Stop terminal project dead in its tracks

Monday, May 11, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

They're old. They're heavy. And they're not wheelchair-friendly. So, out they go.

That's the logic behind a Museum Center plan to replace some or all of the original front doors at old Union Terminal. Museum Center officials have requested $250,000 from Cincinnati City Council to do the job.

The logic is flawed. And, museum officials are rushing into this project. They need to give it the attention one of Cincinnati's most architecturally significant buildings deserves.

Experts tell me all the doors can stay. The building's entrance can be made handicapped accessible. And, the Museum Center can get the job done for a whole lot less. Try $10,000 instead of $250,000. Dick Glover, the Museum Center's president, told me last week why he wants to replace the doors.

"They are not the kind of doors you would install in a building today," he said. "They are not easy to operate, particularly by people with disabilities."

None of the front doors is mechanized, which would allow disabled people to open a door with the press of a button. Someone else has to open the door for them.

No one has complained about the doors. Mr. Glover just thinks the Museum Center should look ahead and improve its accessibility. He noted the Children's Museum opens at the center Oct. 24, and traffic at the old terminal is expected to jump 20 percent.

"Now is the time that this needs to be straightened out," he said.

No problem with that. I'm all for helping disabled visitors enjoy the Museum Center, its stunning murals and soaring rotunda. But ripping out the doors and the history they represent is not the way to go. In fact, it's wrong on several counts, including preserving the integrity of this city treasure and using public money wisely.

Doorways to history

The front doors of the 65-year-old art-deco building are nickel-silver steel. They are as much a part of its gorgeous architecture as the terrazzo floor. They match the old train station's handrails, doorknobs and signs.

They are part of the city's history. Generations of Cincinnatians have pushed them open to catch trains, meet friends and now, visit museums.

More than being part of Cincinnati's history, the doors are an essential part of a unique building. Union Terminal is a National Historic Landmark. The Museum Center's home is one of only 2,248 structures with this designation, a select group including Monticello and the Alamo.

Ripping out those doors would be a terrible mistake.

It would also be an expensive mistake.

Yes, the doors are heavy. But experts tell me they can be mechanized for a lot less than $250,000.

"It might take more hardware," said architect Dave Collins, president of the Preview Group, a firm converting the old Lazarus store into new apartments.

"The doors are so heavy the motors to move them might need to be a bit bigger," he added. "But it can be done without altering the building's looks."

Rita Walsh, investigator for Gray & Pape, an Over-the-Rhine architectural-archaeological firm, put the cost at $4,000 to $5,000 per door. "And you only need two automatic doors -- one on the first row of front doors, one on the second -- to meet (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements.

"It's not a big deal."

She told me the doors would have to clear 32-33 inches to accommodate a wheelchair. So, I drove to Union Terminal and put a tape measure to the door frames. I found two sizes: 32 1/2 and 33 inches. The doors could be mechanized. And saved.

Heading down the sidewalk toward my car, I looked back at the terminal. The sun was setting and the lights inside were starting to glow softly. The dome my carpenter grandfather helped build loomed above the entrance in the twilight.

Those old doors with the art-deco signs marked "Push" need to stay a part of this building. Mr. Glover and others entrusted with this architectural treasure need to wake up and realize what they are considering.

We can help the terminal age gracefully and welcome a new generation of Cincinnatians through its doors. And we can do it with the doors that have seen so much of our history.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.