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The Cincinnati Union Terminal: Art Deco Temple To Transportation

The Cincinnati Watch Company likes the Union Terminal for more than because it's a great place to take our kids.

There is a ton of great content about the Art Deco Temple to Transportation but we are going to focus on the aspects that us watch Nerds like best.

  • The Union Terminal was advanced for it's time
    • First public digital clock
    • IBM synced all of the clocks throughout the station
    • Electronic and centrally controlled rail yard from Tower A
  • An Art Deco Masterpiece, The Rotunda
  • The Inspiration for DC Comic's "Super Friends" Hall Of Justice.
  • Cars, Taxis, Busses, and The Streetcar could enter and exit tunnels in the building.

First Public Digital Clock West of The Allegheny

In 1933, would someone looking at digitally displayed time know what they were looking at? Time was never displayed like that before the digital clock, the numbers would have looked like a train number or a delay notice. This is how groundbreaking a digital clock was at the time, people would not have even known what a digital clock was.

Rick Bell points this out and notes this is likely why the word "TIME" is emboldened in large letters next to the first digital clock display seen here in 1933 at the opening of the Cincinnati Union Terminal (CUT). If you look at images of the digital clocks at the (CUT) you will notice that the word "Time" sits next to every one.

How Did A Digital Clock Work in 1933?

We take digital clocks for granted today but in 1933 a Digital clock display was an incredible breakthrough.

When the clock was first built a projector actually projected the time onto a panel displaying the appropriate time like a movie set to and displaying the correct time.

Several years after the terminal was built the digital clocks were upgraded using on and off dots, circles on a board that can either be black or white. But how did the board know what to display?

Clocks of the day used mechanical movements to keep time. The basic premise of a movement is a coiled spring unwinding turns a series of various sized gears controlled by a precise regulator. The output of which was three dials that turned clock hands; one for the hour, one for the minute, and one for the second hands.

Fascinatingly, IBM attached round drums to where the hands would normally be connected to a movement. The movement would turn the drum just like a movement turns an hour hand, minute hand, and second hand. These drums had metal contacts on the outside of them like a music box music maker.

A music box has a drum with metal contacts and as the drum spins the contacts hit a musical harp device, or a bell, to pluck a sound.

On the first digital clock, the drum contacts touch an electric contact as he drum turns. Instead of a musical harp device, the touching of the metal on the drum to an electric contact switch lets electricity run through the contact and either turns on (white) or off (black) the circles on the time board.

That is how IBM turned mechanical moments into digital clocks.

Synced Time Throughout the Train Station

What is Time if the clocks in a train station differ by minutes? The answer is A MESS of frustration. IBM put everyone at the CUT on the same time by syncing all of the clocks in the terminal, from the art deco masterpiece adorning the front face of the building to the office clocks of the admin staff and in control Tower "A", everyone was on the exact same time.

Incredible for 1933.

The Rotunda

When people discover the Cincinnati Union Terminal it's momentous history fills them with awe and wonder, upon walking in the vast sky of the rotunda and color they are Wowed while giant tile mosaics pull them into the train station turned Museum Center.

Hey Cincinnati, when you walk into the rotunda do you point to the mosaic and say to your kids "Look, there's Grandpa"? I do. I have heard that many Cincinnati natives do this on entering the terminal.


The Rotunda is LARGE!

It is hard to paint the picture of the immense feeling of awe one gets walking into and under the Terminal's rotunda. The size of the Rotunda is set off with vibrant colors where each layer is like another layer of the stratosphere.

The rotunda is the second largest half dome in the Northern Hemisphere, second only to Sydney's Opera House.

The below excellent drone footage helps demonstrate the size of the rotunda. Thanks Brendan Keef.

The Secret Whispering Drinking Fountains

Because of the unique half dome shape of the CUT there are two spots on opposite sides of the Terminal that if you whisper, the person standing on the opposite side of the Terminal can hear you clearly and distinctly.

The location of these two spaces are in the main rotunda on the front of the building, there are public drinking fountains on the North and South sides of the front East facing wall.

Have one person stand at one fountain, and another at the other, and it is like having a walkie talkie to communicate secretly. This feature is not being interrupted in the 2018 restoration.

Departure and Arrival Pick Up and Drop Off Tunnels.

