CINCINNATI UNION TERMINAL
Western Avenue and Lincoln Park Drive (Ezzard Charles Drive)
Cincinnati, Ohio


In the early 1900s, Cincinnati was notorious for its poorly-configured passenger rail connections. Seven major railroads converged on the city, serving five different stations. A plan to build a new, unified rail terminal was conceived in the 1890s, with a committee formed in 1912 to conduct formal studies. However, it would be 1928 before all seven railroad companies would come to a final agreement on a new passenger terminal.

The New York City-based firm of Fellheimer & Wagner was enlisted to design the new train station. They originally envisaged a Neoclassic-influenced structure, similar to Washington Union Station (1907) in Washington, DC. However, Paul Phillipe Cret, a consultant on the project, convinced the planners to design the edifice utilizing an art deco motif.

Initial construction on the CINCINNATI UNION TERMINAL project began in August 1929, taking land previously occupied by Lincoln Park. The 287 acre site lay 1.4 miles northwest of Cincinnati's Fountain Square, in a district known as Queensgate. The cornerstone for the 42 million dollar depot was laid in 1931. Its official dedication took place March 31, 1933.

Encompassing 535,000 square feet, the bulk of the massive building consisted of 3 levels; Lower, Mezzanine and Concourse. The epicenter was a 180 foot high (106 foot wide) Rotunda, the largest half dome in the Western Hemisphere. German artisan Winold Reiss created several murals for the Rotunda and Train Concourse, these depicting events in the westward expansion of the United States and the history and industry of Cincinnati. 

The complex included ladies' and men's clothing shops, a bookshop, toy shop, drug store, five restaurants and food vendors and an air-conditioned movie theater.

CINCINNATI UNION TERMINAL was originally designed to accommodate up to 17,000 passengers and 216 trains per day. During World War II, two additional train tracks were added, increasing this capacity to 34,000 passengers and 465 trains per day. The station enjoyed great success during the global conflict, but saw a rapid decline in patronage during the post-war years, when automobiles and airlines became the preferred means of transportation in the United States.

By 1965, traffic had fallen to 44 trains per day. In 1970 there were 18...and only 4 per day by 1972. Finally, on October 28, 1972, the last train departed. Amtrak service was moved to a tiny train station situated .8 mile southwest of CINCINNATI UNION TERMINAL.

The massive -and now abandoned- depot was considered a white elephant. Several possible re-uses for the structure were conceived. These included converting it to a railroad museum, multi-modal transportation center and / or vertical lift-off airport, courts building, city hall, convention center, juvenile detention facility, Air Force Museum, shopping center, National Football Foundation Museum, sports stadium facility or Museum of Science & Industry. Actually, between 1968 and 1970, a portion of the building had housed a museum known as the Cincinnati Science Center.

In the early 1970s, the Southern Railway Company purchased some of the property with plans to demolish at least some of the 40-year-old edifice and expand their adjacent railroad freight facility. In May 1973, the Cincinnati City Council's Urban Development and Planning Committee voted in favor of designating the structure as an historic landmark.

However, in 1974, Southern Railway went ahead with demolition plans and destroyed the 450 by 80 foot Train Concourse at the rear of the building. Before its demolition, 14 Weinold Reiss murals were removed. These were installed in a new terminal facility at Greater Cincinnati International Airport.

Perhaps thwarting the bulldozer brigade was the fact that the sturdy reinforced concrete building that remained would be more expensive to demolish than to repurpose. Additional impetus to save the remaining structure was provided when it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

The City of Cincinnati had purchased the CINCINNATI UNION TERMINAL in 1975. Somewhat in desperation, they ran an advert in the New York Times which read "World-famous Cincinnati Union Terminal for lease - 1 dollar per year!" The Joseph Skilken Organization, a Columbus, Ohio-based developer, leased the 499,000 square foot edifice and set about on a 20 million dollar renovation.

The plan was to create a "family entertainment and shopping complex" known as THE LAND OF OZ. This was to feature shoppes, restaurants, a bowling alley and Rotunda roller skating rink, among other attractions. 

Somewhere along the way, the official name of the prospective complex was changed to simply CINCINNATI UNION TERMINAL. Perhaps this was due to the signing of New York City-based Loehmann's, a discount fashion retailer, as anchor of the retail hub. The store would be set up in the Rotunda, which had been originally planned to be a skating rink.

Work commenced on the renovation project on May 22, 1979. The first operational tenant, the Les Palmiers French Restaurant, opened for business March 12, 1980. An official mall dedication was held August 4, 1980.

The festivities began with a parade led by a painted white elephant, which was hosed down upon arrival at the TERMINAL building, this symbolizing its rebirth. There were also hot air balloon rides, an airplane show, dance contest and nighttime fireworks display.

40 tenants, out of an eventual 54, opened for business. These included F.A.O. Schwarz, Wood You Remember, Le Clique VIP Club and 2001 Disco, Koch's Sporting Goods and the Giggles Comedy Club. 

The original Phase II plan would have installed a total of 150 stores and services, including a super-fitness club, multiplex cinema and hotel. Moreover, a transit train line, to connect the TERMINAL and Riverfront Stadium, was proposed. These never came to pass.

The failure of the CINCINNATI UNION TERMINAL as a shopping mall was primarily attributed to the national recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The location of the complex, not quite downtown but not far enough out to be suburban, could also have contributed to its lack of success. 

In addition to all of the commercial competition downtown, there were suburban retail hubs in its vicinity, such as WESTERN HILLS PLAZA [1954] and WESTERN WOODS MALL [1966] {4.9 miles northwest, in Hamilton County}.

By 1982, the retail roster at CINCINNATI UNION TERMINAL had shrunk to a total of 21 tenants. The complex was officially shuttered in 1984, although a smattering of stores, such as Loehmann's and G.D Ritzy's Ice Cream Parlor, held on until 1986. 

In May of that year, local voters approved a 33 million dollar bond issue. The moribund mall was converted into CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER using bond issue proceeds, 11 million dollars in state grants, and various private donations.

This second reinvention of the TERMINAL got underway in 1988. The new cultural complex would house a relocated Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Cincinnati Historical Society Museum & Library as well as the Robert T. Lindner Family Omnimax Theater.

A grand opening for CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER was held October 10, 1990. A third component, the Children's Museum of Cincinnati, was dedicated in July 1997. The history of the grand art deco edifice had come full circle when Amtrak passenger service was reinstated on July 29, 1991.

Sources:

"Cincinnati Union Terminal" article on Wikipedia
www.cincymuseum.org
http://library.cincymuseum.org
Sarasota Herald Tribune
www.enquirer.com
Cincinnati Magazine

www.ohiomagazine.com