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Union Terminal: Hard Hat Tour

Construction at Union Terminal

I have a confession to make.  I am secretly and utterly obsessed with Union Terminal. Actually, any historic building whose walls hold stories that far suppress our what our imaginations could envision.  The history and stories laced through every inch of this iconic train station is what makes this one of Cincinnati’s crown jewels.  Therefore, when the levy went up to preserve this national historic landmark it had my unending support.  Even though the majority of the museum is still undergoing  preservation and reconstruction, we were able to snag a spot in a special behind the scenes Hard Hat Tour.  This tour escorted you directly into the construction site, complete with hard hat, safety googles and vest.  Here are a few interesting and intriguing details we learned while making our way through the catacombs of this significant building.

Do to the nature of this tour we were not able to snap photos.  Only before and after!

Bricks And Sticks

The true work being done are projects that the public will never see.  Vital things to keep the building from collapsing upon itself and to keep it functioning were in dire need of repair or replacing.

Fun Facts:

  • Did you know the wall that was built when they took off the concourse was buckling?  When they demolished the concourse in 1974 to make room for the double stacked shipping containers in the rail yard, the wall they put up was done quickly and insufficient leading to it failure.  It is the very same wall that is behind the IMAX today.
  • In an attempt to save the concourse Union Terminal lowered one of the train tracks underneath the concourse to allow the double stacked containers to pass. The excavation proved to be too costly, and thus the concourse was deconstructed. The set of tracks that they lowered is still in operation and runs under the IMAX.
  • Another wall in the Rotunda area was failing and had moved four inches over the years from water damage.

Restoration of the Fountain

The tour took us underneath the majestic fountain to show off the new pipe work and plumbing that needed to be done to keep the fountain functioning. The fountain actually lays on top of some of the galleries and exhibits that were created in areas that were meant to be parking for cars. Therefore, the space was not properly waterproofed and resulted in water damaged areas.  On the landing before you get to the children’s museum you will see a concrete pillar with the number 4.  This is original to the building as part of the parking garage that indicated what level someone parked on.  Waterproofing the area is underway and the fountain will soon be restored back to it’s original glory.

Building Systems

We then ventured into the mechanical area. To behold the mechanics pumping life into this building was phenomenal. The continuous miles of pipes and cords all in perfect precision can best be compared to a pipe organ. Only now imagine that there were ten of them in the same room. The engineers and architects behind this masterpiece deserve a standing ovation, because it is truly mind boggling. This is where the new chillers are, new  HVAC units and more technology then I could comprehend. The museum was in dire need of reliable heating and cooling units to be able to house temperature sensitive exhibits.  Hard Hats on for the Hard Hat Tour at Union Terminal

Fun Fact:

Union Terminal cools the majority of the spaces with ice. Massive chillers make the ice and then it’s stored for later use. They have found it to be the most economical way to cool the building and are continuing this practice with modern technology and equipment.



The Imax is getting a face lift and has some big changes coming for its visitors. Even though I am not able to state all the exciting changes coming, know that it is big.

Exhibit Space

It is eerie walking through exhibits that have been dissembled. A lone dinosaur painted on the wall indicates you have entered where the natural history exhibit was. Wires and dry wall strewn all over the place can disorient you quickly and can make it difficult to see the grand vision. Our guide made the space come to life through her descriptive stories and knowledge of the master plan.  New classrooms and interactive space is planned throughout the entire museum, including the addition of more gallery space so that the museum can have the opportunity to bring in more exhibits.

Fun Fact:

The Museum has to build a new temperature controlled vault/ exhibit space to hold valuable relics from the Cincinnati Holocaust Museum.  During our tour the cement bricks were being laid.


The Rotunda

If you thought the murals were eye catching before, they have taken on new life after been cleaned. The bold, bright colors pop off the walls attracting your gaze instantly. Our guide indicated that new details in the murals emerged after the cleaning that had been hidden under the muck.  Other renovations in the Rotunda area include:

  • A smaller ticket booth being brought back to it’s original colors
  • The restaurant in the Rotunda will know be delivering your orders to the table. This was meant to assist families with small children. You order then take a number to your table.
  • A gastropub is going in!
  • The gift shop will be smaller to make way for the new gastropub.
  • The soda shop will remain the same and still service by Graeter’s.
  • Public Safety has moved next to the Soda Shop.
  • Look for more shop space going in!

To conclude our tour the last thing we got to witness were the massive weights supporting the walls of the temporary entrance to the museum.  Since Union Terminal is a National Landmark construction companies are not allowed to drill into the walls or attach anything to them. This led to the temporarily walls being support by humongous weights that were the size of a small car.

I am so grateful to live in a city who cherishes their landmarks and will do anything to preserve them.  A plan of on-going maintenance and repair is now in place to keep this beloved place from repeat neglect.  Knowing future generations will get to experience the history and enjoy the benefits of this preservation fills me with pride.  I am looking forward to the grand re-opening and hope to one day catch the Amatrak train out of Union Terminal.

Want To Know More

Check out more unique tours and  heritage programs from the  Cincinnati Museum Center.

Read about the Rotunda High Beam Tour.


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