Cincinnati Museum Center Union Terminal celebrates 84th birthday

National Historic Landmark and community icon continues legacy thanks to current restoration

CINCINNATI – On March 31, 1933, crowds gathered around the fountain in front of Union Terminal, eagerly waiting for the opportunity to walk inside the massive train station they had watched rise from the ground over the past four years. The incredible Art Deco structure was hailed as a temple to transportation. 84 years later, it lives on as a monument to memory and an institution of inspiration.

The call for a central train station to serve as a hub for Cincinnati’s seven major railroad lines started in the 1880s, with several ideas floated in terms of location and design. The area near the Mill Creek was ultimately chosen because four railroads already had tracks and facilities in the area and there was room for expansion, unlike proposed locations downtown.

Construction began in 1929, just as the Great Depression hit the country. Despite the nation’s dire economic situation, the privately-funded construction of Union Terminal finished nine months ahead of schedule and under budget. Though flooding in the city forced Union Terminal into early service on March 19, 1933, it officially opened on March 31 to great fanfare.

“When Union Terminal was opened in 1933, it was a source of great pride for the city. It moved Cincinnati to the forefront of railroad terminal design and functionality and was hailed as a portal to the world,” said Scott Gampfer, director of history collections & library for Cincinnati Museum Center.

Union Terminal was nearly a city within a city. Inside was a bookstore, toy store, newsstands, men’s and women’s clothing stores, a barber shop, boot black and even bath tubs for passengers on long trips. During World War II it saw more than three million servicemen pass through its halls on the way to training or deployment centers. It was the first USO troops in transit location in the country, which became a national model for interfaith, integrated organizations.

The artwork inside Union Terminal was breathtaking in its scale, design and execution. Massive mosaic murals lined the walls of the concourse and the curved walls of the Rotunda. Carved linoleum murals adorned the walls of lounges. Though some of this artwork is no longer in the building, the Rotunda mosaics and the carved linoleum, among others, remain and continue to captivate casual passersby and more discerning art critics.

The rise of the automobile and air travel saw train service decline and by 1972 train service out of Union Terminal had officially stopped. For nearly 30 years Union Terminal’s fate lay in limbo, a building recognized by some as a work of art, by others as a cavernous shell with no purpose. It reopened as a shopping mall in 1980 but by 1984 most tenants had closed, once again putting the building’s fate into question.

In 1986, Cincinnati voters took a leap of faith, approving a tax levy that would make Union Terminal the home of the newly-created Cincinnati Museum Center. The Cincinnati Historical Society, with roots dating back to 1831, and the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History , with origins as far back as 1819, relocated to Union Terminal and reopened as Cincinnati Museum Center in 1990. Since then, over 19 million guests have walked under the massive half dome of Union Terminal while visiting Cincinnati Museum Centre.

Water damage has taken its toll on limestone, brick and steel over those eight decades, threatening the structural integrity of the building and its long term future. But as Union Terminal prepares to celebrate its 84th birthday, the National Historic Landmark is undergoing a full structural restoration, the first it has received since it was built.

“Today, the facility is still a source of pride for the city, not just as an architectural icon, but as a cultural and educational center for the region where lasting memories are made every day,” said Gampfer. “I think if those people who designed and built the terminal were around to see it today, they would be pleased to see that the building is still as impactful and full of life as it was the day it opened.”

A building that has meant so much to this community and has been the setting for multiple generations of memories will once reopen to great fanfare in yet another rebirth.

“As we open a new chapter in Union Terminal’s incredible story, we do so by turning the clock back to a restored, refreshed, resurgent building,” says Elizabeth Pierce, president and CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center. “The restoration also means we can look forward to a building that lasts for generations to come and an updated museum experience that will continue to fill Union Terminal with visitors.”

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