November 5, 2014

Cincinnati's Union Terminal Now Saved for Future Generations

Union Terminal exterior

photo by: Cincinnati Museum Center

Built in 1933, Union Terminal is one of the most iconic Art Deco masterpieces in the United States. It now houses the Cincinnati Museum Center, the largest cultural institution in the region.

Since it opened in 1933, Union Terminal has served as both a cultural hub for the city of Cincinnati and one of the most iconic Art Deco structures in the nation. Now, thanks to local citizens who voted "yes" on Issue 8, it will continue to fill both roles for generations to come.

Yesterday, voters in Cincinnati and throughout Hamilton County decided overwhelmingly (61% to 39%) in favor of Issue 8. The ballot measure will increase the sales tax in Hamilton County by one-quarter of one percent over a total of five years and raise nearly $172 million in revenue for the restoration of Union Terminal, making this one of the country’s largest sales tax issues supporting a preservation project.

Roughly $40 million will also be raised for the project through state of Ohio capital grants, state and federal historic tax credits, and private funds.

“One of the reasons we advocated for the passage of Issue 8 is that it wouldn’t be just left to taxpayers,” says Jason Clement, the National Trust’s director of community outreach. “The financial burden is not on any one single group, and by voting yes, tax payers are eager to see how Union Terminal can be a model for partnerships going forward.”

half dome in Union Terminal

photo by: Cincinnati Museum Center

Union Terminal transformed Cincinnati into a desired destination in an era of rail travel. Its 106-foot-tall entrance is the second-largest half dome in the world, behind only the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

Jennifer Sandy, senior field officer at the National Trust, adds, “We hope this victory in Cincinnati can be an inspiration to other communities to invest in their iconic historic buildings through strong public-private partnerships.”

Originally built to centralize Cincinnati’s many rail stations, Union Terminal transformed the city from a place to be avoided on travels to a desired stopover. A large part of that attraction was the terminal’s 106-foot-tall rotunda and its collection of Winold Reiss glass tile mosaics.

Passenger rail service through the terminal was ceased in 1972, and after a short stint as a mall, the site was converted into the Cincinnati Museum Center in 1990. It has served as such ever since, and now houses the Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History and Science, the Duke Energy Children’s Museum, and additional special exhibits, which together serve more than a million annual visitors. The Museum Center is also home to the city’s OMNIMAX Theater and the Cincinnati History Library and Archives, making it the largest cultural institution in the region.

The local pop/folk band Young Heirlooms performs

photo by: Jacob Crews

The local pop/folk band Young Heirlooms performs at the National Trust's Yes on 8 Action Center in downtown Cincinnati.

“We’ve got one-stop shopping for cradle to grave educational experiences,” says Elizabeth Pierce, the Museum Center’s vice president of communications, collections, and research.

The funds raised by Issue 8 will go towards a full restoration of the building, a major structural makeover and updates to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing infrastructure. (Learn more about the building's critical needs.) The project is expected to move forward early in 2015.

“The Museum Center has a goal of bringing in more experiences -- modern-day science, modern-day exhibit activity -- that we can’t do right now in a building that is literally crumbling around us,” Pierce says. “Getting the building shored up allows a major architectural icon to be in this community for generations to come, and it allows Cincinnati Museum Center to continue to flourish within this spectacular landmark.”

Union Terminal's damage

photo by: Cincinnati Museum Center

Union Terminal is in desperate need of repairs. Funding from the passage of Issue 8 will go towards repairing the structure's rusted steel infrastructure, HVAC systems, and other needs.

The win was a long time in the making. The community's Cultural Facilities Task Force began evaluating the needs of Union Terminal, as well as the nearby Music Hall, in early 2014. In June, the National Trust added both buildings to its 11 Most Endangered list -- the first time two sites from the same city had been listed in the same year -- and also named both icons as National Treasures.

On August 6, the county’s Board of Commissioners decided to move forward with a ballot measure that would support only Union Terminal. With future support for the restoration of Music Hall still in mind, local groups, including the Cultural Facilities Task Force, the Cincinnati Museum Center, the Cincinnati Preservation Association, and the National Trust, advocated for the passage of Issue 8 and the restoration of Union Terminal all the way up until polls closed late on November 4th.

As part of their support, the National Trust opened a pop-up office called the "Yes on 8 Action Center" on Cincinnati’s downtown Fountain Square where they distributed campaign materials and hosted events geared toward Union Terminal and local history. National Trust staff also canvassed neighborhoods, festivals, and cultural events, and even hosted a concert by the local pop/folk band, Young Heirlooms, reaching more than 14,000 individuals in the process.

Members of the National Trust's community outreach team

photo by: NTHP

Members of the National Trust's community outreach team promote Issue 8 through a honk and wave on the city's East Side.

“Having the National Trust do a publicity push to its constituents over the summer was huge in continuing to raise awareness and the profile of the project,” Pierce says, “and having boots on the ground with us has been incredibly useful.”

Moving forward, local authorities will secure the final elements of private funding and move to get state and federal historic tax credits approved. The passage of Issue 8, however, is already a major victory.

“To me, one of the most exciting things about this project is that preservation was on the ballot, and we won,” says Grant Stevens, the National Trust’s Community Outreach manager. “That people care enough to say that yes, this is an icon, this is a national treasure in our city; I think that’s pretty powerful.”

David Weible is a former content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation is inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

Each year, America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

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