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Our Rich History: More on skyscrapers — and stunning styles that stand the test of time

by Paul A. Tenkotte

Special to the NKyTribune

If I took a poll of my readers, I would probably find that almost everyone loves the Art Deco style of the 1930s. It’s so upbeat, with clean, modern lines, stylized sculpture, and in terms of skyscrapers, stunning results.

Carew Tower and Netherland Plaza

Carew Tower and Netherland Plaza

No wonder that Cincinnati’s Carew Tower, an Art Deco masterpiece, has stood the test of time for so many decades. Constructed in 1930, during the height of the Great Depression, the Carew Tower was designed by Walter W. Ahlschlager of Chicago, along with the firm of Delano and Aldritch of New York City. Ahlschlager was the architect of the Roxy Theater in New York City (since demolished), of the City Place Tower in Oklahoma City, and of the Intercontinental Chicago Hotel. It’s a real treat to take the elevator up to the Carew Tower’s observatory for a 360-degree view of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. It’s also fun to walk through its beautiful Arcade, featuring exquisite Rookwood Pottery detailing, or to saunter over to the lobby of its gorgeous Netherland Plaza Hotel.

The famous architect Mies van der Rohe once stated that “less is more.” In terms of architecture, the Miesian style—International—disdained the ornate elements of prior styles and sought a clean, modern, minimalist look that would celebrate a building’s skeletal structure and relish in its basic simplicity. To some armchair architectural critics, the results seemed banal, sterile, and boring, a series of glass curtain wall boxes dotting the 1960s and 1970s skylines of cities worldwide.

Area's first skyscraper:  the Terrace Hilton

Area’s first international style skyscraper: the Terrace Hilton

The first International style skyscraper in Cincinnati was the 1948 Terrace Plaza Hotel, by the internationally renowned architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). The Terrace Plaza made the front cover of The Architectural Forum magazine in December 1948, and was featured in a 16-page, profusely illustrated spread inside. The use of brick gives a certain subdued effect to its otherwise boxlike form. It remains one of my favorite buildings downtown.

Cincinnati’s first curtain wall International style skyscraper was the Kroger Building (1954) at Vine and Court Streets, designed by Wyatt C. Hedrick. Once clad in “Kroger blue,” Cincinnatians used to tease that the “best place to work in Cincinnati was in the Kroger Building, so that you didn’t have to look out your window at the Kroger Building.” The skyscraper has since been reclad in white. Actually, being somewhat of an architectural purist and perhaps even a prude, I was sorry to see the blue cladding gone. It’s so much more subtle now. Before, it really grabbed you.

Fifth Third Tower on Vine Street, 1970, by the firm of Harrison and Abramowitz, is also International Style. For those who find the style boring, your eye is easily drawn to its exquisite neighbor, the Tyler Davidson Fountain on Fountain Square, cast in 1870 at the Royal Foundry in Munich, Bavaria.

Queen City Tower

Latest jewel in the crown: Queen City Tower

In the late 20th century, some architects returned to neo-Miesian forms, but instead of holding tight to glass boxes, added or subtracted pieces of the basic box while still retaining an underlying sense of minimalism. This seems true of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Omnicare buildings, formerly Atrium I (1982) and II (1984) on Fourth Street, as well as their PNC Bank (formerly Central Trust) at Fifth and Main (1979).

Then there’s the fabulous work of Cesar Pelli, architect of the Aronoff Center for the Arts (1993-95) on Walnut Street. Nearby, at Sixth and Walnut, is the Neo-Constructivist Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art (1997-2002), the first US commission for Zaha Hadid.

Don’t forget to stop in to see astonishing exhibits. And one cannot forget the Procter and Gamble Towers, the work of Kohn Pederson Fox Associates of New York City, whose postmodern classicism brings a sense of both dignity and playfulness to the eastern end of downtown. The Procter and Gamble Towers won the 1986 American Institute of Architects National Honor Award.

The Ascent

The Ascent

The latest jewel in the Queen City’s crown is the Great American Tower (2011) by Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum, whose crown is now the highest point in downtown.

Not to be outdone is the Ascent at Roebling’s Bridge in Covington, Kentucky, which has earned international acclaim. Designed by Daniel Libeskind and constructed in 2007-08, this twisting neo-modern building provides unparalleled views of the Cincinnati skyline for its residents. And when looking at the Ascent, you can feel a swell of pride that Libeskind was the master planner for the new World Trade Center project in New York City.

Paul A. Tenkotte is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU. With other well-known regional historians, James C. Claypool and David E. Schroeder, he is a co-editor of the new 450-page Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015, now available at your local booksellers, the Center for Great Neighborhoods in Covington and online sellers.

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