Cincinnati Union Terminal

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Winner of a 2020 Palladio Award

Cincinnati, OH

Client: The Cincinnati Museum Center

Project Type: Comprehensive Interior and Exterior Restoration and Renovation; Historic Tex Credits

Constructed in 1933, Cincinnati Union Terminal was the pinnacle of American railroad station design. One of the largest passenger stations constructed in the United States, it is considered one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the country. A masterful combination of architecture, engineering, planning, and decorative arts, Union Terminal was widely recognized for its technological innovations.

Designed by Fellheimer and Wagner Architects with Paul Philipe Cret, major interior finishes including mosaics, murals, and carved linoleum wall finishes were executed by nationally famous artists Winold Reiss, Maxfield Keck, and Pierre Bourdelle.

During World War II, the seven railroads sharing Union Terminal operated over 200 passenger trains a day through the station. However, with the decline of rail passenger service across the country, Union Terminal was abandoned in 1972. Various uses, including a shopping center, were inserted in the building as “placeholders” to prevent demolition. In 1990 the Cincinnati History Museum and Library and the Cincinnati Natural History Museum collectively operated in a portion of the building. Later, a master plan was prepared for the Cincinnati Museum Center to occupy the entire building, adding a children’s museum, and a Holocaust museum.

In order to fund the $220 million Cincinnati Museum Center project, an innovative financial program was developed. Federal historic preservation tax credits would provide 20% of the total project costs if the entire project met National Park Service standards for a Certified Rehabilitation. Also, in 2014 the citizens of Hamilton County, Ohio overwhelmingly approved a one-quarter percent increase in the county sales tax for a 5-year period to fund the project.

Working with local architect GBBN, the restoration and adaptive use of the building was an extremely large and complex project with a very short design and construction schedule. Design and planning challenges included the development of a reuse program that would allow the major historic spaces to be restored as public amenities for the museum while rehabilitating the former service and storage spaces as new museum exhibition galleries, work spaces, and offices. The purpose of the project was to return Cincinnati Terminal to its place as a major center of civic use while preserving and restoring a significant early 20th century architectural landmark and creating a state-of-the-art 21st century museum complex.

Innovative new techniques were used to record the building and diagnose major conservation problems with the exterior masonry and metals, as well as interior finishes including metals, mosaic murals, linoleum wall panels, and decorative painting. Based on archival research and physical investigations, a program for the treatment of the building was developed that met the highest standards of building conservation.

As a large-scale restoration and rehabilitation project, Cincinnati Union Terminal meets the highest standards that befit a National Historic Landmark. As part of the Cincinnati Museum Center program during construction and beyond, the preservation of the building is serving as a major public education tool. The restored structure has strengthened and sustained the institution in its service to the community and its stewardship of Union Terminal.