Wednesday, December 08, 1999

A labor of love on a work of art


Volunteers help keep restoration work at Union Terminal on track

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Thanks to a happy collaboration between the Cincinnati Museum Center's management and a club of railroad buffs, Union Terminal is one step closer to being restored to its full art deco glory.

terminal
Holiday lights symbolize the rich history of the former train station.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        For the past four years, members of the Cincinnati Railroad Club, which started meeting at the building in 1938, have worked with museum center employees to renovate the richly veneered offices in the terminal's executive suite.

        In all, 5,000 man-hours went into this project, 1,000 of which were donated by the club's members. Club volunteers also helped obtain free goods and services for the renovation. The generous gifts of time and material kept the project within the museum center's budget when it could have cost at least an extra $250,000.

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Graceful rotunda dome.
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        “We did this out of a sense of history and a sense of obligation,” said Patrick Rose, Cincinnati Railroad Club president.

        “This building is a work of art. So, we want it preserved and restored. We can't forget that the terminal started out as a train station. That part of its history needs to be preserved, too.”

        The club's members worked closely with Declan Mullin, the museum center's director of facilities and operations, and two staff restorers, Ed Abernathy and Rob Yunker.

        “We're only custodians here,” Declan Mullin explained in an accent rich with the lilt of his native Northern Ireland. “This building is not ours. The public merely gave it to us for a little while. It's up to us to look after the terminal so it can be enjoyed by other generations.”

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Restored board room gleams with rich wood veneers and mutlicolored cork flooring.
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        The partnership between the club and the museum center grew from what the former has and the latter lacks. When the railroads left and the terminal closed in 1972, records and artifacts were abandoned. Over the course of several changes in building administrations and uses, the club came into possession of doors, track markers and other original, custom-made terminal decor, as well as 5,000 of the 6,000 blueprints drawn up to build the station.

        When Declan Mullin came to work at the terminal in 1996, he soon discovered that every time he needed to make a repair, he would find himself calling on the club to see the blueprint.

        His calls grew into a friendship with Patrick Rose.

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Familiar signs.
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        “We'd get together on Saturday mornings with a set of prints and just go explore the building,” Mr. Rose said. “We'd play the game of "Gee whiz, wouldn't it be cool if we could restore this room?'”

        They started playing that game for keeps when Declan Mullin received the go-ahead to restore the building's badly damaged executive suite.

        Soon to be incorporated into the museum center's building tour, and available to rent for very special occasions, the restored offices would feel at home on the set of Humphrey Bogart's The Maltese Falcon.

        The art deco suite contains a circular office once occupied by the president of the Cincinnati Union Terminal Co., an office for the president's secretary, a vestibule and an anteroom, as well as a boardroom nearly as long as a passenger train's dining car.

        The walls of the rooms contain a forest of rare wood veneers, red gum and satinwood, mahogany and walnut, straight grain and rotary-cut maple. The floors are covered with curved tiles in three shades of brown cork.

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Signs were restored.
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        “When we first got in there, the cork floors were gray from the water that leaked from the windows,” Patrick Rose said. “You couldn't tell they were three colors.”

        Railroad club volunteers cleaned the rooms. When Mr. Rose wasn't scrubbing floors and scraping walls, he worked on rewiring the suite's clocks, restoring light fixtures and searching for companies willing to donate their services to help keep down the cost of restoration.

        He also located restored models of the circa-1933 fans that hung from the office walls. The club donated the $2,000 brass-bladed wind makers to the terminal.

        “I'm still looking for the patterns to the original curtains,” Mr. Rose said. “They were here when the city did a survey of the building's contents in 1975. But the curtains have since disappeared.”

        In his spare time, Patrick Rose worked on another labor of love associated with the terminal. Along with his wife, Linda, and club Trustee Gibson Yungblut, he helped assemble the Railroad Club's book, Cincinnati Union Terminal: The Design and Construction of an Art Deco Masterpiece.

        Detailed blueprints, some of which are reproduced in the book arriving in stores today, played a role in the room's restoration. One set of those plans made it possible to re-create detailed designs on the walls and glass doors of the secretary's office.

        After the suite's rooms were cleaned, the museum center's professional restorers went to work. Rob Yunker and Ed Abernathy repaired crumbling plaster and replaced peeling veneer.

        A leaky chimney ruined part of a wood-veneer wall map of the United States. “When we came in, the plaster was wet and bulging,” Ed Abernathy noted. “On the wall map, pieces of wood in the shape of states were loose.”

        Ohio was hanging on. But, New Mexico and most of the Atlantic Ocean lay on the floor.

        Ed and Rob sanded the cork floors by hand and brought the tiles' colors back to life. The restorers worked nights and on weekends, often on their own time.

        “We just wanted to make sure everything was historically correct,” Ed Abernathy told me as he slowly rubbed his hand over a new piece of red gum veneer, checking to see how it matched with an original piece.

        “We like things to be just right,” Rob Yunker said.

        “We love this building,” he added. “We want it to be here forever.”

        So do I. Like lots of Greater Cincinnatians, my family has many memories tied to the terminal.

        My grandfather helped rough-out the forms for the dome and used his skills as a carpenter to hang doors in the president's office. My dad left from the terminal for World War II and came home safe through the building's spacious rotunda.

        What I love about the terminal is that it has always been about partnerships. When it was built in the Depression, it was about working together, about doing your best for a project of gigantic proportions. Now, 66 years after it opened, the art deco masterpiece is telling a story about how a labor of love is preserving a building that is a work of art.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at (513) 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

       



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