SOM’s Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati among America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places

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SOM’s Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati among America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places

A first in several regards, Cincinnati’s Terrace Plaza Hotel, designed by Natalie de Blois of SOM, is one of this year’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Pictured here is a mural by Joan Miró, since installed in the Cincinnati Art Museum. (Ezra Stoller/Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation)

A modernist Cincinnati hotel designed by a pioneering woman architect and the Chicago church that helped to galvanize the civil rights movement of the 1960s are among this year’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, per the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The 2020 11 Most Endangered list comes at a time of often paralyzing tumult, heartbreak, and dissonance. Yet despite the gloomy scenarios—imperilment, abandonment, decay, demolition—evoked by the very name of the list, the National Trust has never meant for the annual lineup to serve as a mournful sendoff or preemptive eulogy. Rather, it serves as a call for action while signaling that the 11 under-threat historic sites spotlighted each year will, statistically, likely be saved. But not without help.

In the 33-year history of the Most Endangered Historic Places list, 95 percent of the more than 300 sites classified by the National Trust as being at imminent risk of destruction have ultimately been spared from the wrecking ball and further ruin due in part to their placement on the list and the widespread attention generated by it. It’s an excellent track record and there’s a good chance that the collective fate of this batch of diverse and distinctly American landmarks will be no different despite landing at a time when the motivation to organize and turn out of many is focused elsewhere.

“It is at times like these when cultural treasures mean the most,” said Paul Edmondson, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a statement. “They remind us of what we have accomplished as a people during other periods of struggle, they mark the pathways we have traveled as a nation, and they remind us of who we can become if we work to realize the promise of our society. When so many are questioning the way forward, historic places have the power to reveal the possibilities of our future.”

historic hotel in downtown cincinnati
The Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati (Ezra Stoller/Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Of particular architectural interest on the 2020 list is the Terrace Plaza Hotel in downtown Cincinnati. Designed top-to-bottom in the late 1940s by trailblazing female architect Natalie de Blois, the 18-story hotel tower was the first major project of any kind for then-green Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the first International-style hotel in the U.S., and one of the first American hotels to debut following World War II when it opened in 1948. (Manhattan’s Lever House, another early SOM landmark, came four years later.) The completion of the Terrace Plaza, boasting art by the likes of Joan Miró and Alexander Calder, marked not only the beginning of an iconic American architectural firm but the start of an illustrious yet at times unheralded career of an architect who busted professional gender norms of the era and opened new doors for female architects.

Today, the Terrace Plaza, having sat largely in a state of abandonment for the better part of a decade, is experiencing what the stateside arm of modernist architecture preservation advocacy organization Docomomo has referred to as “demolition by neglect.” While not currently at risk of being razed and having benefitted from determined local preservation efforts, the hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, still remains in a state of limbo.

a midcentury motor lodge in mississippi
The Sun-n-Sand Motor Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi (Photo by Lolly Rash/Mississippi Heritage Trust/Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Also on the 2020 edition of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list is another hotel, this one a classic mid-century motor lodge in Jackson, Mississippi, complete with ersatz Polynesian flourishes, splashy signage, salmon-colored paint job, and the requisite heated pool. Here, like at the Terrace Plaza, American women broke the proverbial mold.

Built in 1960, the integrated Sun-n-Sand Motor Hotel served as a rendezvous for civil rights reformers of the era, including members of the legendary Wednesdays in Mississippi group that consisted of female activists of all faiths and races—a type of gathering considered rare, even taboo, in the Deep South at the time. In its heyday, the Sun-n-Sand was also a popular hangout for celebrities, athletes, authors, and state lawmakers and a bustling center of gravity for Jackson’s Black community and its allies. Now owned by the state, the long-vacant motel has come perilously close to being demolished and replaced with a parking lot over the past couple of years, and its fate continues to hang in the balance as it awaits potential landmark status.

a historic church in Chicago
Roberts Temple in Chicago (Sharon Robert Hayes/Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Another landmark of the 1960s civil rights era, the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ on the South Side of Chicago, has also made the most endangered. Built in 1922 and subsequently expanded, the church has received renewed interest of late as the site of the funeral of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was brutalized and murdered by a gang of white men while visiting family in Mississippi in 1955. Till’s widely reported and photographed open casket funeral and extended viewing—a choice made by Till’s mother in order to draw attention to the senseless, barbaric nature of her son’s death—shocked the nation and helped to kickstart the era’s fight against racial inequality and injustice. While the church is not at risk of being razed as a Chicago Landmark, it is in immediate need of rehabilitation work to ensure that it stands secure for a long time to come.

At more immediate risk of destruction is the Alazan-Apache Courts—or simply, the Courts—in San Antonio, Texas. Completed in 1941-42, it is the city’s oldest and largest surviving public housing complex. As noted by the National Trust, the Courts provided affordable homes to the city’s sizable Mexican American community during an era when legally enforced segregation dictated where people lived, ate, socialized, and sought education. The Courts have been plagued by numerous headline-grabbing troubles over the years but remains a crucial community fixture on San Antonio’s Westside. Currently, it’s at risk of being demolished by the San Antonio Housing Authority, an act that would displace hundreds, to make way for luxury condos in a quickly gentrifying area.

historic public housing in san antonio, topping the 11 most endangered historic places
Alazan-Apache Courts in San Antonio (Sarah Zenaida Gould/Museo del Westside/Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation)

As noted by Edmondson, this year’s Most Endangered Historic Places list “so ably demonstrates the Trust’s commitment to tell the full American story.”

“We believe that diversity in preservation can help change false narratives that can lead to misunderstanding and division in our society,” he said. “This year’s list underscores that many cultural perspectives have helped define what it means to be American.”

The full list of endangered historic places, which span from Pittsburgh to Ponce, Puerto Rico, can be found below.

  • Alazan-Apache Courts, San Antonio, Texas

  • Hall of Waters, Excelsior Springs, Missouri

  • Harada House, Riverside, California

  • National Negro Opera Company House, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  • Ponce Historic Zone, Ponce, Puerto Rico

  • Rassawek, Columbia, Virginia

  • Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, Chicago

  • Sun-n-Sand Motor Hotel, Jackson, Mississippi

  • Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati, Ohio

  • West Berkeley Shellmound and Village Site, Berkeley, California

  • Yates Memorial Hospital, Ketchikan, Alaska