Museum Center document collection provides intimate look at iconic building

For longtime Cincinnatians, Union Terminal can feel as immutable and eternal as the Appalachian Mountains or the Ohio River. Yet, one of the Queen City’s most iconic structures was, in 1933, brand-new when it opened as an architectural marvel and a highly impactful hub for local transportation. The four-year construction process for the $41 million project, which was funded by the railroad companies and local businessmen and politicians, culminated in gifting Cincinnati with not just essential infrastructure, but also a captivating edifice – alongside its contemporary, the Carew Tower -- that provided beauty and inspiration as most of the city suffered through the depths of the Depression.

As the inspiration for the Justice League headquarters from the Super Friends cartoon from the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Union Terminal has loomed as a stately West End icon through incarnations as a transit center, retail hub and the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC), which has housed the Cincinnati History Museum and Museum of Natural History since 1990. The Cincinnati Children’s Museum has called Union Terminal home since 1997.  It’s wow-factor curb appeal is complemented by its interior, which warmly conveys Art Deco style and created an undeniable sense of place through the design of furniture, wall décor, light fixtures, and related amenities.

The CMC recently gained the opportunity to let design students, history buffs and anyone with an interest in Cincinnati history appreciate a new collection of documents now in the Center’s possession that highlight the work of Edgard Sforzina, a French-born architect and interior designer who devised Union Terminal’s boardroom and president’s office. According to Sarah Staples, the CMC’s Helen Steiner Rice archivist, the Center’s process of procuring the documents includes sketches, drawings, and correspondence. Denise Allen, Sforzina’s granddaughter, reached out to the Cincinnati History Library and Archive early during the COVID-19 pandemic offering the collection.

Born in 1881, Sforzina was educated at Paris’s École Nationale des Arts Decoratifs, which evolved into an essential wellspring in developing the Art Deco motif. While living in Paris, he mastered his craft with several Parisian interior-design and furniture-manufacturing firms. He eventually went to work for Lucien Alavoine & Co., and, in 1922, they arranged for him to come to New York to work in its office there. Five years later, planning began for Union Terminal, and Sforzina’s portfolio earned him the contract as an employee of Fellheimer & Wagner, the architectural firm that devised Union Terminal’s plan.

Although Sforzina’s work was only explicitly noted in the aforementioned rooms, it’s believed that his design acumen also influenced Union Terminal’s Rookwood Tea Room (where CMC’s Graeter’s shop is now), notably its wall fixtures, as well as the terrazzo flooring in its concourse.

“The Art Deco Society, which is based in Arlington, Virginia, had worked with Denise to rehouse and scan the collection,” Staples, who’s been a Center archivist since 2016, said. “I drove there and helped pack up the documents from a storage facility.”

Staples and Christine Engel, who’s been a CMC archivist for 15 years, are poring over the documents and curating the collection for prospective viewers. The collection encompasses hundreds of documents that capture not only his skill, but also his process and humanity.

“So many ideas that popped into his head are present in these documents,” Staples said. “There are designs for clocks, glassware, furniture, his talent and versatility are evident. There are numerous pattern designs which are amazing. It’s not clear whether they’re intended for furniture fabrics and wallpapers, but their depth is remarkable. I’d seen drawings of his, but didn’t understand the depth and scope of his work until I reviewed these documents.”

Edgard Sforzina devoted countless hours to devising the aesthetics of furniture, clocks and architectural amenities, but he also devoted his creative energy to sketches of his beloved daughter, Lulu.She continued, “And his doodles weren’t ordinary scribblings. There are many sketches of people, including several adorable ones of his daughter, Lulu.”

Sforzina’s heirs deserve credit for distilling the remnants of Sforzina’s business and enabling the collection’s presentation. Staples said, “He was focused on running a business, not on saving his process for posterity. Lulu first wrote a letter to the CMC in 1999 about Edgard’s collection, but we’re not sure if she ever mailed it. Denise has worked diligently to preserve his legacy.”

Similarly, Sforzina’s forebears deserve credit for providing a foundation that synthesizes artistry and craftsmanship. Several generations of his family had worked as stonemasons, and his father, Jean-Antoni, evolved his artisan’s sensibilities into sculpting as well as masonry.

Sforzina’s career flourished beyond his iconic Union Terminal work. His portfolio also included designing the personal residence of composer George Gershwin, as well as groundbreaking commercial interiors at Baltimore’s Hurtzler Brothers department store and Boston’s Slattery’s Millinery. He died in 1941 from gastrointestinal ulcers at age 59.

“His career in the United States lasted less than 20 years, which is relatively brief for a designer’s career, so it’s not as documented as many of his contemporaries,” Staples said. “So, this provides valuable insights into his talent and process.”

Engels is hopeful that arts and educational organizations will embrace the opportunity to access the Sforzina collection: “It would be nice to work with college students, interior designers, and historians. I think it would be fascinating to go through the collection and understand the depth of Edgard’s skill and process.”

It’s fortunate that the cultural pendulum has swung towards preserving and understanding the past, and even more so that technology used to preserve historical artifacts continually improves and more richly captures them for viewers’ deeper understanding.

“COVID-19 truly underscored that people want to review artifacts digitally,” Engels said. “But the in-person experience will always be important for understanding historical materials.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.