CINCINNATI (AP) — It was already old the morning it was born.
There were mutterings about the Union Terminal’s closure the day it opened.
A reporter congratulated a railroad president at the crowded ceremony. People from all over the country would come to Cincinnati just to see the majestic train station, the newspaperman added.
They’ll come alright, the president agreed.
But they will come by automobile.
That’s how Scott Gampfer, director of history collections and library at Cincinnati Museum Center, tells the story today.
It didn’t take long, however, for the company president to be right. Cars and planes stunted Union Terminal’s first life as a train station.
It took much longer — like 80 years — for the building to be officially recognized as what it almost always was: A relic.
“Now we recognize (Union Terminal) as an artifact in itself, one that needs care, that needs maintenance, that needs to be treated in a particular way,” said Cody Hefner, manager of media relations at Cincinnati Museum Center. “And that’s what we are doing with the restoration.”
Those $212.7 million renovations are designed to extend the Union Terminal’s current life as the Cincinnati Museum Center’s home. Mostly funded by a voter-approved Hamilton County sales tax, the project focuses on replacing and repairing deteriorating parts of the Art Deco icon.
It includes repairing and cleaning the stone and brick on the exterior walls. Restoring windows and replacing the roof. Upgrading the electrical and plumbing systems, too.
And about nine months in, the upgrades are on-budget and on time, Hefner said. Construction is expected to take place through October 2018 even while the children’s museum and the special exhibits area remain open.
“It’s never gotten a comprehensive renovation,” Gampfer said. “Now is the time. That’s our legacy.”
Union Terminal’s legacy, however, was never supposed to be just about trains.
“This was to show the world we are not a bottleneck anymore,” Gampfer said.
See, that was Cincinnati’s reputation at the time: This was a city on the way to where you wanted to go.
A railroad journal once published a story about how to avoid traveling through Cincinnati because this was a place where you get stuck. Quite literally.
The Queen City hosted seven railroad companies, but the stations weren’t connected throughout our seven hills. So if you traveled through Cincinnati, you might have to grab a wagon or a car to transfer to another station to get on the train to your final destination.
“It was a nightmare,” Gampfer said.
And Union Terminal was going to be a dream. A beautiful and practical dream.
Project champions wanted the most modern station, too, “with the most modern equipment and modern practices,” Gampfer said.
We were forward-looking, relevant, alive. Or, at least, we wanted our city’s train station to make it look like we were.
That’s one of the reasons why a Neoclassical design for the terminal was rejected.
It looked “like a big monument to the past,” he said. A cathedral, maybe.
Art Deco, with its bold geometry, was what the future was going to look like.
“I think that Union Terminal made that statement,” Gampfer said. “People were really proud of it. People who came and saw it were amazed by it.”
People still come and see and are amazed.
That includes even Clay Palazzo and he sees a lot.
He’s an architect with John G. Waite Associates, a historic preservation architecture firm. The firm has worked on some of the most recognizable landmarks in our country like the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial.
Union Terminal is now on that list. And for good reason.
“The artistic work is of a very high caliber,” he said.
A decade of planning and proposals, designing and building, is inside that work. Maybe that time, that deliberate, slow progress is why we have something to save today.
So the railroad company president on March 31, 1933, might have been both right and wrong. Union Terminal’s days as a train station were always numbered.
But that role wasn’t what counted most.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com