The Cincinnati Union Terminal

The "Temple To Transportation" (Coined by local & National press in 1933 when opened)

Flyover Union Terminal by Brendan Keefe


Union Terminal Stats

Opened: 1933

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio

Use: Train Station, Museum Center

Designed by: Fellheimer & Wagner, Alfred Fellheimer and Steward Wagner

Everyone in Cincinnati has a connection to Union Terminal, it's literally connected to our doorsteps as our public transportation system would literally enter into the inside of the building. Cars, Busses, & even the potential for the street car would go into one side, under, and out of the other side of the train station itself. building itself.

Union Terminal Cincinnati Ohio

The Cincinnati Union Terminal is the one of the largest half-domes in the World. 

2018 Restoration

In 2018 the Union Terminal underwent a complete restoration, there were many individuals, companies, civic & other contributors who pulled resources to accomplish the monumental task of restoring & keeping the Union Terminal alive for another 100 years.  We thank them sincerely.

The clock on the face of the Union Terminal was restored by Verdin in Cincinnati. The clock underwent a design change as well. 

Here is a picture of the Union Terminal clock movement being restored inside Verdin Clock & Bell Company in Cincinnati. Thank you Tim Verdin for the tour, this meant the world to us.

Union Terminal Clock being restored at Verdin Clock & Bell Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Now we are honored to release the "Concourse" watch. Designed after & in honor of the clock on the interior of Union Terminal that resided above the now demolished grand Concourse.

The Cincinnati Watch Company likes the Union Terminal for more than the Cincinnati Museum Center which created an interactive kids' floor paradise, beyond a great place to take our kids.

A portion of the proceeds of every Concourse watch is donated to Cincinnati Museum Center, the children's museum inside of Union Terminal.

Cincinnati Museum Center Kids Zone

There is a ton of great content by amazing authors about the Art Deco Temple to Transportation Union Terminal but we are going to focus on the aspects that us Watch Nerds Love best.

Union Terminal Technological Wonder for it's Time

  • The technology in 1933 Union Terminal was far advanced for its time.
    • First public digital clock!  
    • IBM synced all clocks throughout the entire station & campus including offices and engine roundhouse.
    • Electronic & pneumatic centrally controlled rail yard from Tower A
    • (The Original Airport)
  • An Art Deco Masterpiece, The Rotunda & Tile Masterpiece 
  • The Inspiration for DC Comic's "Super Friends" Hall Of Justice.
  • Cars, Taxis, Busses, and Streetcar could enter & exit in & under the half dome.

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 train delay notice, a number of things. This is how groundbreaking a digital clock was at the time, 

New Time Display Had To Be Labeled TIME

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.

First Digital Clock East of the Allegheny's

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 Union Terminal clock was first built the time was actually projected onto a panel displaying the appropriate time, like a movie displaying the correct time. (Citation)

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

The central time keeping device that kept all the clocks at Union Terminal accurate and in sync, like all the  clocks in that day, used mechanical movements to keep time. 3 clocks like Grandfather clocks stood next to each other in the basement space at Union Terminal. Next to a board with a spinning Hour, Minute, and Second gear based off the average of the three clocks. 

(The clocks were radio synced every 12 hours as well)

How do you make mechanical clocks digital?

Fascinatingly, IBM attached round drums to where the hands of the clock would normally be connected to the movement. The movement would turn the drum just like a movement turns an hour hand, minute hand, and second hand. But instead the drums had metal contacts on the outside of them, and like a music box's music maker, they would make contact allowing an electric current to pass, turning a circle dark or lit.

A music box has a drum with metal contacts, as the drum spins, the contacts hit a musical harp device, or a bell, to pluck a specific pitch or sound. On the first digital clock, IBM built a drum to spin on the mechanical movement that would make contact with wires connected to each circle on the digital clock. As the drum turned, contacts were made allowing electricity to pass through, or stop, turning a circle from black to white. The design of the contacts on the drum told the time. 

