Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Topping Out [Part I]

On Sunday (March 30th), Elizabeth and I explored the Cincinnati Union Terminal in completely new ways through a "High Steel Tour" and "Rotunda Tour"... respectively, an architectural/constructive and design-centered history, formed in celebration of the 75th Anniversary ['Diamond Jubilee'] of the building.
I never questioned it, but the guides' presumption was correct: the tours do lend to a new, lasting appreciation of the building and our local forefathers.

Right wing facade of the Cincinnati Union Terminal [3/30/8].
The hole in the wall was the location of the 1958 time capsule (opened on 3/29/8).

Although we missed the opening of the time capsule by 24 hours, we got there early for our tours, which allowed us to talk with a couple of the docents beforehand - a group dedicated to propagating the history of the structure and its relation to the city. Note: Anytime you can engage docents in smalltalk, the better - there's a strong possibility that they'll give you inside information (verbally and/or physically). Good preparation for the gig we payed for...

High Steel Tour

This tour (which was a steal at $15/ea) focused mainly on the structural components of the building, and allowed us to travel behind the walls, up above the interior dome. Without visual evidence [recording of any kind was not allowed], all I can say is that the hour-long trek was extremely interesting, and not for those with acrophobia. Not only did we receive a 10-minute Powerpoint presentation on the history of the construction process (up a few floors, within the walls, next to the steel supports), our guide initiated a second, oral presentation of the smaller facets of the construction first-hand (while standing on a catwalk at the peak of the dome, directly on top of the steel beams).

Cincinnati Union Terminal construction [11/5/31].
Source: Cincinnati Museum Center.

Although the visual presentation was very interesting, the more intimate discussion at the peak of the rotunda were included, such as: workers used slipsticks for measurements (or slide-rules - obviously, everything was analog in those days), rivets were hand-hammered (there was an example of one rivet that was struck twice, and thus, disfigured), old graffiti was pointed out on the beams (which is now very illegal, due to its national 'historic' registry), and an explanation of how
the plaster for the walls/ceiling was applied (which we were practically standing on... it's about 1 1/2" thick, by the way).

CUT construction [late-1931].
Source: Wikipedia: Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.

Aside from experiencing the skeleton firsthand, one of the coolest parts was simply having to climb 'ladders' and use catwalks with wobbly railings when up in the dome area. Also, when directly on top, you could lean over and look through some of the vent holes of the rotunda to see the floor 106' below (one of which had a dead bird in it). Our tour guide was also very good at adding humor to the experience, saying that if anyone falls over, lawyers would end the tours indefinitely (which actually was true). Thus, we all kept distractions to a minimum - phones silent, clothes tight, and cameras off.

CUT/CMC rotunda interior [1/4/8, undated].
Left photo: Red arrow shows the general path of our tour within the walls of the building. Right photo: Catwalk was directly above the center of the arch, where we stopped for an informal discussion of the structure (red arrow shows one of the vents we looked through to see the floor - also, location of the dead bird).
Sources: CincyImages & Richard Cummins
(via Lonely Planet Images).

Finally, I considered showing the construction process of the building as an addition to this post, using internet sources and my own extensive library, but it would be far better for everyone to experience the structure firsthand - these tours not only financially support a treasured city asset, but offer an invaluable, unique perspective to its citizens. Trust me, it's worth it.
As motivation, the Museum Center is currently hosting a companion website on the history & memories of the Terminal. View it here.

Check back soon for Part II of this article.

• The post title refers to an antiquated tradition by high-steel workers (and builders with other materials) of placing an evergreen tree on the last piece of steel (usually at the peak of the structure) [explanation here].
Aside from what the linked article offers, my past Architectural History professor stated that the act was in deference to traditional construction processes (usually with wood), humans' intelligence and ingenuity through the 'conquering of nature', and at the same time, reverence of the natural materials that supplied the development of the structure.

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