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16 buildings. 16 decades. The tour begins in 1860. Let's go! / Images: Phil Armstrong
16 buildings. 16 decades. The tour begins in 1860. Let's go! / Images: Phil Armstrong
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Cincy Through the Decades: 150 Years of Architectural History

Since the earliest days of Losantiville in 1788, Cincinnatians have been building on the land we now know as the urban core. With every passing decade, a variety of new buildings are erected to serve the needs of a growing and ever-changing population.

Cincinnati, known for its preservation of historic architecture throughout the city, still has many of its old structures. And while it continues the trend of development with a host of modern towers and new spaces, it's important to pause and take a look back at significant developments within the core to better understand how architecture has changed over the course of the last 150 years.

Here are 16 still-standing buildings constructed in 16 consecutive decades that illustrate downtown Cincinnati's dynamic urban landscape.

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Plum Street Temple [photo]
720 Plum St (45202)

The Jewish temple at 8th and Plum Streets has been sitting firmly in place for 150 years. Isaac Mayer Wise, the man who shares his namesake with the temple, was a prominent rabbi before the Civil War. Seeing a need to grow his congregation, the lot where the building currently stands was purchased and plans to create the temple were formed. James Keyes Wilson, the architect of the temple, chose to adhere to a traditional Byzantine-Moorish style not readily found in the United States and popular in Germany at the time. It was finished in 1866 and opened as the Plum Street Temple. In 1937, it merged with the Reading Road Temple and formed the Isaac M. Wise Temple, which we know it as today. It was finally placed on the Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and designated a historic landmark. 2016 year marked its 150 year anniversary on the corner.


Shillito's Department Store [photo]
151 W 7th St (45202)

John Shillito started his department store business in 1832. By the 1870s, he was ready to expand beyond his 4th Street store. Renowned architect James W. McLaughlin, who designed the old public library and the Art Museum among many others, was contracted to build Shillito's new multi-story department store with five elevators at the corner of 7th and Race Streets. The building itself is significant, as it was the first constructed in the Chicago Commercial Style with a grand steel framework atrium which was popularized two years later by architect William LeBaron Jenny. Jenny was rumored to be in Cincinnati when McLaughlin designed the building years earlier. The business skyrocketed in popularity in the new building, and in 1937, architect George Roth was given the task of modernizing it. He removed the old brick and attached an Art Deco limestone facade to all but one section of the southern side of the building and expanded the rest of it to the corner of Elm Street. McLaughlin's original work had become a building within a building—a weird mega-structure of varying styles rooted into half a city block that still exists largely as an apartment complex today.


The Palace Hotel [photo]
601 Vine St (45202)

In 1882, master architect Samuel Hannaford built the Palace Hotel at the northwest corner of 6th and Vine. It featured 300 rooms with a shared bathroom on every floor and myriad modern-at-the-time amenities, including strategically placed hitching posts in the front of the building. To top it all off with a flourish, a beautiful mansard roof was included as well as a marble and walnut grand staircase. It served as a boutique hotel for many years, even changing its name mid-century to the Cincinnatian, until it began to decline in the 1950s (and after the new contemporary masterpiece, the Terrace Plaza Hotel, was built across the street in 1948). By the early 1980s, it was in danger of demolition; the owners closed it for four years to do an extensive renovation that enlarged the rooms to add private bathrooms (while reducing the total amount of rooms by half) and added an atrium with a skylight. The façade, staircase, a massive safe, and other turn-of-the-century facets Hannaford installed a hundred years earlier remained. By 1987, it was back up and running and exists as a lavish hotel in the heart of the city today.


