CUT shines again, for the moment without Tower A

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, November 29, 2018

The main facade of Cincinnati Union Terminal, framed by automobiles in a famous 1952 photo, is one of the great landmarks of the Art Deco era. Wallace W. Abbey photo, courtesy Center for Railroad Photography & Art
It’s been an unusually good year for grand old big-city railway terminals. Chicago Union Station has nearly completed the restoration of its “Great Hall”, a.k.a. the waiting room. In Detroit, Ford announced it would sink a billion or more into crumbling old Michigan Central Station. In Los Angeles, Union Station even got back its old Fred Harvey restaurant — with a microbrewery to boot.

But top bragging rights should rightly go to the Queen City. After a $228 million restoration, Cincinnati Union Terminal — one of the crown jewels of the Art Deco era of American architecture — has reopened in magnificent fashion. 

Working over the past 30 months, construction crews repaired and restored the guts of the 85-year-old building: exterior and interior masonry, a new roof, upgraded electrical — the works. The terminal’s owner, the Cincinnati Museum Center, predicts the structure will last another 100 years.

It certainly looked it could when I stepped into CUT’s breathtaking rotunda late on a Saturday night a couple of weeks ago. I was in town representing the Center for Railroad Photography & Art with a program I gave for the Cincinnati Railroad Club. My presentation was a review of photographs by the great Wally Abbey, who did some significant work at CUT when he was a Trains staffer in the early 1950s.

A November 2018 photo shows the interior side of CUT's great arch. Kevin P. Keefe
The Cincinnati Railroad Club has its own deep ties to CUT, especially the celebrated Tower A, the interlocking tower at the back of the head house that functioned as the terminal’s nerve center for so many years. More on that later.  

After Saturday night’s program, we made our way over to CUT, beautifully floodlit and beckoning to us from the end of the stately Ezzard Charles Drive parkway. As we opened the big brass entrance doors, I was prepared to be dazzled.

“Dazzled” is an understatement. Inside the rotunda, the marble surfaces gleam. The riotous colors of the 106-foot-high half-dome ceiling glow like never before. Most impressive of all, the gigantic mosaic murals that look down on visitors from above the old ticket windows and concessions are as vivid as the day they were unveiled to the public in 1933. My stroll across the expansive terrazzo was thrilling.

It’s not like CUT had gone to pot in recent years. The terminal has looked presentable ever since the city acquired the building in the 1980s and turned it into the Cincinnati Museum Center, housing the city’s local history and natural history museums, among other facilities. 

After a recent cleaning, the mosaic murals in CUT's rotunda shine like new. Kevin P. Keefe
But deep down inside, the building needed help. Thankfully, in a rare moment in local politics, the voters of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in 2014 showed their love by approving a sales tax increase to make the project possible. 

If you’ve visited CUT over the past 15 years, you might not immediately notice some of the latest improvements, but they are significant, beyond the unseen structural upgrades. Among them is an airy new Amtrak waiting room at the rotunda level, rescued from the building’s dank innards, giving tri-weekly Cardinal passengers a reason to feel like first-class citizens. Across the main floor, the spacious old lunchroom has been reopened. 

Most impressive of all are those wonderful murals, created by German-born American Winold Reiss, a prominent mid-century artist and graphic designer. The murals now shimmer in their restored original colors. The murals were intended as a tribute to Cincinnati’s history as seen through the work of the people, a classic Depression-era ethos, and they give CUT a sense of place no other railroad station can claim. 

Alas, the place I most wanted to see that night is still off limits. That would be Tower A, the famed interlocking facility perched on the back of CUT, overlooking CSX’s Queensgate Yard as well as what once was the 15-track expanse of CUT platforms.

The nerve center of CUT was Tower A. Recent changes have forced its longtime steward, the Cincinnati Railroad Club, to vacate the space. Wallace W. Abbey photo, courtesy Center for Railroad Photography & Art
Few interlockings of the era could top Tower A. When CUT opened, it managed a total of 216 trains a day entering or departing, operated by the station’s seven tenants at the time: B&O, C&O, L&N, N&W, NYC, PRR, and Southern. The huge interlocking machine activated 70 regular track switches, 37 double-slip switches, and numerous dwarf, track, and bridge signals. The machine itself was 49 feet long!

In recent years, you could experience the wonders of Tower A thanks to the efforts of the Cincinnati Railroad Club, which refurbished much of the tower space in 1989, installed exhibits, and thereafter staffed it on weekends with volunteers. One of their biggest accomplishments was a tricky project to raise the interlocking model board two feet higher off the floor, to meet code requirements for visitors.

For now, the chance to enjoy Tower A is on hold — the Museum Center website simply lists it as “currently unavailable for public viewing.” While the club would like very much to reoccupy the tower and offer tours, the Cincinnati Museum Center has informed the club it would have to pay rent, a requirement related to federal and state tax credits involved in the station’s restoration. Apparently that rent is beyond the club’s means. 

The Museum Center plans to reopen Tower A under its own auspices in spring 2019, I was told by Cody Hefner, the Center’s media relations manager. That’s good news, but I would love to see the club get another chance, however a long shot that might be. The group had been meeting regularly at CUT since 1938, they have the passion for the job, and they know and understand the Terminal’s legacy better than anyone. 

In a love letter to CUT in the February 1972 issue of Trains, Editor David P. Morgan captured the essence of the place. “[CUT] was a built-for-the-ages edifice, fit for the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh, aptly acclaimed by the local chamber of commerce as a ‘great temple of transportation.’ Its very location, 1½ miles west of downtown, expressed its character: the Terminal didn’t come to the city; the city came to it.”

Members of the Cincinnati Railroad Club know what Morgan meant better than anyone else, and can translate it for visitors who are new to the wonders of CUT. It would be fitting to see them back in Tower A at some point, telling that story. 

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