Experts Assemble to Restore Historic Union Terminal

Photography provided by Cincinnati Museum Center

“All of 2015 was spent assembling the perfect team for the restoration,” says Elizabeth Pierce, president and CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center. “We all feel an immense responsibility to take care of this building. Our team is made up of key people who each have the qualifications and expertise to handle the project.” 

GBBN Architects, Turner Construction Company and Ellington Management Services, were selected by the Union Terminal Corporation for the project. Each company was selected from an extensive list of firms, a testament to the team’s level of talent in their respective areas. 

Since opening in 1933, Union Terminal has been a Cincinnati icon with a rich history. It welcomed soldiers home from World War II before becoming the home of three museums, an OMNIMAX theater and the Cincinnati History Library and Archives. 

Unfortunately, the beloved – and well-used – structure has experienced severe water damage and deterioration throughout its 83 years. 

 “We’re fixing the bones of the building,” says Michael Burson, owner’s representative for the Union Terminal Corporation. “The bones have been around for a long while and need a lot of work, care and attention.” 

For Turner Construction, Union Terminal requires a different strategy than other projects in their repertoire. “We aren’t starting with a blank piece of paper and building up; we’re saving a piece of history, a place with a strong connection to so many people in Cincinnati and beyond,” says Bob Grace, project executive with Turner Construction.  

Everyone seems to have a personal Union Terminal story to share, as its rich history has permeated the community. “By virtue of its location, Union Terminal is historic to the African-American community,” says Gene Ellington, president and CEO of Ellington Management Services (EMS). “The West End was the first place African-Americans came to as they migrated into the area. For many of us, Union Terminal was a means of recreation and of transportation back down south.” 

EMS joins the project as a diversity inclusion consultant, creating opportunities for minority, female and small businesses to participate in the renovation. “To make sure our goals are being met while we have an inclusive process is very exciting for us,” says Ellington. 

Revitalizing Union Terminal is a weighty responsibility, and one that every member of the restoration team takes seriously. 

“We look at cultural institutions as the real fabric of who we are in all of our offices, so it’s about stewardship and also vision,” says Steve Kenat, principal and director of community development at GBBN Architects. “We will work together to allow Union Terminal to have its next life as a great museum destination and at the same time realizing the building itself is a keystone artifact of a historic collection.”  

Cleaning the building’s limestone structure tops the project list, but will be no simple task. The dark staining on the front of the building isn’t dirt or soot; it’s a gypsum substance created by a chemical reaction between sulfuric acid and the chemical makeup of the limestone which has detrimentally transformed the rock.

“It’s like cleaning a piece of jewelry,” says Kenat. “The dirt in the environment and the rain allowed the stone to form gypsum deposits, which deteriorate more over time. That’s why we need to get started by saving the exterior.” 

Every aspect of the restoration requires precise detail, especially concerning the specifications and documentation that come with utilizing historic tax credits in the funding. 

“A specialist from the University of Texas has experimented with different cleaning processes whether for stone or brick, and people would be amazed at the level of scientific analysis that goes into a project of this nature,” says Burson. “Our preservation architects also have a list of specialists they’ll reach out to for help restoring the murals.” 

The fountain, which greets visitors front and center upon their arrival, will be taken apart and restored in order to waterproof the entire plaza area which serves as the roof to a significant portion of Union Terminal’s lower level, including the Duke Energy Children’s Museum.

Other tasks on the agenda include restoring the historic Scripps Howard Newsreel Theater, renovation of the interior architecture and replacing and repairing the windows with insulated glass, among a litany of other plans.

The $212.7 million renovation will take approximately two years to complete. With a annual attendance of about 1.4 million, guests will have the exciting opportunity to witness history come back to life during their visits to Cincinnati Museum Center. 

“We have really cool things on the horizon for our visitors and want to use the renovations as a teaching moment,” says Pierce. “This is a huge science problem to be solved with engineering, chemistry and physics all at play inside this building and there will be many ways for people to take a peek into that process.” 

Part of the renovation will lead to some new architectural features and the building will have a better sense of flow as a result. “Our priority is to get the building restored, water-tight and efficient to operate,” says Grace. 

According to Grace, the looming challenge is in understanding where the work begins and ends. “We need to fully understand what condition the building is in, so we’ve done significant diagnostic work opening up sections of the structure and documenting the entire building through laser scans.” 

Truescan3D set up lasers and cameras at millions of points around the structure and used true-scan photographs to capture all interior and exterior surfaces. This resulted in an incredibly detailed 3D virtual model of Union Terminal. 

“We’re using it to design our digital 3D model of the building and the coordination of our systems are more aligned instead of just accepting that the linen documents from 1930 are accurate because there have been so many interventions over time,” says Kenat. 

This ability to conduct project meetings and pinpoint exact locations on the 3D model saves time, Burson says. The scans have revealed deterioration that couldn’t have been detected with the naked eye, making the project both more informed and economical. 

Along with their roles as leaders in the renovation, each company has the added responsibility of awarding contracts to various other experts in their respective fields. 

“There’s a lot of commercial opportunity here for contractors,” says Grace. “At least 70 additional sub-contracts will go out. We’ll be finding companies with the right skill-set, locally and also from four or five state regions as well.” 

GBBN has assembled local, national and internationally renowned consultant team members that are experts in historic preservation. J.G. Waite, the historic preservation architect, has provided innovative solutions to preserve national landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia Rotunda. Silman, a structural engineer specializing in preservation projects, restored Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Both firms understand how these buildings deteriorate and what it takes to bring them back to life.

The restoration and renovation of Union Terminal will inevitably bring new challenges, but the assembled team of experts is prepared and enthusiastic about the historic opportunity. 

“This is not our first dance together, we’ve all collaborated on different projects,” says Ellington. “We don’t have a learning curve, we don’t have to start or build relationships because we already have them. It makes smooth implementation in order to get everything done and to make this a successful outcome.”

Cincinnati Museum Center is located at 1301 Western Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45203. For more information, call 513.287.7000, email or visit