Sunday, November 8, 2009

Follow the River: First Stop Cincinnati -- Union Terminal, Roebling Suspension Bridge

Roebling Suspension Bridge, Cincinnati, Ohio

Last month we took a road trip along the Ohio River – with no specific itinerary planned and no schedule to keep other than to follow the river, enjoy the fall scenery, and to stop when something caught our interest. We drove west to Cincinnati and then zigzagged our way back and forth across the Ohio River following it along secondary roads back to Pittsburgh, with a few short side trips along tributaries such as West Virginia’s Kanawha River. This was my first visit to Cincinnati, and two structures in particular there amazed me for their beauty and endurance: the Roebling Suspension Bridge and Cincinnati Union Terminal (now repurposed as “Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal”).

We arrived near the end of the day, just in time to photograph the Cincinnati skyline and the Roebling Suspension Bridge in the evening sunlight from a vantage point across the river in Covington, Kentucky. The following morning we strolled across the bridge, which is well used by pedestrians. Completed in 1867, it was built by John Roebling who later designed the Brooklyn Bridge. Pittsburgh native David McCullough has written extensively about Roebling in his 1972 book The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge and more recently in a Newsweek article arguing against new construction which would impede the view of the Brooklyn bridge.

I was struck by the sense of history which seemed to hover in the air around the late 19th century buildings on the Covington side of the river. While walking in the MainStrasse section, we passed the historical marker commemorating a famous slave escape just prior to the Civil War where slaves, including Margaret Garner who murdered her children rather than have them be recaptured and returned to slavery, fled the Covington area and crossed the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati and the underground railroad. This real life event was the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.

Cincinnati Union Terminal

I was greatly impressed with Cincinnati Union Terminal, an Art Deco structure far more magnificent and dramatic seen firsthand than photographs convey. The 10-story art deco façade is fronted by a long driveway entrance and plaza with cascading fountain, with the fountain details repeating the shell shape of the terminal’s massive rotunda. The building now houses a complex combining the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, The Cincinnati Historical Society and Library, a children’s museum, and an Omnimax theater – as well as an area which still functions as an Amtrak station for passenger service between Chicago and Washington, D.C. (passenger service had been halted completely in 1972, but was reinstated in 1991). The rotunda dome reaches a height of 180 feet above the open concourse, and the original interior details remain intact: signage, ticket windows, information kiosk, and two Winold Reiss mosaic murals.

The preservation and repurposing of Union Terminal is admirable. The city of Cincinnati purchased the terminal in 1975, and then along with the state of Ohio launched a successful restoration project in the mid-1980s with backing by voters, corporations, and foundations. Seeing the restoration first hand was inspiring, particularly in light of the potential the Buffalo Central Terminal holds if it could find similar support and backing. I’m becoming more and more convinced that one of our great disgraces as a comparatively young country is that we destroy our architectural history – not just our big city structures, but also those in smaller towns where suburban sprawl, chain stores and restaurants, strip malls, and Walmart Superstores have invaded to make them look exactly alike.

News and Updates

There are two upcoming local readings of note for Pittsburghers:

Stewart O’Nan will read at Joseph Beth Booksellers (East Carson Street, SouthSide Works) on November 12th at 7:00 PM. O’Nan’s newest novel is Songs for the Missing.

Chuck Kinder, Karl Hendricks, and Brendan Kerr will read at 8 PM on November 18th at The New Yinzer season finale at New Formations (4919 Penn Avenue).

Photo credits:
Roebling Suspension Bridge, Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal © 2009 by Dory Adams

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