Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Union Terminal: A Jewel in the Crown of the Queen City.


It's one of the most prolific icons of Cincinnati, one of the finest examples of Art Deco in the world, a symbol of America's rise as a super power and one of the region's largest tourist attractions. From the steel superstructure, to the roof to the inner workings of its clock, check out Union Terminal like you've never seen it before. I recently had the privilege of joining a group of photographers touring the ins and outs of one of the city's greatest treasures, but it's a treasure we almost lost.


The top photograph is the building's rotunda, below is a photograph of the steel structure accessed by catwalks above the dome.


Before you can begin to appreciate the building, you need to understand its history and significance. Long before it was the Museum Center, it was the main transportation hub for Cincinnati and in between those periods served as a mall and was abandoned for a time.

- Union Terminal under construction. Image source: Wikipedia.

Completed in 1933, Union Terminal became the center of railroad traffic in the city, unifying several stations and several railroads throughout the urban core. Its Art Deco style made it not just a landmark in the West End, but provided beautiful details all throughout its interior. Although gorgeous  , the building was completed at a time when train travel was diminishing in America. Traffic picked up with the onset of World War II, but began a steep decline in the post-war years. When Amtrak was created in 1971, only two trains per day operated out of Union Terminal, a steep decline from its once mighty peak of 216 trains per day. In October of 1972, Amtrak abandoned the terminal and began operations at a smaller station off River Rd. 

With passenger service now completely gone from the historical building, the expanding freight railroad operations behind the terminal wanted the passenger concourse gone in order to accommodate larger trains. The city of Cincinnati was successful in getting the building added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, which kept the building from being demolished. However, in 1974 the Southern Railway was allowed to tear down the concourse that was impeding its expanding freight operations. The murals along that concourse were preserved and relocated to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and can still be seen today. With the main structure saved, the city looked for a buyer to develop the property, even taking out ads in a the Wall Street Journal.

- 1971 proposal to turn Union Terminal into an office park. Image source: Cincinnati Revisted.

Many different proposals and ideas were considered for the terminals future. None of them (including the garish office park idea seen above) came to fruition. It wasn't until 1978 that the terminal had a new lease on life. A Columbus, Ohio developer began turning the historic building into a shopping mall. When completed in 1980, Union Terminal reopened as "The Land of Oz," a family entertainment and shopping complex.

"Land of Oz" concept (1975)
- "Land of Oz" concept for an ice rink in the rotunda. Image source: Cincinnati Revisted.

The Land of Oz failed and by 1985, all the tenants were gone. The building sat vacant and abandoned while the city of Cincinnati faced a decision on what to do. In May of 1986, a campaign lead by former Mayor and television personality Jerry Springer was successful in passing a levy that began renovation efforts to turn the building into the Cincinnati Museum Center. In November of 1990, the Cincinnati Museum Center officially opened and in July of 1991, Amtrak returned - restoring passenger rail service to the building.

- The Cincinnati History Museum at Union Terminal. Image source: Cincinnati Museum Center.

Today, Union Terminal is host to three separate museums, an Omnimax theatre, traveling exhibits, the Cincinnati historical library, the Cincinnati railroad club and a number of educational and research programs. On June 9th, 2012 I took part in a photographer's tour that showed off some of the buildings hidden secrets and greatest assets.

- Senior Director of Facilities and Operations Steve Terheiden (right) prepares our tour group for the climb ahead.

Our tour group assembled in the rotunda before the center's Director of Facilities and Operations, Steve Terheiden, lead our group into the access stairwell's on the rotunda's sides. After a few floors, the building's offices and painted hallways turn to the sections typically only seen by the building's maintenance staff. Here, much of the original construction can still be seen.


While the staff demonstrates an excellent effort to maintain the building, the hidden sections show the terminal's age and weariness.

- Deterioration within Union Terminal.

Accompanied by the center's social media coordinators Lauren (aka Miss Print of Cincinnati Rollergirls fame) and Natalie, Steve leads us to a glass catwalk. We're now standing in between the two sets of windows on the building's main facade.


Steve opens two windows to show us just how high up we are.

- Overlooking the building's courtyard and entrance from the glass windows of the facade. The skyline of Cincinnati can be seen on the upper right.

- Overlooking the rotunda lobby.

The tour continues through more hallways and stairs. Steve gives instructions for us to watch our heads and be ready to scale the catwalks of the building's "high steel" section.

- Names of contractors from the Museum Center's renovation inscribed on the wall.

- Wall radiator in one of the older sections of the building.

The "high steel" tour is one that's available to the public, but camera's are not permitted. This is for good reason, if you drop your camera you may as well yell goodbye as it falls through the steel maze below you. To give you an idea of where in the building we're at, look at the arrow in this construction photo:

- Image source: Cincinnati Museum Center.

One by one, we grasp the handrails of the catwalks and begin climbing into the steel framework above the building's rotunda. We're above the structure of grand entrance seen at the beginning of this article, in the rafters that are supporting the structure.

- The steel framework above the terminal's rotunda.

- Absolute center of the building's dome.

After climbing our way back down the catwalks, the tour proceeds through the back halls of the facility.




