In the early twentieth century, one of the most popular forms of long-distance transportation was the railroad. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, was linked to a number of other major cities through its rail lines, but the original system had not been well-coordinated. Trains ran through several different railroad stations around the city. In the early 1900s, railroad companies began developing plans for a single railroad terminal that would provide service for all passenger and freight lines entering the city. It was not until the late 1920s that construction actually began on the project, which became known as Union Terminal.
Architects Alfred Fellheimer and Stewart Wagner, whose firm was located in New York City, designed the structure. The final design followed the popular art deco style of that era. The project eventually cost $41,000,000 to complete and was finished on March 31, 1933. At the time, Union Terminal had the largest half-dome in the world, and even today it is the largest half-dome in the Western hemisphere. The architects created a building that could accommodate as many as 17,000 people and 216 trains (108 in and 108 out) each day. During World War II, when many soldiers traveled to their posts by train, the terminal sometimes hosted as many as twenty thousand people.
The artwork associated with Union Terminal was as amazing as the physical structure. Maxfield Keck designed bas-relief figures that represented Commerce and Transportation to flank the main doors. Winold Reiss, a German-born artist, designed murals made from glass mosaic tiles to decorate the interior of the terminal. The murals, which also follow the art deco style, illustrates the United States' transportation history, different types of work in the United States, and Cincinnati history. Most of the murals were placed within the main entry of the terminal, but additional murals, portraying major Cincinnati businesses, were located in the concourse. The concourse was torn down in the 1970s, and these murals were relocated to the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati International Airport. Another artist, Pierre Bourdelle, created another mural at the entrance of the women's lounge.
Union Terminal was very successful in the 1930s and 1940s, but by the 1950s it faced stiff competition from automobiles and passenger airline service. The number of trains continued to decline until 1972, when the last train service to Union Terminal ended. No one knew what to do with a train terminal that was no longer needed. The concourse was torn down in 1974, but the rest of the building was saved.
The city of Cincinnati purchased the building in 1975 but struggled to find someone willing to develop the site. At one point, the city offered to lease the building for only one dollar per year. In 1980, a businessman from Columbus attempted to turn Union Terminal into a shopping mall, but the economic climate of the early 1980s led to the plan's failure.
In the mid-1980s, the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and the Cincinnati Historical Society worked with the city and the state of Ohio to turn Union Terminal into a museum. The building was opened once again in November 1990 and was known as the Museum Center. The renovated Union Terminal now houses the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science, the Cincinnati History Museum, the Cincinnati Historical Society Library, the Cinergy Children's Museum, and an OMNIMAX theater. Amtrak began offering passenger train service to Union Terminal beginning in 1991. The Museum Center has proven to be a great success, attracting more than one million visitors each year.
Union Terminal was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 31, 1972. Its significance as one of the few remaining large art deco terminals meant that it also became a National Historic Landmark in 1977.