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New Book Praises Terrace Plaza as a Cincinnati Modernist Gem

By Steven Rosen · November 6th, 2013 · The Big Picture

Shawn Patrick Tubb’s Master of Architecture thesis at University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning was to develop a reuse for Downtown’s Modernist landmark, the Terrace Plaza. Except for some arcade-level shops, it had closed to the public as he was beginning his work in 2008.

But he decided that to craft a proposal for the future, he needed to know its past. And that opened up a new world to him – that of Cincinnati’s place in post-war Modernism. “Researching it, I found so much information and that it was such a fascinating history, I felt I needed to dive in deep,” he says during a phone interview. 

He did, indeed. His research was so comprehensive and interesting that a faculty member submitted his work for Cincinnati Book Publishing’s Young Voices Publishing Award, sponsored by Mark and Sue Ann Painter. It was accepted. 

The resultant book, Cincinnati’s Terrace Plaza Hotel: An Icon of Modernism, has just been published and Tubb will be at The Booksellers on Fountain Square Saturday from noon until 2 p.m. to autograph copies. (The book also will be for sale elsewhere, including Cincinnati Art Museum and Contemporary Arts Center, and via cincybooks.com.) In text and photos, it tells this crucial building’s history.

Although a Cincinnatian — Tubb’s family moved here when he was a teen – Tubb will be flying in from Pasadena, Calif., for the event. After receiving his Master’s at DAAP, he moved there to work for a firm doing theme-park design.

(He is about to be relocated to Shanghai.)

There are many good reasons for Tubb to be bringing the Terrace Plaza, which opened in 1948, to the forefront of public consciousness. (Its current ownership is not involved in this book project.) As envisioned by the progressive-minded developer John J. (Jack) Emery Jr., its notable features included first-floor stores and an arcade; a base with an all-brick exterior that climbed upward through the seventh floor; and a tapered hotel that began with an eighth-floor lobby and was capped by the cantilevered Gourmet Room restaurant on the 20th floor. The project also featured commissioned artwork by Joan Miro, Saul Steinberg, Alexander Calder and Jim Davis, who became an influential experimental filmmaker.

As the book points out, the building — on the south side of Sixth Street, between Vine and Race streets — was immediately celebrated here and nationally when it opened in 1948.

Tubb quotes this example of that: “If you want to discover what your grandchildren will think of as the elegance of this post-war era, you will have to go to Cincinnati and take an elevator up to the eighth floor of a pink brick building,” Harper’s Magazine wrote at the time.

So why has it struggled of late to be recognized as a Cincinnati landmark? “I don’t think it’s so unusual for buildings celebrated in their own time to be forgotten very quickly,” Tubb explains.  “In this case it was 30-40 years before people really started to disregard it. So many Modern buildings are maligned these days.”

Also, classic Mid Century Modernist buildings dramatically use glass. But this had that brick “curtain,” where the original tenants were a department story (JC Penney) and clothing store (Bond) that didn’t need windows. “The No. 1 complaint is people say they don’t understand why there are seven stories of brick and no windows,” Tubb says. (His suggestion for reuse is to use those floors for a boutique-style theater with multiple screening rooms, and also a grocery.)

The history of Terrace Plaza, as Tubb’s book makes clear, is as important for who designed it as for what they designed. For the New York firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, this was the first commercial project to garner national publicity and it went on to do Manhattan’s famous Lever House. But one of its chief Terrace Plaza designers, Natalie de Blois, was slow to get much credit. 

Tubb took up her cause. She toured the already closed hotel with him in 2008, when he made a short film. (She died this year.) “It was an amazing opportunity to have her come see the building for the first time,” Tubb says. “It really brought up memories for her. She had never been invited to come to Cincinnati. 

“Honestly, that’s not atypical — even today — for junior architects not to get to see the site. But it was endemic of the period that she was never invited to client meetings, even when Emery would come to New York. They would go to all-men’s clubs.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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