What makes Cincinnati Union Terminal an architectural icon?

December 1st, 2014  |  Published in November 2014

Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Museum Center Library.

Cincinnatians have heard a lot lately about saving our architectural icons, namely Cincinnati Union Terminal and Music Hall.  A number of people have asked me who and what determines an icon?  These are fascinating questions, and I have given them some thought and scholarly inquiry, which I share here with our readers.  My Merriman-Webster dictionary defines “icon” as a pictorial representation, an emblem, or a symbol.   In the art history literature, the term “icon” is commonly used to describe the stylized and painted images of Christian religion as they were depicted in the Early Christian and Byzantine period, primarily by artists creating works for worship in Greek and Russian Orthodox churches and services.  The images were formulaic so that the figures representing the Holy Trinity, Holy Family, and saints were easily recognized by the faithful.  The flat, two-dimensional images on gold grounds (gold symbolized heaven) made it clear that these were spiritual creatures, not to be mistaken for earthlings.

Architectural icons are important constructions, often by famous architects, which have acquired symbolic power.  Unlike religious icons,  so-called iconic architecture is not likely to be repetitive.  Many modern icons are distinctive, and often they become models for a style or type.  A Wright house, which inspired generations of architects and homebuilders with its innovative design, or a library by Henry Hobson Richardson that became a model, might be called iconic. Internationally known architectural icons may evolve into symbols of a nation, as the Eiffel Tower has for France and the Liberty statue has for the United States.  A photograph of Big Ben and the House of Parliament says England. Some iconic designs, intentionally or passively, have come to represent cities. We have the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Water Tower and Hancock Building for Chicago, and the Empire State Building, then twin towers of the World Trade Center for New York City.  The Saarinen arch in St. Louis, which refers to the form of the classic Roman triumphal arch, was designed to recall the city’s historic role as gateway to the far West and a memorial to Thomas Jefferson, whose Louisiana Purchase made the lands available.

The word icon is overused. Another term long used by art historians to describe an important structure is “major monument,” which tends to weigh the material rather than symbolic qualities of a property.   (Aside: This is the basis for the military unit and job title of The Monuments Men, an excellent historical account by Robert M. Edsel.)

But let us continue the icon thread. Several significant structures in Greater Cincinnati symbolize the civic entity and its environs, so they have become iconic in my mind.

My Greater Cincinnati nominations for iconic status, in chronological order,  are the Tyler Davidson “Genius of Waters,” Fountain, the John A. Roebbling, Jr. Suspension Bridge, St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, Plum Street Temple, Music Hall, City Hall, Union Central Life, Carew Tower, and Cincinnati Union Terminal.  You will note that all of these significant structures are listed on the National Register, which is an important standard.  My observation is that to be considered an icon, a structure need not be historic, nor tall or large, nor great architecture or design.  But it helps.  The essential condition, I maintain, is that it be accepted by a large body of citizens as a repository of shared values and experiences; an iconic structure symbolizes and communicates the meaning and memory of a particular place.  An icon, like those on our computer screens, are shorthand symbols, which link to a portal or a function.  A single, abstracted image can carry a complex message more rapidly than dozens of words.

Icons are easily recognizable and the process of associating landmarks with place is a reassuring one. It is an exercise in intellectual way-finding.  Residents cherish the thrill, when returning home from a journey, of recognizing the domed shape of Union Terminal or the illuminated Suspension bridge from the airplane. Automobile travelers relish watching the distinctive profiles of Cass Gilbert’s Union Central Life tower or Daniel Libeskind’s Ascent coming into view as they navigate the I-75 descent from Kentucky’s hills into the Ohio River basin.  Any one and all of those buildings signifies “home.”  I believe it is significant that several of the most iconic artifacts reference water and our “river city” identity.  Iconic architecture contributes to our sense of place, which, in turn, contributes to our individual sense of self-identity.

Residents of Greater Cincinnati are proud of their fine historic and contemporary built environment.   They enjoy coming together in attractive spaces and places.  And they are proud  to welcome visitors to Cincinnati with its fine examples of works by signature architects such as Zaha Hadid, Caesar Pelli, SOM, Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, and Peter Eisenmann in downtown Cincinnati and on the University of Cincinnati campus.  But the nineteenth and early twentieth century monuments are most revered by natives.

Among design professionals, Union Terminal is the most esteemed historic building in Greater Cincinnati.  A 2007 survey by the American Institute of Architects ranked it in the top fifty “favorite buildings” in the United States.  Renowned critic Paul Goldberger judged it the “most exuberant train station built in the U.S.  The design community responds to the building as a work of art.  The rotunda, the great half dome, and the brilliant mosaic murals inspire admiration and awe.  Standing in that majestic space, we understand the aesthetic power of architectural design.  That experience is enough to confer iconic status of this structure, but the buildings appeal goes beyond the elite and educated.

