepts, and the Hesperia Hotel Tower is a fine example of this conceptual need applied to a hotel.

Figure 3:

Figure 3 is an alternative strategy that is most suitable for the buildings that began this discourse. As a building ages and can no longer provide the necessities required to suit a program, it will become abandoned. Finding an alternative program to utilize the space is not impossible, and again one can turn to Alonso, Balaguer and Associates' Barcelona project Centro Comercial Las Arenas, in order to see a successful reprogramming of outdated space.

* Garber & Woodward are also known for their designs of several University of Cincinnati buildings, including Baldwin Hall, Dyer Hall, Teachers College, and Nippert Stadium.

  1. Baverman, Laura. "Terrace Hotel to close Oct. 31." Business Courrier 30 Oct. 2008. Cincinnati. .
  2. Giglierano, Geoffrey J., Deborah A. Overmyer, and Frederic L. Propas. The Bicentennial Guide to Greater Cincinnati: a Portrait of Two Hundred Years. Cincinnati, Ohio: The Cincinnati Historical Society, 1988. 200.
  3. Painter, Sue Ann. Architecture in Cincinnati an illustrated history of designing and building an American city. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP in association with the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati, 2006.

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