CINCINNATI: Back in Time….

17 Feb

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It’s our last day in Cincy; we’ve still got a list of things to do. No trip to the Queen City is complete without a visit to the Cincinnati Museum Center, formerly Union Terminal. Everything about this building is amazing from architecture and history to its present-day use as a museum. Work started on the building in August of 1929, completed March 31, 1933 it is one of the last great train stations built and one of the finest examples of the Art Deco style. When it opened it was served by seven railroads; designed to accommodate 17,000 passengers and 216 trains a day, it was a transfer point for soldiers during WWII, Amtrak still runs a train from the station. Union Terminal cost $41 million to build including the land and readjustment of railroad facilities, the complex and rail yards take up 287 acres with 94 miles of track.

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  The Jeep is parked and we approach the building on foot; no matter how many times we come here, I am still awed by the magnificence of the structure, so grand, elegant, sophisticated. The clock is mounted front and center, two bas reliefs flank the rotunda, one represents transportation, the other commerce. In 1932, Maxfield Keck and his team stood on scaffolding and carved the figures directly into the limestone exterior, it took several months. Inside, the rotunda’s interior dome spans 180 ft with a height of 106 feet, it’s stunning! A series of murals depict the heritage of the US and Cincy. German artist Winold Reiss is responsible for the design of the murals; glass mosiac tiles, roughly the size of a nickle were pressed into a colored-plaster background. Glass tiles were ideal, the colors are brilliant, they will not fade and are easy to clean and maintain, especially important back in the days when smoking in public was the norm, not to mention the smut and smoke from the trains. Reiss also had input to the color scheme of the rotunda dome, a rainbow of yellows and golds, as well as the terrazzo floor patterns.

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A sign guides us to Tower A, we’ve never been, so we’re excited to check it out; a ride on an elevator, a few steps up and we’re in. This my friends, is the control tower, the train director would sit at his desk, look at the control panel and determine the path of travel of each train through the terminal, lever men would align the switches down at the track level to keep all trains moving safely. The original control panel hangs on the back wall, it’s huge, it has been rewired and is programmed to show how it looked back when Tower A was in full operation, amazing. Showcases are filled with memorabilia from the glory days of train travel, silverware, china, menus and photographs. Parents rest on old train station seats as youngsters ring the (very loud) train bell, bookshelves are cramped with volumes on the history of trains, lanterns and traffic lights hang above. Standing on the viewing platform we see the Queensgate Yard to the right, every day a CSX train brings orange juice from Florida to the Tropicana plant just north of Cincinnati. Straight out is the CUT yard, rows of tracks are filled with freight cars, the Amtrak passenger train uses the platform just below the Tower. Off to the left is the Ohio River and many bridges including the Norfolk Southern Bridge, that route runs from Cincy to Chattanooga. The Control Tower is also the home of the Cincinnati Railroad Club who funded the renovation of Tower A, thanks guys!

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Back on the main floor we enter the Museum of Science and Natural History. An exhibit honors the memory of Ohio native Neil Armstrong, the display includes a moonrock collected during his Apollo 11 mission in which he became the first man to set foot on the moon, along with a replica of his spacesuit and tools. As we proceed further we find ourselves in a re-creation of real caves found in Ohio and Kentucky, covering two levels and 500 feet of dark, narrow passages. Floors and walls are textured, it’s chilly and a little damp, walkways open into chambers filled with stalactites and stalagmites, there’s an underground stream and a waterfall, they even have a bat colony. Next thing you know we’ve traveled back roughly 19,000 years in the Ohio Valley into the ice age and pre-historic worlds. There are dinosaur skeletons, fossils and casts, we walk through a re-created glacier with its Caribbean blue light eerily lighting our way, we follow the ice age trail to the stream table all rocky and uneven. Here the land is barren but for a few trees, wolves roam the landscape, more dinosaurs lurk about.

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Back in the Rotunda we ramble through the building a little more, because of the crowds they have opened several dining room spaces usually reserved for private meetings and events. French artist Pierre Bourdelle is responsible for decorative ceiling designs in the dining rooms and hall, the formal dining room’s ceiling mural is a map of Cincinnati bounded on the edges with all forms of transportation and landmarks of the city. Bourdelle’s artwork consumes 5,496 sq ft of the building, his largest commission. Back in the day, public buildings were always designed to impress, local history and landmarks were often used in decorative ways, a means of connecting people and their community. Union Terminal is an architectural treasure, in November 2014 residents of Hamilton County passed a millage to provide funding for renovations of Union Terminal to keep it functional, now that’s money well spent. 

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For dinner we are crossing the Ohio River into Covington Kentucky and the MainStrasse Village neighborhood to Dee Felice. On the corner of Main and 6th Streets stands the 18th century orange brick building that began life as a pharmacy. Inside, the ornate tin ceiling, black and white marble tile floor and old-fashioned details remain. Long-time Jazz drummer and band leader Emidio De Felice opened the restaurant/Jazz club back in 1984, today his wife and daughter carry on the tradition of serving up live Jazz and Cajun food. We arrive to a nearly full house, musicians are perched on the stage behind the open bar playing Sweet Lorraine. After a quick scan of the menu we place our order, the music continues, many of our Jazz favorites are played. The Pasta Dante arrives; blackened strips of chicken over peppers, onions and linguine sauteed in white wine and topped with feta cheese, it’s delicious! We sip on cocktails, the music comes to an end, time to go.

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It’s still early, we walk Main Street the length of downtown, buildings are distinctly southern in style, narrow fronts, deep in length–shotgun style. With elevated front doors, some have ornate cornices, others leaded glass, they’re snuggled close together. Restaurants and taverns are doing a good business, the neighborhood was originally German, the 6-block district still retains its charm. Kris drives the car over to the riverfront, this is one of our favorite places to walk.  The Kentucky side of the Ohio River was relatively shallow compared to the Ohio side, making it unusable as a public landing for boats and steamships; instead beautiful mansions were built overlooking the waterway. Today a series of parks and pathways line the riverside affording visitors a  view of the best of both worlds, the vibrant city skyline of Cincinnati and the picturesque charm and grandeur of Covington. Until next time…….. 

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