Like the cathedrals in European cities and towns, building Union Terminal was a community-wide  project that involved all the building trades. Add to the construction workers, generations of railroad workers, passengers, shoppers, and museum goers, who cherish the building not solely for its beauty, but because of it is part of their community and personal history.  Union Terminal was the port of departure and return for students going off to college, professional athletes, entertainers, and business people coming to entertain or do business with residents,  and of military recruits going to, and returning from, World War II.  (I remember boarding Pullman cars here with my family for visits to my father at U.S. naval bases in Illinois and New York, and I recall vividly the happy day at Union Terminal when he stepped into the concourse, returning home to stay.) For  the World War II generations, Union Terminal was not just a work of art, but part of their individual and collective memories.  The sentimental value, as well the appeal of Modernistic design,  is what made this an iconic structure to the people who passed through it.

Cincinnati Union Terminal was not sponsored or financed by any government agency.  The $40 million project was paid for by the seven participating railroad companies, which  to sold ICC-approved bonds on the New York stock exchange to capitalize construction.  The city gave some public land for the building and prepared infrastructure.  Everyone agreed the complex would be a highly visible gateway to Greater Cincinnati, and that it must be grand and forward-looking.  It would represent the city, its economic vitality, and its future prospects.

Directors of the Union Terminal Company were determined to commission a grand and functional building, which would be a credit to the city and the transportation industry they served.  Accordingly, they selected the New York City-based firm of  Alfred Fellheimer and Steward Wagner to be the architect-engineer.   Roland A. Wank, a young designer who had recently studied the new railroad terminals of Europe, became the lead architect for the project. Paul Philippe Cret, a French architect and educator at University of Penn, whose work was respected in Cincinnati, was retained as s design consultant. Cret introduced a kind of streamlined Modernism into the composition, which had originally been drawn in a Beaux-Arts fashion with Neoclassical detailing.  A contemporary spokesman said that the committee decided it was “inappropriate” for a modern building to be have period decoration.  So, the pale Neoclassical pilasters and swags were replaced with gleaming aluminum fixtures and the walls covered with colorful glass mosaic murals. The designers replaced rough wooden benches with high-steeled seating custom made of sleek leather and chrome.  But it is the superb engineering that made possible the great half-dome and the layered circulation plan. These are the features that draw admiration from design professionals and inspire awe in casual visitors.

The carefully selected and beautifully crafted materials contributed to the making this a great building, one that was suitable to represent a great city.  While working for the Cincinnati Historical Society on the conversion of Union Terminal into the Museum Center, I was amazed by the number of building trades members who wanted to talk about their experience or that of a family member who had worked on the building project.  They recognized it as was the most significant Greater Cincinnati construction project of the early twentieth century. This was the “major monument,” for a generation of constructors, and everybody knew it.

But when highway buses and personal automobiles replaced train travel in the 1940s and 1950s, railroad terminals in the United States were not needed. In the 1970s, the terminal became known as a “white elephant.” It was impractical to reuse and expensive to maintain or renovate.  But people loved it still, along with the artworks it contained. German-American artist Winold Reiss had designed the stunning history murals in the rotunda and the industrial worker murals that lined the concourse leading to the train platforms.  When the concourse was demolished in 1972, private and institutional donors came up with the funds to carefully remove and reinstall the “worker” murals in the CVG airport.

The big breakthrough for the building came in the 1980s.  The Cincinnati Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum of Natural History came together to create a shared facility, for which CHS director Gale Peterson called a Heritage Center. The two organizations retained E. Verner Johnson, the leading museum architect in the United States to conduct a feasibility and site selection study.  His assumption was that only new construction would meet the needs of project.  The riverfront had long been mentioned as a museum location. I was working late the night Peterson and Johnson returned from a city tour that included Union Terminal.  “Well?” I inquired, assuming the white elephant designation would prevail. Verner seemed lost in reflection.  “Well,” he replied softly. “That is one jaw-dropper of a building.”  I was stunned, knowing his obvious infatuation likely meant we had found a new home.  Back in Boston, Johnson’s team put together a report, recommending  Cincinnati Union Terminal. In subsequent conversations, he remarked that the building, which was designed to be a “people mover,” and the classical symmetry of the plan, the expressway access, the parking, and the visibility worked perfectly as a complex for two museums. And so, the rest is history. Donors and voters agreed. With the infusion of private and public funds from the state and county, the abandoned railroad terminal eventually became home to three museums (now united) and the Cincinnati History Library, which has been collecting and preserving local history since 1830. None would deny that this “jaw-dropper” of a building has won the hearts and minds of a loyal community.

Today, we see many design professionals and citizens who are concerned about the impact of construction, among other human activities, upon our natural environment. There is an increased demand for sustainable, “green” buildings. The preservation and reuse of historic buildings is one of the best ways to practice sustainability.

Cincinnati Union Terminal is an outstanding examples of adaptive reuse.   It has served us well for many years, and can continue to do so for years to come.  The chief problem is the threat of water damage from leaky flat roofs and windows.  I had feared the giant dome may be a problem, but am assured that it is sound. And like the Pantheon, it could last forever. Fortunately, the needed procedures, which involve replacing all the flat roofs and windows  are fairly simple and straight forward.  But, they are expensive. The good news is that the sales tax levy, together with confirmed private gifts, will be adequate, and the refurbished building will survive indefinitely.

–Sue Ann Painter

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