All Aboard a Work of Art: Cincinnati Union Terminal
By J. Miles Wolf
Cincinnati Union Terminal, hailed as an Art Deco masterpiece, is a National Historic Landmark and has been named one of the top 50 architecturally significant buildings in the United States by the American Institute of Architects. When it was completed in 1933, its unique shape and flowing entryways were a modern statement of train station design. Having replaced five local train stations, the new unified station received great praise for its multilayered design and its ability to move thousands of passengers and hundreds of trains seamlessly. Local and national press called it a “Temple to Transportation.”
As the largest half-dome in the Western Hemisphere and one of the last great train stations built in America, the unique structure is the result of a last-minute architectural decision. The station was originally designed to be a grand neoclassical building with columns and arches. But after two years of construction, the owners asked the architects, Fellheimer & Wagner, to redesign the building in an up-to-date, less expensive style. Fellheimer & Wagner tasked its talented young architect Roland A. Wank, along with the French-born consultant and architect Paul Philippe Cret, to redesign the building in the modern style now known as Art Deco.
Cret and Wank were influenced by new European designs and modern styles emerging in the United States. They paid great attention to detail and created a building that was both functional and beautiful. Their use of art as a major component of the interior design created an exciting combination of custom-made artwork intertwined with modern architecture. They commissioned over 60 original installations, totaling over 18,000 square feet of artwork, for the new train station.
The Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen’s design for the 1919 Helsinki Central Station may have influenced the unique shape of the terminal’s exterior. Saarinen used Art Nouveau elements, including a large, arched entry full of glass windows. Cret and Wank took that design concept a step further when they designed the world’s largest arched, half-dome shaped building, which housed the Union Terminal’s more than 100-foot-high rotunda.
Cincinnati Union Terminal façade with landscaped approach featuring a large, cascading water fountain.
30-foot-tall façade bas-relief sculpture by Maxfield Keck.
Union Terminal is instantly recognizable with its arching form, distinctive curvilinear shapes and gently stepped exterior. The location and orientation of its distinctive façade make the building even more spectacular. It sits high on a manmade hill visible from downtown Cincinnati, and the long, landscaped approach with a large, cascading water fountain makes it an impressive, welcoming sight.
The façade, with its impressive towering shape, is composed of smooth Indiana limestone with an arched wall of windows over a frame of steel and concrete. The main entry and protective marquee are trimmed with marble and aluminum. The German-born sculptor Maxfield Keck designed and carved two 30-foot-tall Art Deco stylized bas-relief sculptures symbolizing transportation and commerce into the gently stepped pilasters. The sculptures set the stage for entering a building full of art, color, and light.
Inside the rotunda, one stands in awe. The soaring 106-foot-high half-dome ceiling radiates luminous color. A 10-story arched wall of windows fills the room with light. The innovative indirect lighting makes the rotunda a spectacular space at night.
German-born Winold Reiss, commissioned to create murals for the building, executed portraits of local and historical figures in glass tile mosaics. This medium showcased Reiss’s distinctive angular and colorful style. The rotunda contains a pair of massive curved murals 22 feet high and 110 feet long. The vibrant west mural portrays the history of the United States and transportation; the east illustrates the history of Cincinnati and the Ohio River valley. Reiss worked with the Ravenna Tile Company of New York to make sheets of small, colorful glass tesserae set into colored stucco backgrounds in a style called shadow mosaic. He designed additional mosaic murals on local industrialized themes that filled the original concourse building with multihued and interesting patterns. Of the 23 original mosaics, eight still remain in the building, including the rotunda murals.
The rotunda features a massive half-dome ceiling with curving, layered bands of stucco painted in yellow, orange, and silver tones. The 180-foot-wide rotunda serves as an entry lobby to the trains, public transportation, ticket windows, and services such as dining and shops. All are marked with Deco-style lettering and silvery aluminum doors and trim. Much of the interior art is intact, though the interior design of the retail shops is mostly gone. However, many historical photographs show interior spaces designed with style and flair. The executive office interiors remain intact with custom furniture, unique aluminum light fixtures, inlaid wood art, patterned veneers, and cork floors, with sound-absorbing cork walls in the boardroom.
Rotunda with 106-foot-high ceiling and 10-story arched wall of windows.
Detail of mosaic by Winold Reiss featuring a riverboat captain.
Detail of mosaic by Winold Reiss featuring a construction worker.
The French artist Pierre Bourdelle executed stylized figurative art in numerous media, including carved linoleum for lounges and movie theaters, oil on canvas for ceiling and wall murals, inlaid wood designs for the president’s office, and cut-paper wall coverings for other lounges. The Tea Room, another intact space with multicolored Rookwood tile lining the walls and floor designed by William Hentschel, a local artist, is now a lovely ice cream parlor.
Union Terminal was designed to manage 17,000 passengers and 216 trains daily. In its first years of operation, an average of 150 trains a day passed through the station. Usage peaked during World War II when it averaged 30,000 passengers a day. After the war, rail traffic declined steadily because of the interstate highway system and increased air travel. By 1953, usage was down to 24 trains daily and the terminal was losing money because of its enormous operating costs. Union Terminal closed in 1972, only 39 years after it opened; by then traffic was down to just a few trains per day.
During its decline, the Union Terminal board sought additional uses for the building. In 1968 the Cincinnati Science Center opened on the train concourse. In 1974 the 450-foot concourse was torn down to make way for piggyback freight trains, and the following year the city purchased the building to save what was then thought of as a white elephant from demolition. In 1980, part of the terminal was developed as a mall and entertainment complex, which lasted only five years.
In 1986, Cincinnati voters passed a bond levy to finance the conversion of the terminal into a museum complex, and the Cincinnati Museum Center opened to much excitement in 1990. Union Terminal was now home to the Museum of Natural History and Science, the Cincinnati History Museum with the Cincinnati Historical Society Library, and an Omnimax theater. In 1991, train service returned to the terminal with Amtrak’s Cardinal route linking Chicago and New York, which still stops there several times a week. In 1997, the Children’s Museum joined the Museum Center. Residents of Cincinnati and Hamilton County passed a series of bond levies to pay for capital repairs and operating costs.
By the early twenty-first century, Union Terminal was in need of another major renovation. Some of the structural steel embedded in concrete was failing, and the dated mechanical systems and windows desperately needed upgrading. Much of the Museum Center closed in 2016 for a major two-year, 228-million-dollar renovation.
The museums reopened in 2018 with a gala event. In 2019 the Holocaust and Humanity Center opened in the newly renovated Museum Center, featuring many artifacts and exhibitions about local survivors of the Holocaust. The Museum Center received more than 1.8 million visitors in 2019, making it the largest cultural attraction in the region. Today this magnificent Art Deco masterpiece is poised to be a center of activity and education for years to come.
Boardroom featuring original table, cork and wood walls, as well as a cork floor.
Lobby for Women’s restroom with cut linoleum mural by Pierre Bourdelle.
President’s office featuring original desk, inlaid wood walls, and cork floor by Pierre Bourdelle.
About the Author:
J. Miles Wolf is an artist, photographer, and publisher living in Cincinnati. He has published nine books and loves photographing architecture. He has been drawn to Art Deco architecture for many years.
All Photos: J. Miles Wolf © 2021
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Winter 2021. View a digital version of the full journal here.