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Great Railroad Stations - Cincinnati

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Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl

Cincinnati Union Terminal

On March 31, 1933, a beacon of light shone in the darkness of the Great Depression.  Cincinnati Union Terminal was officially dedicated.  More than three and a half years effort had been required to construct what is probably the greatest of the Art Deco style railroad stations in the United States.  Architects Alfred Fellheimer and Stewart Wagner (who had earlier designed Buffalo Central Terminal) teamed with design consultant Paul Cret, contractor A.M. Stewart and artist Winold Reiss to create a masterpiece of Art Deco form, function, and beauty.  The station was a testament to the courage and dedication of her builders during a time of deep national crisis.

Cincinnati had long wanted to consolidate railroad services in a union station.  Seven railroads used five separate passenger terminals.  Finally, the man who would get the railroads and civic government together, appeared in Cincinnati.  He was George Dent Crabbs, a well respected businessman and civic leader.  A plan to consolidate services and provide a magnificent gateway for the Queen City of the Ohio was begun.  The seven railroads in 1933 were: Baltimore & Ohio, New York Central (Big Four), Pennsylvania, Chesapeake & Ohio, Norfolk & Western, Southern, and Louisville & Nashville.

Before her rescue & restoration, Cincinnati Union Terminal, July 1977.

Photo by Jon Rothenmeyer.

Located somewhat remote from the business district, like Buffalo, the station was conceived as a grand entrance way to the city.  A spacious public plaza and approach roadway sweeps down from the symmetrically styled building to the city.  The great rotunda rises some 120 feet as a half dome, and encloses the main concourse semicircular floor plan whose diameter is 178 feet.  A 1933 account described it: "The large free space under the dome is unusually impressive, and creates in the observer a distinct sensation of vastness."  Tastefully selected materials of the Art Deco movement, including stainless steel, aluminum, Verona marble, terrazzo, and exotic South American woods such as zebrano and mahogany were combined to "secure dignified, restful and pleasing effects."  Soft leather covered settees and chairs arranged in informal groups in the concourse waiting room replaced the traditional long wooden bench.  Cincinnati Union Terminal included not only specialty shops, newsstands, barber shop, and restaurants, but also a small 100 seat theater for the showing of newsreels.  Stairways and ramps to the train platforms were modeled after the ones very successfully employed in Buffalo's Central Terminal.

By far however, the richest feature of the station were its huge mosaics depicting the history of Cincinnati, her industry, and the importance of railroads to her prosperity.  The great mosaics in the rotunda survive today in all their colorful splendor.  Those located in the passenger concourse over the tracks were removed when it was demolished and placed in the Cincinnati airport terminal building.  Eight track platforms could accommodate 17,000 people a day.  Train capacity was planned at 216 daily arrivals and departures.  New locomotive servicing facilities, including an Art Deco style roundhouse were constructed north of the station.  REA express and mail facilities were located also to the north of the building.  A power plant located over a mile away from the station provided steam for heating and auxiliary purposes.  Passengers arriving on the approach boulevard instantly knew the correct time from a 20 foot diameter clock with red neon hands that was incorporated into the great front arched window.  Brilliant color flood lamps illuminated the plaza fountain at night.

In the summer of 1977, Jon Rothenmeyer and I visited Cincinnati to ride the Chessie Steam Special.  We departed CUT from the only remaining track platform.  The main rotunda was occupied by some seedy businesses.  Regular rail passenger service was long removed, but the essential quality and timeless beauty of the building remained.

To the west of the station, on Price Hill, one can sit on a college campus park bench. Go there on a warm summer's evening and overlook the Terminal.  Let your imagination or your memory, if you were fortunate to have seen her in the glory years, wander back to a time when mighty Hudson's, trim Pacific's, and sleek F units pulled the limiteds into and out of the station.  Imagine when Cincinnati's grand entrance gateway was alive with the hustle of countless passenger trains, the sounds of steam locomotive's whistles and Glen Miller music.  Today, CUT has been converted into two city museums.  Amtrak passenger service was returned in 1991.  I too look forward to returning one day to see a newly dignified Cincinnati Union Terminal.

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This page was last updated Thursday, December 06, 2001

2001 Jim Dent - Page created by Jim Dent
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