The spirit of Daniel Burnham hovers over Fourth Street in Downtown Cincinnati. The famous Chicago architect and his associates created four commercial office buildings in Cincinnati’s financial district in the early twentieth century. And with the recent conversion of the shuttered Bartlett Building into a Marriott Renaissance hotel, the Burnham name is the buzzword for Downtown denizens planning business or social gatherings.
The building at 36 East Fourth Street was designed and completed in 1901 for Union Savings Bank and Trust Company. Two expansions followed: one in 1912–14 by D.H. Burnham & Co. (Ernest Graham and Burnham’s two sons carried on after Daniel’s death in 1912) and another, completed in 1932, by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, a successor firm.
The structure became known as the Fifth Third Bank Building (Fifth Third merged with Union Saving in 1927) and, after the bank moved to Fountain Square in 1969, the Fourth and Walnut Building. In 1986 it was acquired and named by Bartlett & Co. It closed in 2010 and, in July 2014, it was reopened by hotel developer Columbia Sussex of Northern Kentucky.
Many architectural historians consider this the best of the Burnham firm’s “tall” or “elevator” buildings in Cincinnati. As the director of works for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Daniel Burnham had become the most famous architect and urban planner in the United States. The classical revival Beaux Arts style, which the Chicago exposition made popular, suited corporate America. Union Trust bank President Jacob Schmidlapp, who cared about good architecture, selected Burnham’s firm to design his headquarters, and later, the memorial library (now entrance hall), which he gave to the Cincinnati Art Museum. The bank got this soaring skyscraper, which reflected the Chicago tall building aesthetic of being lofty. It was the tallest building in the city and state, large enough to accommodate all bank business. Plus, the tower’s 400 speculative rental offices were expected to return income of $10,000 per month. In the hotel conversion, the bank floors became dining and meeting rooms and the office floors guest-rooms.
This Renaissance Hotel, a Marriott brand, is owned and managed by Columbia Sussex Corporation. A Cincinnati firm, FRCH Design Worldwide planned the handsome transformation. It preserves the lofty character and architectural details of the original while creating a modern, upscale hospitality facility. The renovation is qualified for historic tax credits and LEED certification, says Jim Stapleton, who was principal-in-charge for FRCH. Cauhaus Design, a Maryland firm, with Renaissance and Marriott credentials, handled the interior design details.
Hotel manager Keoni Christensen says he is pleased with the positive reactions to the makeover from Cincinnatians who were familiar with the old bank. Phillip Long, retired banker and Taft Museum of Art director emeritus, told me he is “just delighted that this and so many grand old Cincinnati buildings are being revived.” Part of Marriott’s mission for Renaissance is that properties provide guests with a sense of the places they visit. The Renaissance motto “Live Life to Discover” is implemented by expert concierges known as “Navigators,” who help guests explore the local scene. Christensen made a wise choice in selecting Diana Tisue, who is trained in historic preservation, to be Lead Navigator and historian.
The Renaissance hotel has capitalized on its architectural identity, naming the restaurant and other rooms for Daniel Burnham. At first, I wondered if the hotel branding was overplaying the architect’s role, since Burnham was more often the visionary dealmaker than design architect in his megafirm’s projects. But contemporary newspaper accounts verify that he was personally involved with the original building. He was in Cincinnati for the cornerstone dedication ceremonies in January 1901, at which time the crowd convened by the Commercial Club, spontaneously “called upon the famed architect to speak.”
As a practitioner, Daniel Burnham was best known for his engineering skills. In his appraisal of the work, Stapleton noted that he was most impressed with the way the three distinct buildings had been joined. “You can lay out additions to look perfect on paper,” he said. “But then when you build them, the parts don’t always come seamlessly together. Here they do.” Burnham, was not involved in the final expansion, described as the city’s
“biggest construction job of 1931.”
