Notes From the Road: Union Terminal

I should be grading. One of the sucky things about my job is that it never takes breaks. Which means that when my husband, who is also an academic (is even more of an academic) has a school break, I don’t. Ever. I get one month off a year, all at once, and the school doesn’t take holidays. My month off is March. So when we travel at the holidays, work comes with me, and I have less time for family and much less time for writing than normal.


I’ve been grading on and off for I think the last twenty four hours. (Now forty eight) I slept somewhere in there (and now also visited with family awhile), so that can’t be right, but it feels like I’ve done nothing but SCHOOL on my computer since yesterday (now two days ago) afternoon. Mama needs a break. (I’ve now had to bounce back and forth a zillion times over two days).

So, I will tell you how I spent my time yesterday (two days ago) afternoon. As a family, we went down to Union Terminal, the place where Scott and I started our honeymoon, where Amtrak still has a station, and where three different museums now reside. After we had gone to see the holiday train display on the history side (more on that another time), I had to leave the kids with my husband and mother-in-law to fend off the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum and the plastic balls in the Cincinnati Children’s Museum so I could grade. Mostly, so I could download my work so I can grade offline, when my aircard is being persnickety.

I didn’t miss much in the Children’s Museum. Quite frankly, it bores me, and would have done when I was an actual child, as well. My kids love it, though, and I would have enjoyed the time to visit with my Mother-In-Law and spousal unit. And I definitely regretted having to pass on the Natural History Museum, where the coolest manmade cave on the planet thrills us all.

Instead, I cozied up to a table in the crowded lunchroom floor and spent two and a half hours downloading essays. (I have a hundred students right now, and about a third of them had something due on Christmas day. I extended all deadlines, but still, it means they technically were expected to work on Christmas and so was I.)  While I was clicking and waiting and answering e-mails, I looked around at the vast museum atrium and pondered urban decay.

Because that’s what everybody thinks about at such times, right?

No, really, it came to mind because Union Terminal came so close to ending up a piece of elegant decay. Shaped like a giant old-time radio, it stood practically abandoned for years, and most of the glorious murals that once lined the whole building were removed and reconstructed at CVG airport. If not for the enormous risk taken by The Museums of History and Natural History to jointly move to the building, it would be no more than a glorious remnant.

Think about that a minute. Two separate museums co-located here. And there was room left over so they installed a third. And they still had more room, so they opened that up for a holiday display that used to be setup in a huge room in downtown Cincinnati. Though this section will only be open once a year, it will be stored there year round. Intact. Does that give you a sense of how sprawling Union Terminal really is? 

I only took a few pictures with my cell phone (again, I’ll be revisiting this from another perspective), but here is one of the few murals that either remained or could be added.

MuralIt’s pretty amazing. Consider those relics you find in pictures by searching “Urban Decay”. Imagine how they used to look. And think about what must have gone wrong for those beautiful visions to collapse. Perhaps it was outrageous to begin with. Maybe it was incompatible with its owners’ economic stations.

I think of the David MacAulay book Motel of the Mysteries, in which a team of archaeologists (and one avid runner) in some future time unearth a motel and assign to its contents various religious significances. What would those future scientists make of the gorgeous ruins that dot our urban landscapes? How would they view our culture through the lens of things we abandoned?

And how would they interpret Union Terminal, which, through a little miracle, has not been abandoned, retains its grandeur, and shows vividly what a culture can do when it bares its soul?


One thought on “Notes From the Road: Union Terminal

  1. Pingback: At the Museum Center | Jester Queen

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