Front entrance of Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal

One of America’s most architecturally significant buildings will be reopening in November after a substantial $230 million restoration by GBBN Architects: Cincinnati’s Union Terminal.   Completed in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, this Art Deco palatial masterpiece was dedicated to passenger railroad transportation and travel at a scale in size and exquisiteness, with which few cities worldwide could compete. As rail passenger service declined, the building was first transformed by the Skilken Organization in the late 1970’s into a shopping mall which was short- lived. With its demise, voters approved a levy in 1986 providing almost $42 million with an additional $8 million in grants from the State of Ohio to establish the Museum Center in Union Terminal, combining the Natural History Museum, the Cincinnati Historical Society & Library, and the Omnimax Theater under one roof (later additions include the Children’s Museum, and soon to open the Holocaust & Humanities Center). As with all buildings in their eightieth year, things begin to deteriorate and are in need of repair—the only differences with Union Terminal are its enormity and intricate details throughout. Hamilton County taxpayers approved a half percent increase in 2014 in the sales tax for five years in order to fund this needed restoration.

The creation of Union Terminal in the first place was a prolonged and agonizing situation.     For decades, railroad owners and city leaders had been attempting to consolidate Cincinnati’s 5 train stations scattered throughout the downtown area into one large terminal for its obvious conveniences. Unfortunately, the seven railroad lines could not agree on this consolidation, in spite of the public’s desire, numerous plans, and a variety of proposed locations. Because of this indecision to combine stations, Cincinnatians in the late 1920’s justifiably were embarrassed and frustrated by these inconvenient vestiges of the 19th-century. Today, we complain about having to walk from gate-to-gate in airport terminals: the thought of transferring from one train station to another with heavy luggage requiring a carriage, cab, or bus to travel across Downtown’s congested streets is almost unthinkable. Many travelers inevitably missed their connections, making Cincinnati as unpopular then as Chicago’s O’Hare or Atlanta’s Hartsfield/Jackson Airports are today. By the 1920’s, the situation had become so difficult and unpleasant that everyone finally agreed that something had to be done.

Although Union Terminal is an architectural masterpiece, its location is clearly an engineering solution. No other city’s main train station in America was ever placed so far removed from its center (2 miles), necessitating a car, taxi, or bus to reach Downtown businesses and hotels. The decision to construct Union Terminal at the end of Ezzard Charles Drive in the West End was for railroad convenience, not the public’s. As the “Gateway to the South”, Cincinnati had three railroad bridges spanning the Ohio River, each of which were built at a high elevation to allow steamboat smokestacks to clear below. Due to the height, the railroads wanted to maintain this level to reduce the usage and expenditure of coal, later diesel fuel, that would have been needed if there had been a steep grade created. Additionally, by constructing Union Terminal at a high elevation, it allowed the structure , its support facilities, and railroad yards to be above flood stage—a significant problem in Cincinnati at least a couple times every year before the construction of dams on the Ohio River and the Mill Creek. Millions of dollars in equipment, rails, livestock, and merchandise were lost annually, plus the disruption of freight and passenger service for days or even weeks before being able to return to normalcy. These considerations led civic leaders and the railroads to choose this location at the expense of the traveler’s convenience. What is today known as “Bald Knob” in Price Hill was where much earth was removed from its hilltop in order to accomplish the rise in elevation for the railroad yards.

Much study, time and money were spent on analyzing passengers’ arrivals and departures, as well as the flow of traffic, cars, taxis, buses, and luggage. Separation of vehicle types was seen to help expedite both embarkations and disembarkations of travelers. In 2018, this may appear obvious, but at its 1933 opening, such divisions were ground breaking. Since few train stations were built after Union Terminal’s opening, architects, engineers, and planners came to analyze this complex for the design of airport terminals instead. Many of the same concerns facing air travelers were similar to rail passengers at Union Terminal.

Considering that the terminal was far removed from Downtown, much thought was given to provide many conveniences and amenities for passengers: leather upholstered seating instead of hard wooden benches, banks, restaurants, tea room, ice cream parlor, newsstand, barbers, beauticians, theater, shops, and much more. Many would have been satisfied with just this, but project leaders were determined to create a building of great and lasting beauty, infused with fine art and history.

Historical photograph of Union Terminal’s original Concourse over tracks

During its heyday as a passenger rail facility in the 1930’s and 1940’s, it had a capacity to serve 216 trains per day. Upon arrival, passengers leaving their trains would ascend from track level to the enormous, shallow barrel vaulted Concourse (sadly, mostly demolished in 1973) and then to the amazing half-domed Rotunda—a sweeping arc of east-facing glass rising at its highest point to 106 feet, flooding the interior with daylight. Opening the glass doors to the exterior presented a panoramic view of Downtown and surrounding hills. The reaction then, as today, had to be impressive with an overriding feeling that one had arrived at some place very special.

