Cincinnati's Union Terminal and the Buffalo Central Terminal are alike in many ways. Each is located some distance from their respective central business districts, they're both mammoth complexes that handled about 200 trains per day, and both were designed by New York architects Alfred Fellheimer and Stewart Wagner. Cincinnati's station has been repurposed however and is now a focus of that city's cultural universe.
Cincinnati's Union Terminal was dedicated on March 31, 1933 nearly four years after the opening of the Buffalo Central Terminal. Originally conceived as a Neoclassical structure, Union Terminal was eventually designed as a modern building because of the high costs of executing a Neoclassical design during the onset of the Depression. German-born artist Winold Reiss was selected to design and create color mosaic murals for the concourse and rotunda and assisted in creating the Art Deco style for the building.
By the time both stations opened, rail travel was waning as air travel and automobiles were increasing in popularity. In the early-1970's, only two trains per day passed through the Cincinnati terminal and by 1972, train service to the terminal was halted completely. Trains stopped utilizing the Buffalo Central Terminal in 1979.
Union Terminal stood vacant and was in danger of demolition. In 1980, a Columbus developer converted the terminal into a shopping mall, but the recession of the early 1980s caused the project to fail.
Several years later, the administrators of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and the Cincinnati Historical Society developed plans for a joint museum project. The spaciousness of Union Terminal, coupled with its history and design, made it a logical location for the project.
"It was a vision back in the mid 1980's by the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and the Cincinnati Historical Society that sparked the enthusiasm of the voters to pass a $33 million bond issue for the restoration of the terminal," says Steve Terheiden, Senior Director of Facilities & Operations at the redeveloped terminal. "The State of Ohio and the City of Cincinnati added $11 million in grant funding. In addition, more than 3,000 Cincinnati individuals, corporations and foundations all contributed to the renovation."
Restoration of the building began in 1986 and was completed in 1990. Amtrak returned to the station in July 1991.
"Today, our 500,000 square foot facility houses three museums (Cincinnati History Museum, Museum of Natural History & Science and the Duke Energy Children's Museum), the Robert D. Linder Family OMNIMAX theater, the Historical Society Library, an auditorium, community galleries, 15,000 square feet of changing exhibit halls, multi-purpose classrooms used in conjunction with school programming, collection spaces for artifacts, food court dining, ice cream parlor, several rental spaces for corporate, private and social events, an Amtrak train station and three retail shops," says Terheiden.
Much of the exhibition space was created from the transportation ramps and parking areas under the grand rotunda. "There are also historical areas of the train terminal that have been restored to allow visitors a glimpse of what train travel looked like back in the 1930's," adds Terheiden.
Since its opening, Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal has attracted more than 1.47 million visitors each year.
"Converting an old train station into its current use was a major undertaking," says Terheiden. "All new electrical and mechanical systems had to be strategically placed to minimize intrusion into the development of exhibit spaces while making sure not to compromise the historic aesthetics of the building."
Some believe Union Terminal provides a model for reuse of Buffalo's Central Terminal.
"On my way to the 2009 National Trust Conference in Nashville I deliberately stopped in Cincinnati to see their terminal and its adaptive reuse," says Catherine Schweitzer, Executive Director of The Baird Foundation. "They have done a fantastic job creating a lively space for all ages. My visit was on a Monday afternoon in October and the building was very busy."
"As a non-profit organization, taking care of our facility is a constant struggle," explains Terheiden. "We employ over 200 full time employees and utilize hundreds of volunteers and docents to make it all work. Since there were so many dollars needed back in the late 80's to convert the building into what it is used for today, money and resources were utilized in the most critical areas to optimize the conversion."
"After completing a 20 year Master Planning process a few years ago, we concluded that there are not only improvements that are needed to the building itself, but to museum exhibits, content and technology," says Terheiden.
There were several cost-cutting decisions made to reduce the initial cost of repurposing the facility. A portion of the funds will be used to install a higher-quality roof, and relocate mechanical and electrical systems that were placed in their current locations for convenience and lower costs during the initial 1990 capital campaign.
Terheiden has some advice for the volunteers working hard to preserve Buffalo's Central Terminal. "I would encourage those involved in raising efforts to use the history of your terminal as the cornerstone of the mission. The beauty and elegance of the architecture alone speaks for itself," he says.
"I often consider our facility as a "living memorial" in some respects. Due in part to the high numbers of World War II soldiers traveling through Union Terminal that never found their way home, the families that sent their loved ones off to war will often come to our facility and reminisce about a last memory of their loved ones. The emotion of those families as they walk through our grand rotunda; feeling that connection is powerful!">
Photos courtesy of Catherine Schweitzer.