Hotels With History

Visit these architectural treasures and appreciate the luxuries of days gone by. 

Ever dream of living in a different time? You can indulge your history fantasies at Ohio’s extraordinary vintage hotels. Walk into a lobby and instantly become a riverboat dandy or belle, a sophisticated traveler admiring “new” art deco design or a nightclub guest when big bands ruled. These luxury hotels are classic gems, but are packed with modern amenities.

Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza
Filet mignon cost $1.75 and hotel guests requesting room service could add a baked potato for 30 cents. It was an extravagance in the 1930s, but guests at what is now the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza didn’t count pennies. Guests chose the 800-room hotel for its opulence, technological wonders, entertainment and service.

The Netherland Plaza is one of the finest examples of French art deco design in the United States and earned National Historic Register and National Landmark status in 1985.

“When the hotel opened in 1931, it was part of the Carew Tower and Netherland Plaza Hotel complex,” says Robert Louis, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “It was a city within a city, with shops, department stores, offices and, of course, the hotel.”

An automated track system electronically parked hotel guests’ cars with no human assistance. High-speed elevators, a permanent indoor ice-skating rink in one of the huge ballrooms and seven restaurants wowed even the most wealthy world travelers. Winston Churchill ordered construction on his country home’s bathroom in England stopped after he stayed at the hotel in the 1930s. He opted instead to copy the bathroom in his suite.

The hotel, which cost $7 million to build, has undergone two major renovations. Miraculously, most of the glorious art deco features were preserved. The hotel features more than an acre of rare Brazilian rosewood, marble floors, stunning chandeliers, original period wall sconces, a Rookwood Pottery fountain complete with seahorses and incredible German silver staircase hand railings.

Three distinct ballrooms would be impossible to duplicate today. The Pavillion Caprice was the hotel’s original nightclub and is designed to look like the nightclub of the USS Leviathan ocean liner. Portals on the walls give the room a seagoing atmosphere. A 16-year-old Doris Day made her professional debut here. If you listen closely, you can hear ghosts of the big bands. The Continental Room, where Katherine Hepburn once dined, is an elegant room with hand-painted murals of the seasons. The Hall of Mirrors is a breathtaking ballroom with gold-plated mirrors and a majestic staircase fit for Cinderella.

One of the hotel’s biggest claims to fame today is its extraordinary food service. The Restaurants at Palm Court include: Orchids at Palm Court (named one of the Top 100 Restaurants Overall by OpenTable), The Bar at Palm Court and The Grille at Palm Court. Executive Chef Todd Kelly was named the 2011 Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation.

Part of the reason the culinary experience is so extraordinary is the amazing things guests don’t see. That includes the beehives on a fifth-floor roof for honey and a potted-herb balcony garden on the 16th floor.
Now with 561 guest rooms and a just-completed reno-vated business center, the hotel is close to Cincinnati’s Fountain Square entertainment district, the Great American Ball Park, Paul Brown Stadium, US Bank Arena and the Contemporary Arts Center. 35 W. Fifth St., Cincinnati 45202, 513/421-9100.

Renaissance Cleveland Hotel
Public Square and the Terminal Tower are the indisputable icons of Cleveland. A time-lapse camera would show the fascinating development of this downtown area, strategically located near Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River.

In 1815, Mowery’s Tavern was built at the corner of Public Square and Superior Avenue. It was the city’s first hotel and site of Cleveland’s first theater performances. Advance the film and you will see other lodgings built on the site, always a prominent location for business and social events.

But it wasn’t until 1918 that the 14-story, 1,000-room, $4.5 million Hotel Cleveland opened as one of the largest hotels in the world. Its “E” shape was designed to take advantage of natural light and lake breezes, according to senior sales manager Dennis Crider. Its neoclassical design was part of the Terminal Tower Complex proposed by brothers and developers M.J. and O.P. Van Sweringen.

Through the years, the hotel changed owners and interior appearances many times, and the grande dame of Cleveland hotels escaped financial ruin more than once. But today, under the Marriott International banner, the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel quietly shows off its restored timeless beauty.

The lobby’s original, magnificent fountain is made of marble mined from the same quarry as Michelangelo’s David. The vaulted lobby ceiling of Caen stone is supported by gray marble columns and architectural details echoing the Italian Renaissance. The Grand Ballroom remains the city’s largest, and its intricate wall stencils and ornate ceiling are marvels.

One of the hidden treasures of the hotel is its 10-story atrium, once an open courtyard, now covered with a glass roof. A swimming pool was lowered by a giant crane into the space during a 1978 renovation. Guest rooms look into the pretty atrium or onto Cleveland’s busy streets with Lake Erie in the background.

Today the hotel boasts of an extraordinary Club Lounge with a warm wood décor and the award-winning Sans Souci restaurant. The 441 hotel rooms and 50 specialty suites feature clean-lined furnishings in neutral colors with an occasional pop of color. Savvy suite guests ask for rooms with oversized marble baths.

The Renaissance is next door to the Horseshoe Casino and close to Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field. 24 Public Square, Cleveland 44113, 216/696-5600.

Westin Columbus
Craig Tremblay is the senior catering sales manager and unofficial historian for Westin Columbus. Tremblay shudders over the “improvements” made to the seven-floor historic hotel over the years, particularly in the 1970s. The grand lobby’s original marble flooring was covered with red carpeting, marvelous large windows in public areas were blacked out and nondescript drapery hung over architectural details considered too old-fashioned for the modern guest.

“They didn’t care as much for details as they did for function,” Tremblay says of those who made the misguided renovations.

Things didn’t look good for the hotel, which began life in 1897 as the Great Southern Fire Proof Hotel and Opera House, and which is still known as the Great Southern Hotel. But over the past several decades, with the most recent major renovation and restoration occurring in 2008, the hotel has earned its place among Ohio’s finest historic hotels. Originally built with 250 rooms, there are now 188.

The lobby is once again a sophisticated gem. The original marble front desk is still a focal point, although many adult guests don’t pay much attention to two amazing griffin-like figures that flank both ends. Because the figures are only a few feet high and under the top of the desk, children usually spot them first. A magnificent, half-circle leaded glass window in the lobby, once “lost,” was discovered in storage at the adjacent Southern Theater.

An attractive mezzanine surrounds all four sides of the majestic lobby and once provided guests with a barbershop, billiards room and other amenities. Today the space serves as smaller meeting rooms and informal gathering places.

James Thurber’s Bar is located off the lobby, featuring cartoon prints and books of the New Yorker magazine author/illustrator. The bar is a tribute to the Columbus-born Thurber, the hotel’s partnership with local literary associations and the fact that Thurber’s mother lived for several years in an apartment in the hotel.

Opening the doors to a historic hotel’s ballroom should always be an “ahhhh!” moment and this one is no exception. Natural light illuminates five great stained glass windows near the ceiling, depicting symbols of hospitality and fine dining.

Westin Columbus is located in a former part of the city’s historic German Village. It is in walking distance of today’s smaller German Village, with its adorable brick homes, pocket gardens, unique shops and some of the best sausage restaurants in Ohio. 310 S. High St., Columbus 43215, 614/228-3800.