By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer
QUEENSGATE - Union Terminal has stood since 1933 as a symbol of mobility, patriotism and culture, and even of Cincinnati itself.
The art deco train station is the community's most important building, according to a recent survey, and the largest half-dome in the Western Hemisphere.
People walk along a hallway in need of repair at the Union Terminal.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
"It's one of the last of the great railroad stations built in the United States," said Dwight Young, a spokesman for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "It's both the high point and the last gasp of this grandiose type of construction."
But Union Terminal is also a building subject to the same frailties as any other 71-year-old structure: leaky roofs, an aging heating plant and crumbling mortar.
That's why the building's tenant, the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, is seeking approval from Hamilton County taxpayers March 2 for a five-year property tax.
The levy would raise $3.6 million a year toward a $20 million to-do list of repairs and improvements, and help with the $2.6 million annual maintenance bill.
Cost to taxpayers: $5.89 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.
The new levy request will share the ballot with school issues in six districts as well as primaries for two county commissioner seats in which the tax burden has been a top issue.
"This is going to be a hard decision," Wyoming resident Sara Paxton, 64, said. "I definitely think we need to preserve it. I just don't know if more taxes is the way to do it."
The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, a Hamilton County political action committee, is not fighting the levy. Both the Tax Levy Review Committee, which recommends whether the county commissioners should put levies on the ballot, and the commissioners unanimously supported placing it on the ballot.
Maintenance has lagged since the 2001 triple whammy - the downtown Cincinnati riots, the terrorist attacks and the national recession - combined to reduce attendance 27 percent and put the Museum Center in the red for the past two years. Center President Douglass McDonald responded by cutting 13 jobs and freezing salaries last year, according to an operations analysis by the consulting firm Maximus. The Museum Center has used volunteers to keep paid staffing at a bare minimum and maximize gift-store profits, the report said.
Still, the attraction cost $13.6 million to run in 2003 while taking in just $11.2 million.
"The (Museum Center) can only cut expenditures of much before it changes its collection, preservation and educational mission into just that of caretaker," Maximus said.
Some of the building's needs are obvious. Garbage cans are strategically located in the Cincinnati Goes to War exhibit and a private rental area to catch drips - even streams - of water that fall from the ceiling during wet weather. Several feet of ceiling plaster fell recently in an area that's closed to the public.
The roof of the rotunda is fine, but the flat roofs on the rest of Union Terminal need to be replaced, Facilities Director Steve Terheiden said. Roof, masonry, parking lot and other exterior repairs will cost more than $6 million, according to the Cincinnati firm Glaserworks.
Other problem areas:
The fountain in front of Union Terminal leaks badly, both onto Dalton Street, which runs beneath it, and into a passageway in the building. Expected cost: $4 million.
Heating, cooling and other interior maintenance upgrades are needed. Cost: almost $4 million.
Piece of history
The building needs to be preserved, Museum Center leaders say, not just so the museums can continue to have a home, but because the building itself has historic and architectural value.
"We are the repository for the history and natural history of this region," said H.C. "Buck " Niehoff, chairman of the center's board of trustees. "It is one of 3 million items in our collection. It's just that Union Terminal is a big item."
It's not hard to find someone whose great-grandfather helped build Union Terminal or whose grandfather took a train from there into World War II.
As a child, Don Murdock, 66, of Camp Washington caught Reds games by riding a train from Kentucky to Union Terminal and then walking to Crosley Field. He reminisces about those days when he visits the Museum Center with his grandchildren.
"They say, 'You mean trains really came through here?'" Murdock said.
Cars were already replacing trains as the main transportation mode when Union Terminal opened, but World War II brought a resurgence of train use. Hundreds of thousands passed through during the war - not just soldiers, but civilians faced with gas and rubber rationing.
After the trains stopped running in the 1970s, Union Terminal had an unsuccessful run as a shopping center. The Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the area's first Omnimax theater merged in the 499,056-square-foot building in 1990, joined later by the Children's Museum.
Attendance at the four attractions was almost 1.1 million last year, with about 49 percent of those Hamilton County residents, according to the Museum Center.
It takes money
Union Terminal's initial renovation into a museum complex was helped along with $11 million in state and city money. The biggest boost, however, came from Hamilton County taxpayers, who authorized the Museum Center to borrow $33 million. Property owners are still repaying that sum through a tax levy that ends in 2009 and costs $4.41 a year on a $100,000 house.
Residents still seem to place a premium on the building. It ranked as the region's No. 1 landmark in the Greater Cincinnati Survey, conducted by the University of Cincinnati in 2003. The poll included 1,057 adults and had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
"Places like that, they've got to be saved," said Murdock, who supports the levy.
McDonald said the Museum Center needs money to make money, and a tax levy will give potential donors confidence that the Museum Center has a future.
Ten years of public funding - two five-year levies - would let the museum center fix Union Terminal's most pressing physical needs and give leaders a chance to build their endowment from $8 million to $38 million, he said.
March 19, 1933: Trains begin using Union Terminal 12 days before the official dedication, after floodwaters swamp four of the five existing train stations. Builders had used 5.6 million cubic yards of fill to lift Union Terminal out of the floodplain.
Oct. 28, 1972: The last passenger train leaves Union Terminal after the expansion of interstates and air travel decimates train use.
May 5, 1977: Union Terminal is designated a National Historic Landmark, one of just 10 in Cincinnati.
November 1990: The Museum Center opens.
July 29, 1991: Amtrak brings passenger service back to Union Terminal.
October 1998: The last piece of the Museum Center - the Children's Museum - opens.
Source: The Cincinnati Historical Society
By the numbers
$41 million - cost to build.
106 feet - height of the rotunda. It's 180 feet across.
216 - number of trains Union Terminal could accommodate daily.
8.2 million - bricks used in construction.
287 acres - land that Union Terminal occupies.
Source: The Cincinnati Historical Society
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