Saturday, July 06, 2002

Union Terminal, Audubon get historic due

By Randy McNutt,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Union Terminal, one of the nation's best examples of an Art Deco train station, would seem to have little in common with John James Audubon, America's renowned wildlife artist and ornithologist.

[photo] The Museum Center at Union Terminal is the site for two new Ohio historic markers honoring the building and John James Audubon.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        But at 11 a.m. today, their stories will converge.

        Historic markers commemorating both will be unveiled in front of the Cincinnati Museum Center, housed in the former terminal at 1301 Western Ave.

        “There are all kinds of things about the place that intrigue people. I think this will be the start of a discovery about the terminal,” said Sandra Shipley of the Museum Center.

        The markers are part of the Ohio Bicentennial Commission's historic marker program, which has been renewed in the last two years. Some 500 markers now celebrate Buckeye heritage as the state approaches its 200th birthday in 2003.

        Certainly, Union Terminal has deserved a marker for years. It opened in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, covering 287 acres with 94 miles of track and a 180-foot rotunda dome.

        French architect Paul Cret designed the building. It features the work of three artists: Pierre Bourdelle designed the ornate ceiling and wall motifs in nine rooms; sculptor Maxfield Keck designed the figures representing transportation and industry on the front facade; and Winold Reiss created 22 mosaics and the rotunda ceiling.

    WHAT: Unveiling of Ohio historical markers, honoring Union Terminal and John James Audubon, the first employee of what is now the Natural History Museum.
    WHEN: 11 a.m. today.
    WHERE: 1301 Western Ave.
        “It's still an incredible place,” said Patrick Korosec, southwest regional representative of the Ohio Bicentennial Commission.

        By today's homogenous standards, it's hard to believe that such an artistic endeavor was even considered as a public transportation building. But it operated as a passenger railroad station from 1933 to 1972. During World War II, the terminal peaked in use: 34,000 people filed through it daily in 1944.

        When the trains stopped coming, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1977, it was declared a National Landmark.

        In 1990, the terminal reopened as the Cincinnati Museum Center. It housed two museums — the Cincinnati Historical Society and the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. Enough space was left for the Cincinnati Historical Society Library, the Robert D. Lindner Family Omnimax Theater, two museum stores, an ice cream parlor and a food service. In 1998, the Cinergy Children's Museum also opened.

        “We're a hidden treasure and there's a whole lot going on here,” Ms. Shipley said. “The marker dedication is another way to get the word out. Of course, the Audubon marker is quite an honor. He was the first paid employee of the Museum of Natural History. And because he's so well known, we wanted to highlight this event.”

        In 1819, Audubon (1785-1851) started working at the Western Museum, predecessor of the Natural History Museum of Cincinnati, as a taxidermist. He was supposed to earn $125 a month — a big salary in those days.

        While on the job, people encouraged him on his nature notes and drawings, and he put together exhibits with curator Robert Best. Audubon also opened an art academy and tutored 13-year-old Joseph Mason, who later would become a collaborator in supplying backgrounds for Audubon's The Birds of America.

        “So industrious were Best and I that in about six months we had finished all that we could for the museum,” Audubon said later. “I returned to my chalk portraits and made a great number of them. Without this we would have been once more on the starving list, for Best and I found, sadly too late, that the museum members were splendid promisers and very bad paymasters.”

        Audubon decided to leave town to finish his collection of drawings. On Oct. 12, 1820, he and Mason left on a flatboat for New Orleans — and drifted straight into history.

        “Without money, I had my talents for my support, as well as my enthusiasm for my guide in my difficulties,” he said.

        Today, when the majesties of Audubon and the terminal are appreciated, the museum's director emeritus and artist DeVere Burt will discuss Audubon's life. Martine Dunn, a Museum Center trustee whose father worked as a train porter, will discuss the terminal's history.

        Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin and wildlife artist John Ruthven will unveil the Audubon marker. Council member Patrick DeWine will unveil the terminal marker, with help from state Rep. Catherine Barrett and Sam Wilson, a museum volunteer whose father, Russell Wilson, was Cincinnati's mayor when the terminal opened.

        “That's a nice connection,” said Ruby Rogers, a staff member at the Museum Center. “We're making the program very patriotic, and we hear the weather will cooperate. What more can you ask for?”

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