Cincinnati's City Hall [photo]
801 Plum St (45202)

Samuel Hannaford won a contest for the contract to build the new City Hall on the site of the old one at 8th and Plum Streets in the late 1880s. His plans outlined a Richardsonian Romanesque building of massive proportions featuring ornamentation around the facade and cornered with an iconic 9-story clock tower. Additionally, a gym, bowling alley, pool, and a jail were included in the design when it was finished. It was given many beautiful stained glass windows, which are still in their original places, depicting events in Cincinnati history. On May 13, 1893, the new City Hall opened and a grand celebration was had, featuring an incredible parade and a staggering 90-minute firework show. Renovations to the building occurred in the decades following its construction to accommodate the growing needs of those who worked within it. It survived debates about whether or not the city should raze it years later so a larger one could be made, and in 1993, a celebration was held featuring a Centennial Ball and other festivities. Today, it still stands magnificently across the street from Isaac M. Wise's 1866 temple.


The Union Trust Building [photos]
36 E 4th St (45202)

Famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham came to our city to build Cincinnati's first skyscraper, the neoclassical 19-story Union Savings Building on the northwest corner of 4th and Walnut Streets for the Union Trust Company. J. G. Schmidlapp, a well-known financier of the building project, recounted seeing Burnham's designs for the building in a 1901 issue of the Enquirer: "Maybe Burnham is drawing them for someone else, but I hardly think he would prepare plans for a building of that size in this city without letting me know." When completed, it was a major turning point in Cincinnati's architectural history. Until Burnham built the 4th and Walnut Center on the opposite corner 3 years later, Union Trust remained the tallest skyscraper in Ohio. It lasted as offices for decades until it was sold to the Bartlett Company in 1985 and its name changed to the Bartlett Building. In 2010 it was vacated entirely and sat empty for 4 years until it was purchased and reopened as the Renaissance Hotel in 2014. The street-level bar next to the 4th Street entrance is named "D. Burnham's" as a tribute to the architect whose work is still standing 115 years later.


The Union Central Tower [photo]
1 West 4th St (45202)

When the former Chamber of Commerce building was demolished, Cass Gilbert, the architect who designed countless buildings across the US including the Woolworth Building in NYC, designed the Union Central Tower on the southwest corner of 4th and Vine for the company of the same name. Garber and Woodward of Cincinnati were the architects. The tower opened May 1st, 1913, and was the 5th tallest skyscraper in the world (also the 2nd tallest in the world outside of New York). The neoclassical tower features an upper portion that was done in a Hellenic style to pay homage to reconstructions of the Greek Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Its facade is a mix of marble, granite, and terra cotta, and prominently features ornate sculptures of sorrowful human faces and angry lions below its columns; all the modern amenities of the time were included as well as an abundance of lavish decorations throughout. The building was originally brown and painted white in the 1940s. In 1964, the Union Central Life Insurance Company moved out; since then, it's been home to PNC Bank, and today it's known simply as the 4th and Vine Tower.


The Cincinnati Gas & Electric Building [photo]
139 E 4th St (45202)

The first gaslights were lit in 1843 at the corner of 4th and Main Streets by the precursor of what would later become Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company. Their business boomed, consolidating electric companies in the years to come and garnering a good reputation for their services. By the late 1920s, Cincinnati Gas & Electric were growing out of their headquarters and needed a new space to expand their business. The plot of land at the southwest corner of 4th and Main Streets, ironically the place where it all seemingly began, was a perfect fit for a new skyscraper, and architects Garber & Woodward and John Russell Pope were brought on to design the building. The nine structures that stood on the corner were demolished to make way for a tower. Shirking the Art Deco fad popular at the time, they went with the more traditional classical revival style, replete with massive columns, bas reliefs, stone sculptures, and balconies high above street level. The tower is home to Duke Energy today; their perfectly pristine, ivory lobby can be seen through plate glass windows on 4th Street.


The Cincinnati Times-Star Building [photo]
800 Broadway (45202)

By the late 1920s, the Times-Star newspaper needed more space than their 6th and Walnut Streets offices offered, so a new Art Deco tower at the corner of 8th and Broadway Streets was planned. Samuel Hannaford & Sons received the commission to design and construct the building. The owners of the paper, Charles Phelps Taft and his wife, Anna Sinton Taft, died prior to the completion of their new Times-Star headquarters but were remembered with bronze plaques in the lobby. The facade was carved from limestone and bas reliefs depicting famous printers and literary figures decorate the corners of the building while enormous bronze metal doors stand at its entrance. Large statues occupy each corner of the top of the tower representing the four most important qualities of the printing press from the '30s: truth, progress, patriotism, and speed. The Times-Star became the Post after 1958 and it printed in the building until 1984. It's no longer called the Times-Star Building and echoes of the printing press have long since faded. Hamilton County purchased the building in the mid-80s and converted it to county court offices and juvenile court. Today, it exists as Hamilton County's Juvenile Court.