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, or seconds? The answer is A MESS of frustration, missed trains, even disaster! IBM put everyone at the CUT on the same time by syncing all of the clocks in the Union 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, incredible for 2003! Synced time throughout the entire campus of Union Terminal. 

How did IBM do it? 

We were fortunate to meet with >>>>> who explained and showed us how the clocks at Union Terminal were synced. First, you must understand the movements. Three movements, like three grandfather clocks kept the time. Between the three their times averaged and fed to a master control clock.

This clock sent a signal out to all clocks at 5 minutes till every hour starting a mechanical process that  turned a specific shaped gear in the back of every clock. As the main clocks struck the hour they sent another signal and if the clock was not at the hour the minute hand would jump to the hour so at every hour, the clocks are synced. 


Union Terminal Cincinnati Rotunda

The precision necessary to sync all of the clocks and mechanical ingenuity to perform at scale IBM set Time for all Cincinnatians from the Union Terminal. 

Union Terminal Rotunda

When we discover the Cincinnati Union Terminal its momentous history fills us with awe and wonder. Walking in the vast sky and color of the rotunda we're Wowed while giant tile mosaics that pull us into the train station turned Museum Center.

Tile Mosaics Adorning the Half Dome at Union Terminal Cincinnati

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, and I've heard that many Cincinnatians do this on entering the terminal.

Tile Mosaics capturing Cincinnati's History & American Transportation


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.

Union Terminal Half Dome Tile Mosaic Mural

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 interior of 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's like having a walkie talkie to communicate secretly. This feature did not get interrupted in the 2018 restoration still works today.

Departure and Arrival Pick Up and Drop Off Tunnels.

The Union Terminal had side entrance 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, this building built to allow a streetcar to come into, under, and out of in a seemless flow. It's 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.

Union Terminal with Concourse


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


From Rotunda to The Concourse

Rotunda to Concourse Union Terminal TO Trains

"To Trains"

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.


Modern Shot Union Terminal

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.


Union Terminal Concourse Colorized


The Original Airport Design

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, telephone booths; tile mosaics with windows reaching to the sky extended the length of The Concourse. 


Concourse Clock at Union Terminal Cincinnati Ohio


Ronald Weiss Murals including "The Globe"

The rotunda as well as the Concourse were 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 across the top marking the American time zones. Each State outlined, where are you going to go?

Above The Globe Mosaic was The Concourse Clock

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 Concourse Clock at Union Terminal


We'd  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 the CUT had tailored leather chairs at every gate. One of our Great Grandfathers, "Timer", was the Master Upholsterer who maintained the quality seating throughout the Terminal. Our Grandfather Joe worked there for many years from the tracks to maintenance. 


Concourse at Union 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 trains could not fit under the tunnels any longer. 

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 mosaic. 

The Clock, and Tile Mosaic Clocks, Saved!

Sane heads saved what they could and the Concourse Clock, as well as the tile mosaics clocks were saved! 

In the video below hear how the Tile Mosaic Clocks Were Lost & Found, & Put Back Lost Again.


What happened to the Concourse Clock?

The Concourse clock was saved, brought to city government at the Public Radio station parking lot the clock was stored until it was  Below is a video of Cincinnati city workers lifting the clock from its upward facing bubble enclosure. Kudos for WCPO Channel 9 for capturing this action on video.

Here WCPO again is on the scene in Cincinnati! Here capturing the moving of the Concourse clock out of the ground to once again get returned to Union Terminal.


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

WCPO Channel 9 was dialed in at the time to have their team on site for what appears to be one of the last trains into Union Terminal Concourse platform before the beginning of the demolition. This interview with a construction worker and scenes are epic. The train is a Norfolk Southern with a train car 1612 (A year later that car will be painted purple and be in Miami, Florida; Wild World. Wild World.)

The Cincinnati Union Terminal has transformed under a restoration that saved it from falling down, becoming fatally compromised. Many people worked very hard and we are grateful; they have saved The Union Terminal from sharing the fate of The Concourse and preserved the "Art Deco Temple To Transportation" for generations to come. (When it becomes a mag-lev station again we will build a new Concourse!)