January 3, 2011 § 3 Comments
Notes About the Cincinnati Netherland Hotel Plaza and Carew Tower
I find it extraordinary that the plans for the Carew Tower and Netherland Plaza Hotel were announced in August of 1929, the foundation begun in January of 1930 and the project completed by January, 1931, not only because of the lightning speed in which this opulent monument to Art Deco design was constructed, but because the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 occurred several months after the project was first announced.
The financing came from the Emery family, which had made its fortune in Cincinnati’s stockyards. John Emery hired designer Walter W. Ahlschlager and Colonel William Starrett of Starrett Bros. & Eken of New York. William Starrett at that time was arguably the standard bearer of building first class buildings. Starrett Bros. & Eken are most famously known today as the builders of New York City’s Empire State Building. (For more information about William Starrett see The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark by John Tauranac, Scribner, 1995).
The Carew Tower and Netherland Plaza were designed to be what Col. William Starrett termed a “city-within-a-city.” By the time Emery brought him to Cincinnati, Starrett had written of his urban vision in his seminal book Skyscrapers and the Men Who Build Them (Scribner, 1928). Due to traffic density, Cincinnati was ranked the third most congested city in the U.S. Part theoretical and part practical, Starrett’s solution to the increasing density and street level congestion in American cities was an untried, mixed-use skyscraper complex—a city-within-a-city. Although the concept was new at the time, Emery was willing to risk his fortune, believing that the combination of department store, shops, offices, and hotel would invite downtown residents, workers, and visitors. The Carew complex was the first experiment in the design, construction, and development of such a concept and it inspired other mixed-use complexes such as Rockefeller Center, which was completed in 1934.
Emery’s vision for Cincinnati led to bold financial moves. He had approached the bank to underwrite his city-within-a-city project but because the concept was so novel the bank declined. Emery sold all his stocks and securities. The plans and the financing for the building complex were in place when the stock market crashed. Had he left his stocks and securities tied up in the market, he would have lost everything. The construction project became one of Cincinnati’s largest employers during the years after the Great Crash, creating over one thousand jobs.
The Restaurants at Palm Court
The Palm Court was once the main lobby for the hotel. Egyptian, French, and Greek influences abound and are transmuted into an eclectic vision of Art Deco design. At the far end of the Palm Court is a ram’s-head fountain with a breche marble ziggurat-shaped surround, guarded by two strikingly handsome seahorses, crowned with lotus-shaped lights.
George Unger, a talented theatre designer during the 1920s and 1930s, is credited with the majority of the interior design work. Although myriad mythological figures are found throughout the hotel—the ram, dolphin, seahorse, and mermaid represent protection for travelers—the variety of Art Deco images and forms were adopted not so much for their for their symbolic attributes, but for their dramatic visual effect.
Detail of Ceramic Rookwood Art Tiles from the Carew Arcade Arches
The seahorse, fountain, and Carew Arcade ceramic tile arches were made at the world-renowned Rookwood Pottery studio located atop Mt. Adams, one of the seven hills surrounding Cincinnati. The magnificent floral arches are located on the east and west ends of the Carew Tower Arcade and are one of the largest installations of art pottery in the world. Because of their highly visible location they are one of the most publicly accessible. The tiles are the work of William E. Hentschel and are based on a repeating motif designed by the French metalsmith and armaments designer Edgar Brandt, establishing a link between Hentschel’s Arts and Crafts movement heritage and Brandt’s influence in the French Arts Décoratifs et Industrials Modernes of the mid-1920s. Although not ever directly acknowledged by the developer, builder, or architect, Brandt is considered the “decorative artist in absentia,” particularly of the Netherland Hotel. The appropriation of knock-offs of Brandt’s signature themes such as the frozen fountains, sunflower patterns, rams’ horns, and antelopes into the complex filled an immediate need for a decorative vocabulary in the massive building on the developer’s fast-track schedule.
The wall lighting in the Netherland Plaza was considered ground breaking design because the light bulbs were not visible through the silver and nickel sconces.
Preparations Underway for the Grand Christmas Dinner Feast at the Palm Court!
A quiet morning after…
The Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza is an Historic Hotel of America and in 1985 earned National Historic Register and National Landmark Status.
End Note: Breche marbles are a category of marbles that are of similar composition: the pressure and distortions at the time of the geological formation of the stone created a marble with large elements. See photo below and photo of the ram’s head statue surround.