The initial design of Union Terminal was completely different from what was constructed. Originally, it was conceived by architects Alfred Fellheimer and Steward Wagner in the Beaux-Arts Style, more extravagant and expensive in its specification of enduring materials such as marble and bronze and conservative in nature. Its stodginess in appearance might have appealed to railroad executives and civic leaders, but ultimately its costly expense eliminated it from further consideration. Fortunately, the Philadelphia architect Paul Cret was hired as the aesthetic advisor for the project to assist Fellheimer & Wagner, and its transformation to Art Deco could be achieved in less expensive materials, such as mostly brick on the exterior and paint, plaster, wood veneer, wallpapers, and aluminum for the interior. Incredibly, this dramatic design for the Ages represented reduced costs.

Bas relief sculpture by Maxfield Keck to the north of the front entrance to Union Terminal

Besides Paul Cret, several other artists were hired for the project who had a profound effect on the building’s appearance. Maxfield Keck designed and supervised the carving in limestone of the monumental 30 foot tall bas relief sculptural figures flanking the entrance—one symbolic of transportation and the other, commerce. Pierre Bourdelle was responsible for designing the Art Deco and Modern Styles throughout the interior: his use of wood veneer paneling, hand-cut wallpapers, and carved linoleum gave Union Terminal its inspirational and much admired details at a reduced cost, yet were durable, easily maintained, and visually held up over a distance. Winold Reiss was chosen as the artist to create the mosaic murals which have come to embody the building itself. Reiss executed these murals in small colored-glass pieces called “tesserae”, and they told the story of the development of Cincinnati, America, and transportation.

Pierre Bourdelle’s carved linoleum wall mural in the womens’ lounge at Union Terminal

In 1972, Union Terminal’s Concourse was threatened with destruction, because the railroads needed cranes to be able to load and unload containers off flatbeds. Lining the walls were 15 Reiss murals representing different Cincinnati businesses and manufacturers, along with a sizable mural depicting America’s time zones and corresponding clocks on its end west wall. Cincinnatians rallied to the cause to at least save their beloved Reiss murals from the wrecking ball, even if the Concourse itself couldn’t be. 14 murals were removed and transported to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport for their terminals and baggage claim areas; only the time zone mural was lost due to its size and weight. At that time, everyone involved thought that they would be safe long into the future, but several years ago the airport decided to demolish two of its terminals. Again, Reiss’ murals were facing destruction, and at great expense were transported back to the Ohio side of the river where they have been temporarily placed on the west façade of the Duke Energy Center.

Rotunda mural by Winold Reiss depicting Cincinnati, American and transportation history

When the Museum Center reopens to the public on November 17, Union Terminal’s $230 million restoration will return much of its splendor back to its opening appearance in 1933. Wall and ceiling murals, wood paneling, terrazzo flooring, light fixtures, metal grilles, doors, windows and their glazing, hardware, and so much more have been either meticulously restored or recreated to match the original. After 85 years, the building will sparkle and glisten with this incredible display of fine design: nothing constructed today can even begin to compare to the level of detail, sophistication, planning, thoughtfulness, and beauty which are evident wherever one looks.

On a recent tour of the complex, Nick Cates—GBBN’s project architect in charge of this monumental restoration, and Michael Burson, also an architect and acting in the capacity on this project as the owner’s representative and liaison, proudly showed the accomplishments of their firms and construction crew, since it began about 2.5 years ago.  With Mr. Cates in charge of the construction and restoration work, Mr. Burson made certain that the project’s budget and taxpayer dollars are kept in-line, time schedule maintained, and voiced client concerns: the result obviously has been a successful alliance.

In tackling this project’s overwhelming size and complexity, the work was essentially divided into three basic components: the exterior, infrastructure, and interior.

New ice cream parlor, formerly the Tea Room off Rotunda, with flora and fauna Rookwood Pottery tiles by William Hentschel

Before its closure, the Museum Center had almost 1,450,000 visitors annually (more than 5 times that of the Cincinnati Art Museum) and is the 17th most visited museum in the nation. With the added attraction of Union Terminal’s masterful restoration, it could very well experience a precipitous rise in attendance numbers. Hopefully, the quality of their museum exhibitions and display will rise to the occasion with these unsurpassed surroundings of Art Deco splendor.

–Stewart Maxwell

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