Cincinnati’s magnificent art deco style railroad terminal building, now the home of Cincinnati Museum Center, was dedicated on March 31, 1933. Union Terminal was first proposed in the early part of the 20th century as a solution to the chaotic existing railroad system, which consisted of seven lines operating out of five stations. Initial planning began in the early 1900s, but floods, inter-railroad squabbling and World War I delayed the plan until the late 1920s.
New York architects Alfred Fellheimer and Steward Wagner, recognized leaders in the planning of urban railway stations, were hired to design the Union Terminal building. Their first designs were classical in style until Paul Phillipe Cret, a friend of Steward Wagner, was engaged as a consultant and influenced the art deco style of the building. Construction began in August 1929 and was completed March 31, 1933.
Cincinnati Union Terminal stands on a prominent location one mile northwest of the center of the city on land that once was Lincoln Park. Visitors approach the massive, arched, limestone and glass east facade of the building from Western Avenue and Ezzard Charles Drive through a quarter-mile plaza. The building is flanked on either side by curving wings. An illuminated fountain, cascade and pool are in the center foreground. On either side of the main doors, bas-relief figures designed by Maxfield Keck symbolize Commerce and Transportation.
During World War II, Cincinnati Union Terminal experienced unprecedented success. As a major transfer point for soldiers, the station served as many as 20,000 passengers a day. But in the 1950s, the sudden expansion of interstates and airlines led to the rapid decline of the railroad industry. By the early 1970s, only two passenger trains a day passed through Union Terminal, and in 1972, passenger train service was discontinued.
During the mid-1980s, the administrators of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and the Cincinnati Historical Society developed plans for a joint museum project. The spaciousness of Union Terminal, coupled with its history and design, made it the top choice as a location for the project. In 1986, Hamilton County voters approved a $33 million bond issue for the restoration of the terminal. The State of Ohio and the City of Cincinnati also contributed to the restoration with grants of $8 million and $3 million, respectively. In addition, more that 3,000 Cincinnati individuals, corporations and foundations also contributed to the building’s renovation.
In November 1990, Cincinnati Union Terminal reopened as the Cincinnati Museum Center, an educational and cultural complex featuring the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, the Cincinnati Historical Society Museum and Library, and the Robert D. Lindner Family OMNIMAX® Theater. On July 29, 1991, passenger train service was officially restored to the terminal. Amtrak, which had been using a small station on River Road as a stop on its Washington, D.C.-Chicago route, moved its service to the renovated Union Terminal.
German-born artist Winold Reiss was commissioned by Fellheimer and Wagner to design murals for Cincinnati Union Terminal in 1932. He was to design and create huge color mosaic murals for the rotunda and the train concourse and to assist in creating the Art Deco style for the entire building. The mosaics are "a combination of two artistic techniques. The human images are rendered in glass mosaic tiles, while the background areas are treated as large masses of frescoed concrete – concrete that has the color added while it is still wet. Background shapes such as shadows, are outlined, or silhouetted, in tile." ("The Vision of Cincinnati: The Worker Murals of Winold Reiss" by Daniel Hurley, Queen City Heritage vol. 51, no. 2/3, summer/fall 1993, p. 82.)
The mural to the right (north) depicts the growth of Cincinnati. The background illustrates the development of Ohio River transportation from flatboat to airplane. The middle ground shows the infant Cincinnati, the spread of population to surrounding countryside, and, finally, the modern city. The foreground illustrates the people who lived here, including the soldiers at Fort Washington, settlers and industrial workers. Winold Reiss drew the portraits from life, frequently using Cincinnatians as his subjects.
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