Our tour takes us onto another level of the glass catwalk, this time directly behind the iconic clock on the terminal's facade.

- Union Terminal clock as viewed from within.

- Clock components.

- Clock gears.

One of the most recognizable things about Union Terminal are the murals that adorn the rotunda.

The next part of our tour took us through the passageways directly behind the walls that the murals adorn.


In here, some of the challenges facing the building are very evident. Water seeping in through cracks on the outside of the 79 year old building has caused significant damage over the years.

- Water damage within the walls.

Steve leads us to Tower A, home of the Cincinnati Railroad Club. This part of the building is the original control tower for the passenger train rail yard. It's filled with historical items, the yard's original switchboard and a group of friendly volunteers. The tower is open to the public and completely free.

- Overview of Tower A.

- Switchboard in Tower A.

- A Cincinnati Railroad Club volunteer demonstrates how the phones were used to relay train positions from the nearby suburbs.

Our tour then takes us out onto the building's North roof where we can overlook the nearby freight rail yard, an area that had once been bustling with passenger traffic. These days, an Amtrak train occupies only one line and only three times a week late at night.


- Steve points out an exhaust vent in need of repair.

- The outside of the rotunda as viewed from the roof.

On the South end, we get to check out the building's "green roof." The green roof provides insulation to the building and is a key component in reducing heating and cooling costs, all by embracing natural "technology."

- The terminal's "green roof."

- The "green roof" with the skyline of Cincinnati in the distance.
- Detail of the building as seen from the roof.

The next stop on the tour was to see the restoration efforts that have taken place within the building over the years. These areas are available for rent for large events such as meetings, wedding receptions, etc. These areas have been painstakingly restored over the last several years with consultation by preservation architects. They are incredibly accurate to their original construction.


- Clock in one of the meeting rooms. All of the wall clocks are synched up with the main clock on the outside of the building. True to Union Terminal's character, note the ornate detailing of the clock.

- The balcony overlooking the Cincinnati Room.

- The mural above The Cincinnati Room depicting the era's four main modes of transportation and the urban street grid.

- Remnants of the passenger train concourse as viewed from the Cincinnati Room.

The final stop was the former office of the Union Terminal Company's president. The round office exemplifies the building's ornate and beautiful Art Deco form.

- Union Terminal President's Office.

- Detail of the key cabinet that once held a copy of every key for the building.

Union Terminal is beautiful on both the outside and within. It's one of the jewels in the crown of the Queen City. It's astounding to think that a building this historically significant was once turned into a mall, even worse to imagine that it was almost once demolished. Thankfully, Union Terminal has survived to become a cultural center of the region and will hopefully continue with support into the future. This city, this region and this nation certainly deserve it.

Special thanks to Steve, Lauren, Natalie and Kevin for the tour!

Also, a very big thank you to Mr. Matt Hunter Ross whose wonderful blog, Cincinnati Revisted, provided many of the historical photographs.

For more information on Union Terminal and planning a visit, check out The Cincinnati Museum Center and the Cincinnati Railroad Club.

Update | Oct. 21, 2017:
  • The Cincinnati Museum Center is currently being renovated thanks to a a public vote which secured funding. The museum and train station are still open during construction and the full project is expected to be completed in 2018.


  1. Gordon: This is an amazing recap with some great additions that make it more than a recap. Great stuff. Thanks for posting.

  2. Excellent, excellent review!

    That's really great that you could take part in the Photographer's Tour - those are some great shots. When we did the Rotunda Tour as part of the 75th Anniversary (in 2008), interestingly, we weren't allowed to take photos of the skeletal roof area. (ref. http://acincinnatihistory.blogspot.com/2008/03/topping-out-part-i.html, http://acincinnatihistory.blogspot.com/2008/04/topping-out-part-ii.html, http://acincinnatihistory.blogspot.com/2008/04/topping-out-part-iii.html).

    Keep up the great work!

  3. Really really cool photography here. Great job on capturing the iconic characteristics of Union Terminal. Moved away from Cincy 11 years ago and it is always one of my favorite places to visit when I come back home. I love taking new people from out of town to this jewel.

  4. Good article as usual. I'm proud as a native Cincinnatian that we have managed to hold onto this building. I remember as in about 3rd grade taking a field trip there when it was still a mall in roughly 1982. Times sure have changed!

  5. Fantastic pictures Gordon. Bravo!

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I'm sorry. I wrote that comment last night in one of my fits of anger. I'm just so bummed that since I'm no longer the Blue Chip Young Republican leader, I have nothing to do but work a government job and complain about the government. I'm at the lowest point in my life and all I have to make me happy is Mark Miller and The LA Lakers.

  7. I remember when they moved the murals to the airport. It was a big deal. Those murals tell the story of Cincinnati and it's citizens. Last time I was there the murals at the airport were splendid. Thanks for these pictures. Next time I come I will have to go to the terminal.

  8. Wow! Just realized I was on this very same "tour" - Kevin invited me. It was superb...very interesting and met some cool people. (I'm the guy in the black shirt / red shorts in one of the rooftop pics.). One of my favorite things was the walkway between the large banks of windows in the front where the inner workings of the clock are.

    Very cool post.