FRCH has retained original spaces and details like the sculpted metal elevator doors, enhancing the appeal to those who enjoy historic architecture. They have modernized all systems and added contemporary elements that work well with the original. Individual items like the translucent marquee at the Fourth Street entrance and relocation of the elaborate vault doors to the lobby add distinction to design. You will not mistake this sumptuous interior for any other hotel in town. Cauhaus created the color palette, which strikes one as both Edwardian and contemporary. It draws upon rich warm neutrals, dark chocolate, charcoal, cognac, café au lait, and buttermilk, spiked by gold and grass green. The public rooms gleam with chrome, crystal, and metal furniture and accessories. Sensitive lighting in sculptural fixtures and floor lamps contributes to the shimmering effect. Despite the bling, I and my art-conscious friends found the decor a bit bland. Some local artworks—paintings, drawings, metal sculpture, and historic and contemporary photographs—could add color and interest to the handsome but subdued environment.
The building envelope is reminiscent of the classic British gentleman’s club, but the reception area has a smart modern vibe. D. Burnham’s bar and casual dining area open off the lobby. The furnishings are crafted of natural materials—burnished wood for the long bar and side chairs, black leather-and–chrome-chairs surround the bar tables.
The seating for formal dining surprises guests. In addition to chairs, there are free-standing sofas in varied sizes and fabrics, mostly gleaming leather in the bar and soft, warm fabric in the dining room. Pillows in different colors and textures contribute visual interest and comfort. Despite this novelty, the effect is restrained. As a Fourth-Street lawyer friend observed approvingly, “the decor seems suitably corporate.” My artist friend Beverly Erschell and I studied the fluid spaces at a late breakfast. Although the boxy room lacks architectural distinction, we appreciated the comfortable environment and interesting menu. We especially admired the shimmering brass curtains and pretty place settings. The sculpted, gleaming silver milk pitcher made the coffee ritual a tactile pleasure. The service is efficient and attentive; I was pleased with my server’s recommendation of the crème brûlée French toast. And the coffee in oversize china cups was excellent.
The stellar attraction is a grand ballroom with a tunnel-vaulted ceiling. This was once the main banking hall. Thomas E. Huenefeld, my friend and authority on local business and banking history, recalled admiring the original space. “You went up the escalator to this spectacular hall,” he said. “The teller cages were on one side and the loan offices on the other.” Huenefeld, a retired senior vice president of U.S. Bank, said that the neoclassical architectural style was one that bankers preferred because it looked “solid and substantial; customers would assume their money was safe.”
The hotel fitness room, at the southeast corner of the fourth floor, has a view of the Burnham skyscraper commissioned by John J. Rowe, president of the First National Bank. Now known as the Fourth & Walnut Centre, it was completed three years later, and is three feet taller than the 352-feet Union Trust.
The office floors were gutted for the hotel renovation. FRCH designed the buildout and new interiors for the guest rooms. Acknowledging the original, the designers reused or reinvented dark wood panels, white marble, and kept original classical columns and millwork exposed. The 283 guest rooms are large and beautifully proportioned with good light from the original windows. The beds feature walnut headboards and voluptuous white duvets. The baths have oversize tubs, spa showers, and amusing wallpaper murals. The hi-tech table lamps hold USB ports. These luxurious rooms are soothing, yet infused with whimsy.
Marriott describes Renaissance as its brand with “inspirational design,” and its Navigator program as a means to help guests discover the essence of the cities they visit. This vision seems to be satisfied in the Renaissance Cincinnati. User-reviews praise the “beautiful” hotel, which delivers a “five-star experience.” While the former bank’s public spaces may lack the Art Deco glamor of the Netherland Hilton or the Postmodern chic of the Cincinnatian, the bar is lively, the guest rooms are comfortable and spacious, and the staff is warm and welcoming. The location is convenient to business, clubs, sports, and recreation centers. Guest reviewers write about walking to the city’s nearby attractions.
Fourth Street is perhaps the most architecturally significant of Cincinnati’s Downtown streets. The revival of this grand old building as a hospitality venue helps bolster the street’s status as the grand promenade and center of business and social activity. The owner, architectural team, and management deserve accolades for their good work here. Burnham and his civic-minded banker patrons would approve. We like the spirit of the place and applaud the initiative to make this a dynamic starting point for people eager to fulfill the Renaissance motto to “Live Life to Discover.” In Cincinnati.