The Terrace Plaza Hotel [photo]
15 W 6th St (45202)

On July 16th, 1948, developer John J. Emery proclaimed the newly opened Terrace Plaza Hotel on the southwest corner of 6th and Vine Streets would never again be closed to the public. Under the direction of architect Louis Skidmore and senior designer Natalie de Blois, the Terrace Plaza Hotel was an instant contemporary masterpiece on the architectural landscape of mid-century Cincinnati. Two department stores, Bond and JC Penny, occupied the building from the 2nd to 7th story. The hotel began on the 8th floor terrace level and rose to the 20th with a 5-star restaurant featuring a nearly 360-degree view of the city at the top. Custom surrealist works of art from famous artists hung in various floors of the hotel (which have since been moved to the Cincinnati Art Museum). But hard times fell on the building in 1968 and 1977 when both department stores closed; in 1983, AT&T bought the building remained there until 1994. The hotel faltered in later years, and the restaurant shuttered in 1992. On Halloween night, 2008, John J. Emery's promise from 60 years earlier was broken when it finally closed, and, aside from the street level businesses, has remained vacant ever since.


The Cincinnati Public Library [photo]
800 Vine St (45202)

John W. McLaughlin, who constructed the Shillito's Building from the 1870s, went on to build a gorgeous public library (originally intended to be an opera house by another architect) on Vine Street in 1874. The library was legendary in its beauty and was used by countless Cincinnatians during the 81 years it was open. Eventually, the need to grow the library became too great and it closed for good on January 27th, 1955. A new library was being built before it closed, however, and it opened at the northeast corner of 8th and Vine Streets four days after the old library closed. The architect, Woodie Garber, was praised for his contemporary design which featured open space, a luxury the previous library lacked as it became overcrowded in its final years. Relics such as stained glass windows and busts from the old library were salvaged from demolition and placed within the new. Renovations would be made to it in later decades, eventually adding an atrium reminiscent of the old library's design and also expanding the building across 9th Street. Today, the library is among the best in the US with countless resources for the public to enjoy.


Provident Bank Tower [photo]
632 Vine St (45202)

To understand the importance of the southeast corner of 4th and Vine Streets, we must look back at what was there long before the Provident Bank Tower went up in 1968. Three important buildings made massive historic waves long before it. In 1859, Samuel Pike opened his first opera house there, but it burned down in 1866. Pike, refusing to let his dream of a world-class theater in Cincinnati die, rebuilt a larger opera house upon its ashes a year later. Not even 40 years later, the 2nd opera house burned down. Pike was finished at that point and plans to build a hotel were formed. The new Sinton Hotel opened in 1907 and was a masterpiece forged by the Tafts and other prominent Cincinnatians, with Anna Sinton Taft being the chief financial backer. After 57 years of hosting famous people and housing weary travelers, the hotel closed and was demolished in 1965. By 1968, the 20-story Provident Bank Tower, now known as One East Fourth Street, was completed and occupies the space where it all happened. Many who walk past the building every day have no idea what happened on that corner in the last 160 years.


The Formica Building [photo]
255 E 5th St (45202)

The Formica Corporation wanted to place its headquarters downtown in 1970. Before doing so, they needed to build an office tower that would accommodate them. Designers and architects Harry Weese and T.C. Chang led construction and placed the building at the northeast corner of 4th and Walnut Streets. But a rectangular office tower wasn't all they planned; it wrapped around the Mercantile Library Building and a 2-story arcade with an angled glass ceiling that spans the gap between 4th and 5th Streets was also included. In a progressive move, the Travertine marble-clad building was mixed-use, also serving as the home of the Contemporary Arts Center that occupied the 2nd floor of the arcade. The Formica Building was heralded as the "Crystal Palace of Urban Renewal" upon its opening on September 11th, 1970. With a preservation-minded attitude, the entire building was seamlessly built around the existing Mercantile Library Building and was later renovated in 1987 to include passages between them. After the renovations, both buildings collectively adopted a new name: The Mercantile Center. The CAC moved out in 2003 to their new location on 6th and Walnut Streets, and an event center sits in its place today.


