Cincinnati's Gorgeous Attempt to Woo Visitors, Circa 1933

The city installed gigantic murals in the train station to highlight its industrial prowess.

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Cincinnati Museum Center

They've done it before. The question is whether they can do it again.

With the completion of Cincinnati’s new Art Deco Union Terminal in 1933, officials commissioned over 18,000 square feet of art for its walls meant to transform the city’s image from one to be avoided on cross-country train travel, to a desired stopover. The largest portion of that space went to Winold Reiss, who set about depicting the industrial prowess of the Cincinnati area with 23 glass mosaic tile murals.

But after train service ceased at Union Terminal in 1972, and with the impending demolition of the concourse, 14 of the murals depicting specific scenes from local industries and businesses like Procter & Gamble, ended up being the ones on the move.

At the time, it cost roughly $400,000 to transport all 14 pieces to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport where they would be incorporated into new terminals. The 14 murals are each 20-feet-square, weigh 8 tons a piece, and are made up nickel- to dime-sized glass tiles set on a painted plaster background and mounted on a solid concrete backing.

Each had to be detached from the wall of Union Terminal and encased in a protective steel frame before being lowered by crane through a hole cut in the platform for their tedious journey to the airport on the far side of the Ohio River. Now, with two terminals at the airport on the chopping block, nine of the murals need to be moved again.

When Reiss found a scene he liked, he would photograph it on the spot. Here, in another one of the murals that will need to be relocated, Reiss depicted two men assembling an Aeronca plane at a nearby factory.

"Pretty much the same thing would have to be done today," says Scott Gampfer, Director of Library and Historic Collections at the Cincinnati Museum Center, which took over a then-vacated Union Terminal in 1990 and continues to look after the murals that remain there. "But that’s all assuming that there’s a place found that can take them and there’s the money raised to do it."

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory is currently in the process of organizing a task force to determine the logistics of the project and plan for the murals’ next move. This time, though, initial estimates for the move sit between $5 and $7 million.

This isn't the first time Mallory has been involved with saving the murals. In the 1970s a young city councilman by the name of Jerry Springer (yes, that Jerry Springer), took up the cause by writing a folk song about the station and performing it on site for the media and a group of local schoolchildren. A young Mallory was among them.

"The murals are important not just because they were in [Union Terminal], but because of what they depict," says Mallory. "Those murals are replications of actual photographs that were taken in Cincinnati. So they depict actual industries, actual people, activities that were going on in Cincinnati at the time they were made. So they chronicle our history. And that feature … makes them critically important. They are priceless."

The task force has until the demolition of the airport terminals in 2015 to create and execute a plan to save the murals for the second time. That’s a short timeline, but with the murals’ constant reminder of the city’s ingenuity as inspiration, the task may seem just a little easier.

Learn more about the murals and their history below:

The scenes not only depicted real places, but the people who worked there every day. Seen here is the Ault & Wiborg Co., which produced industrial paints, varnishes, and inks.
After Reiss decided which scenes he liked best, he drafted small watercolors from the photographs he had taken. Here we see tannery work being performed at the American Oak Leather Co, This mural will have to be moved as well.


Reiss would then make stylistic experiments with the watercolors until the scene was just right. Here, in another one of the nine murals that is endangered by the demolition of the airport’s terminals, is a depiction of workers pouring molten metal into molds at the American Rolling Mill Co. in Middleton, Ohio.

From the watercolors, Reiss then produced larger darfts of what was to be the final product. In this mural, craftsmen shape the cases for Baldwin pianos.
The large drafts were then sent to the Ravenna Tile Co. of New York where the murals themselves would be created. Here, workers use tongs to stack hot sheet metal at Andrews Steel in Newport, Kentucky.
The murals are made of dime- to nickel-sized glass tiles that were assembled at Union Terminal in Cincinnati. This mural, which also needs relocation, shows workers at Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. crafting machines for workshops around the world.
The backgrounds of the murals were actually colored plaster that was meant to contrast with the glass mosaic tiles for the desired effect. In another threatened mural, this scene depicts both the technical and artistic elements of Cincinnati’s WLW radio station, which at the time, broadcast nationwide at up to 500,000 watts.
Together these murals were intended to highlight Cincinnati’s industrial and economic prowess. Here, members of the Phillip Carey Manufacturing Co. are involved in the process to make roofing materials.
Pictured here is a scene from the United States Playing Card Co. located on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, just outside of downtown Cincinnati. The company produces the Bicycle and Aviator playing card brands, among others.
Pictured here is Kahn’s meat plant. Once located in nearby Camp Washington, the plant was demolished in 2012 to make way for industrial redevelopment. The plant had contributed to Cincinnati’s one-time identity as “Porkopolis.” This mural is also endangered.
Perhaps the city’s most famous business was Procter & Gamble, producers of Ivory Soap. Here, workers cut large slabs of soap into single bars. This mural will also need to be relocated.
The William S. Merrell Co. was created in Cincinnati in the early 1800s. This picture depicts workers coating labels in rotary drums.

Top image: Winold Reiss traveled to local Cincinnati industries and businesses in search of scenes to capture in his murals. Pictured here is a scene from American Laundry Machinery Inc., which at the time, was the world’s largest producer of industrial laundry equipment. This mural is one of the nine that will have to be moved.

All images courtesy of the Cincinnati Museum Center. This post originally appeared on Preservation Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to D.C. from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.