Restored to glory

Union Terminal, one of Cincinnati’s National Historic Landmarks, has undergone a massive restoration project that is quickly approaching completion. When it re-opens next month, visitors will experience it the way others saw it when it was built in 1933, but with the comforts of the 21st century.


One of the highlights of Union Terminal is its outdoor fountain. The fountain is positioned as an exclamation point to the building’s iconic Art Deco design and centerpiece to its street view. Its restoration was integral to the larger project.


Cody Hefner, the Cincinnati Museum Center’s director of communications, describes the fountain’s significance in the grander design.


“The fountain is iconic,” he says. “It’s the star of engagement and wedding photos. It stands out in historic photos of the building — black and white photos of soldiers sitting on its edge while neighborhood children dip their feet in its cool water in the heat of summer. You’re hard pressed to find a glamour shot of Union Terminal without the fountain in the foreground.”


An Art Deco icon

Union Terminal is a showstopper, both inside and out. Its 40,000 square foot outdoor plaza is no exception. Carved out in the middle of the plaza is the 8,000 square foot fountain with 44,000 gallons of cascading pools and vertical sprays that highlight the Art Deco design of the entire facility. The fountain is, indeed, one of the most iconic pieces of this significant architectural timepiece.


Nicholas Cates is the senior project architect for GBBN Architects, the lead architect on the Union Terminal restoration project. He describes the structural and design significance of Union Terminal as a whole.


“[Union Terminal is] a stunning example of the Art Deco/Art Moderne style employing stepped and zigzag patterns, flowing curves, and bold colors,” he says. “Artwork is integrated into the building design inside and out, much of it reinforcing the building’s theme of modernization and transportation.”


The scope of the plaza restoration project was massive in both size and concept: restore the entire thing back to its original 1933 glory while using modern materials and technology. No more, no less. So, in creating the scope and design for the restored Union Terminal and its fountain, Cates says teams had to find a way to completely update all of the infrastructure — all structural and mechanical systems — in a way that would keep it open and operational for many more years, yet remain invisible to the visitor’s eye.


“The design team spent a lot of time ensuring that these systems could be creatively woven throughout the building to be either invisible or sensitively organized in order to integrate into the historic spaces or materials,” Cates says.

The final concrete pours on the cascades.

The scope of the fountain restoration

Working in cooperation with GBBN Architects and Turner Construction, Prus Construction was the choice contractor for the plaza and fountain. Established in 1888, Prus has, literally, helped build Cincinnati. They’ve had a hand in building many of the city’s landmark buildings such as the Great American Ballpark, Children’s Hospital, and the CVG Airport.


Jared McFaddin is a project executive and LEED Green Associate at Prus Construction. He says that The Union Terminal project was a perfect fit for the company. And, because the project was so complex, it required a lot of collaboration with other contractors and craftspeople, but was a rewarding challenge.


“Most of the recent projects we have worked on were new and/or reconstruction projects; this project is to re-establish the plaza as it was when the building opened in 1933,” he says. “Blending the old with the new has been a test of our ingenuity and creative thinking.”


Restoration of the fountain required painstaking planning and preparation, even before any physical work was begun. Construction crews used laser scans, a complete measurement survey, and 3D imaging to draw the restored fountain’s plan. New images were compared with the original plans to check for discrepancies. Adjustments were made for existing conditions. Then, a final set of construction drawings were used for the project.


The physical work was extensive. Prus Construction crews disassembled, marked, and cataloged each of the 1,300 historic limestone and granite stones paving the plaza. The structural concrete below — which is the roof of the entire Duke Energy Children’s Museum — was exposed for repairs. A new waterproofing system was installed for future protection of the underground and surrounding spaces. Then, new colored and standard concrete sidewalks and the roadway were re-installed around the fountain.


In the fountain basin, Prus Construction crews created a gigantic “jigsaw puzzle” of dense foam forms to rebuild the fountain’s cascading pools with concrete. The fountain’s seven levels with varying heights and pools with varying depths were designed to create the optical illusion, when viewed from the front, that all the drops and pools are the same size. This design feature is one of the most impressive in the Union Terminal plaza’s original installation and helps maintain the character of the Art Deco design out into the building’s plaza.


As with most of the Union Terminal restoration, the design and specs had to be perfect to maintain the historic integrity of the building. Adding to that challenge, all of the plaza and fountain work was done in highly visible areas near the building’s main entrance and, mostly, on the roof of an occupied museum space.


Even before joining the Prus Construction team, McFaddin was already a proud patron of Union Terminal. Its restoration, he says, will only reinforce the city’s commitment to honoring its heritage.


“Union Terminal has always stood out to me as a symbol of city pride and a very important piece of our city skyline and landscape,” McFaddin says. “This project shows Cincinnati commitment to preserving its history and earns its name as the Queen City. I am very proud to be a part of its history and the city’s future.”


After a two-year restoration project that topped out at 228 million dollars, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal re-opens to the public on November 17. The outdoor fountain, though fully operational now, has been winterized and will be turned on in spring of 2019.

Support for STEAM in the Museum is provided by Cincinnati Museum Center as it educates and inspires the leaders, builders and dreamers of this generation and the next.

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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.