October 31, 2014

Behind-the-Scenes Tour Shows Critical Needs at Union Terminal


On my first-ever visit to Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, I found it impossible not to be impressed from the moment it came into view. The enormous half-dome shape, stunning Art Deco details, and striking resemblance to the Super Friends’ Hall of Justice (readily obvious to someone like me who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s and '80s) combined to wow me before I even walked in the front door.

Upon entering the building, though, it continued to amaze. I hardly knew where to look first. The massive, arched ceiling sports possibly the boldest paint job I’ve ever seen -- arcs of bright yellows, oranges, and greens that somehow work together to be gorgeous, rather than garish. The glass-tile murals along the back walls are beautiful and clearly tell a story about the city. And every door (and there are many) is labeled in a cool Art Deco font, which made my inner design nerd very happy.

But, because my reason for coming to Union Terminal was as part of our National Treasures efforts to help local preservation advocates to pass a small sales tax increase dedicated to raising funds to save it, my attention quickly focused on one thing: It didn’t look threatened. At all.

Now, I’ve worked in preservation (and at the National Trust) long enough to know that you don’t sound the alarm and craft a ballot initiative to raise tax funds to save a place unless there is something really wrong with it, so I knew there was damage I wasn’t seeing.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one blinded by the beauty of the public spaces. It’s been such a common question for the organizers of the YES on 8 - I Love My Union Terminal coalition that free tours were scheduled two days a week in October to let the public see some of the repairs needed.

One of these tours was scheduled for a couple of hours after I arrived, and I jumped at the opportunity to go behind the scenes and find out what sort of work was needed. What I found was that once outside of the areas the general public sees, the needs immediately become apparent.

For example, a great deal of the damage is water-based. There are leaks above windows:


And water has caused many of the window lintels to sag or disintegrate:

In some areas, water has seeped into the concrete to the point where the ceiling is coming down:

And the walls are looking significantly worse for the wear:

There are also areas where windows are cracked or broken, allowing further exposure to the elements:

I also learned that not all of the needed work is readily visible -- many of Union Terminal’s electrical and mechanical systems are in need of replacement as well.

Not wanting to leave us without hope, however, our guide also took us to up to Tower A, which gave us a vantage point of an area that had already been rehabilitated, even sporting an environmentally-friendly green roof.


That hopeful view was a great one to finish with, as it shows the potential of what can be done with the funds raised by the sales tax we’re advocating to pass. You can learn more about it on the coalition website and on Twitter on the #VoteYesUT hashtag.

And of course, if you live in Hamilton County, Ohio -- please vote yes on Issue 8 on Tuesday, November 4!

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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