They learn of the ramps that brought people, taxis, cars, and busses into & under the heart of the building in seamless integration with the City of Cincinnati. This feature transforms the building from static to an integral part of the city's transportation system; cooler than any matchbox set a building built to allow a streetcar to come into, under, and out of in a seemless flow is very cool.

You see the Tunnels on the right and left of the Terminal where cars, busses, and streetcar could enter on one side, pick up and drop off, then exit out the other side. Genius.

Sadly, and in typical Cincinnati fashion, the Cincinnati Streetcar Company did not send a streetcar into the Union Terminal even though the building was designed for this. The third tunnel went mostly unused.


From above you can see The Concourse stretch out over the tracks. Above the The Concourse is Tower "A", the look out control room were all the switches in the yard were manually operated.

The Concourse

When people hear of the old Concourse the response is often the same, shock that it was desmolished. The Grand Hall extended over the railroad tracks, the trains came into tunnels under The Concourse dropping people off and picking up passengers on the platforms below The Concourse.

David Lombardi: Virtual Preservation of The Union Terminal Concourse

Below is a digitally enhanced image with color of The CUT Concourse by Cincinnati artist David Lombardi. To see the Concourse is color is amazing since color photography was in its infancy when the CUT Concourse was demolished.

Notice the giant Ronald Weiss tile mosaic murals. For size comparison be sure to see how small the double doors are where people go through to access ramps to the train platform. Use the link below to view David Lombardi's 365 virtual renderings of the CUT Concourse and see every detail up close, every texture, every light, and especially, more clocks!

David Lombardi's virtual renderings of the Union Terminal Concourse are a MUST SEE. They preserve our Cincinnati History in a way that no single image, or even video reel (which there are very few of and their quality is not good) can reproduce.

See David Lombardi Virtual Renderings of the Union Terminal Concourse HERE.

Kinetic Vision created a complete virtual reality of the Concourse complete with headset; you can walk around the Concourse and admire every detail. Short of smelling the tobacco smoke, their digital reproduction is an amazing recreation experience of being in the Concourse waiting for the train.


The Concourse predated and is the model of all modern airport designs which have concourses of long hallways with gates for arriving and departing airplanes. Magazine & cigarette stands, restaurants, ice cream parlor, barbershops, shoe shines, and of course tile mosaics, extended the length of The Concourse.


Like the rotunda the Concourse was covered in giant Ronald Weiss murals including "The Globe". The Globe took up the length of the back wall of The Concourse and was 3 times the size of the other giant murals, the tile mosaic Globe extended left to right and featured The United States with two giant Globes on East & West featuring 5 tile clocks marking the American time zones.

Above The Globe mosaic was The Concourse Clock, a clock often left out off images of the tile mosaic Globe masterpiece. The Concourse Clock featured a multi layered dial, art deco hands and numerals, an inner ring marking minutes; a beautiful art deco clock in the theme of The Union Terminal. This clock was synced with all of the clocks in the Union Terminal to show the same clock time to everyone on the premises of the Union Terminal.

The author would like to point out the quality of leather seating provided for people waiting on a train. The CUT was first class, instead of using wooden benches like many of the train stations of the day, the CUT had tailored leather chairs at every gate. The authors Great Grandfather, "Timer", was the Master Upholster who maintained the quality seating throughout the Terminal.

A Conversation with Our Children

Torn Down? They ask.

Yes. Demolished to rubbish.

What? they gasp.

The entire Concourse, of marble and stone art deco brilliance. Lit with lamps embedded in into fixtures, terrazzo floors and red marble walls and chairs of masterful leather comfort, torn down. Demolished because the double stacked freight train cars could pass under The Concourse.

In 1972 the Cincinnati Union Terminal Concourse was demolished.

We are at a Significant Moment In Time.

In 1972 when there was a mad dash to save the tile mosaics, to get them somewhere safe and on display, to save The Concourse from being crushed to rubbish, we failed. The Concourse was torn down and so with it, The Globe.

However Today, The people of Cincinnati have stepped up to save the Cincinnati Union Terminal from collapsing to the weight of time.

For the last two years the CUT has been under a restoration that literally is saving it from falling down, becoming fatally compromised; we have saved The Union Terminal from sharing the fate of The Concourse and preserved the Art Deco Temple To Transportation for generations to come.

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