One Lytle Place [photo]
621 E Mehring Way (45202)

The late 70s and early 80s were periods of new developments downtown. Many people moved out of the core decades before, but plans to bring them back were brewing. As early as July 1974, a proposal for Cincinnati's first 231 luxury apartment tower on the riverfront was underway. The building, designed by Philadelphia architect Louis Sauer and called One Lytle Place, would be 25 stories of concrete and glass placed at an odd position behind Yeatman's Cove so balconies would angle perfectly toward either the city or the river. It would feature retail space and amenities for the occupants and would be strategically located so getting to places like Riverfront Stadium and Lytle Park would be easy. But due to financing issues, the plans fell through for a number of years, delaying construction. Once the legal troubles were sorted, developers broke ground in 1978 and spent 18 months building the brutalist structure. By July 1980, One Lytle Place was finished and tenants moved into their new apartments.


The Aronoff Center for the Arts [photo]
650 Walnut St (45202)

Walnut Street between 6th and 7th Streets was once a pretty quiet block. Residents who frequented the area even described it as a wasteland in the early '90s. A few businesses made it their home, however; Batsakes Hats, an optometrist, and Walnut Street Popcorn & Sweets were there. Since Cincinnati is known for its arts culture, a plan for a new building for the performing arts was formed. After a hefty struggle to get it built, well-known architect Cesar Pelli designed the $80 million Aronoff Center for the Arts, and it opened on October 20th, 1995. Named for Ohio Senator and Cincinnati native Stanley Aronoff, the center was built with three performance halls and an art gallery that extends to the southeast corner of 7th and Walnut. When it opened, not much of what sits around it now existed, but within a few years, other businesses started popping up, crediting the Aronoff with helping them achieve success. Today, it's a cultural hub featuring Broadway shows, plays, and a large variety of other entertainment.


The Contemporary Arts Center [photo]
44 E 6th St (45202)

The Modern Art Society was founded in 1939 and had a small space in the basement of the Cincinnati Art Museum. It was rebranded the Contemporary Arts Center in 1954 and eventually moved to the Formica Building's arcade on the 2nd floor in the 1970s. Conversations about a stand-alone center for the museum were taking place as early as the 1980s, and a public request for architect proposals was made. After the finalists were considered, Zaha Hadid was chosen to build the new center at the northwest corner of 6th and Walnut Streets. Hadid was world-renowned and this was her first foray into building in the US. Additionally, the center would become the first US museum designed by a woman. The building was even heralded by the New York Times as "the most important American building to be completed since the cold war" when it opened in 2003. With glass walls and lack of stairs to enter the museum, Hadid's "Urban Carpet" design gently curves upward to become the back wall of the building, inviting passersby to enter it. The CAC is an incredibly important architectural landmark not only within the Cincinnati core but to the whole of the US.


Seven at Broadway [photo]
345 E 7th St (45202)

Atop the 8-story parking garage on the southwest corner of 7th and Broadway Streets sits a new luxury living complex made of steel and cerulean glass. Seven additional floors make the whole structure 15 stories in total, with 111 luxury apartments for rent. In April 2015, the first residents moved into the new building. Large, overlapping bay-windowed rooms make up the northeast corner of the building which offer incredible, sprawling views of downtown and Mt. Adams, and acutely angled rooms jut out from the northwest corner. It has a rooftop patio accessible to residents and a dedicated parking garage beneath the building. The construction was unique as it was designed to avoid demolishing an existing structure while integrating perfectly into what was already built. The project was designed by John Senhauser Architects with support from Neyer Architects Inc.