By: Brandon Pytel
Date: June 1, 2018
Construction Management Alumnus Oversees Union Terminal Restoration
By: Brandon Pytel
UC construction management alumnus Steve Swisher oversees the historic Union Terminal’s $200 million restoration. Last week he pulled back the curtain on the project.
If you’ve been by the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal lately, you may have noticed something different. Like the full construction crew. Or the fenced-off front-half of the building. Or the scaffoldings lining the Terminal’s iconic half-dome entryway. These are just some of the visible changes that go into Union Terminal’s $200 million-plus restoration.
Steve Swisher (construction management ’00) is the senior project manager on the restoration and renovation of this National Historic Landmark, which is headed by Turner Construction Co. Swisher is responsible for leading, directing and coordinating the overall management of project.
“We have a very talented team working on this project, which lets me generally focus on the big picture items with the client and the project team,” Swisher says, sitting in a construction trailer’s large conference room. Between us are two upside-down hardhats, acting as bowls for our neon-colored vests.
Despite the team’s extensive probing and analysis of the building, which took place prior to starting the construction, the building has still thrown the team a few team curveballs, he explains.
“When a project is limited in funding compared to its potential needs, you have to find creative ways to deal with things,” says Swisher. “We sometimes call the Union Terminal the MacGyver building.”
Swisher is a University of Cincinnati (UC) graduate, who has worked on many interesting projects. Prior to the Union Terminal restoration and renovation, Swisher was the project manager on the $72 million Nippert Stadium renovations. He has also served in lead roles on the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, the Great American Tower at Queen City Square and the Mercy Health - West Hospital.
“Every job is its own little career,” says Swisher. “There’s always something new – it’s an industry that allows for continued growth in education.”
Last week, Swisher agreed to pull back the curtain on the Union Terminal restoration and renovation project, giving our photographer, Corrie, and me a tour of the construction site on a humid Cincinnati afternoon. After talking about the project for twenty minutes in the trailer, we donned our bright uniforms and entered the ringer.
The fountain, or lack thereof, is the first thing that hits you walking up to Union Terminal. Along the new sidewalks to the reconstructed fountain area, we walk across torn-up ground covered by gravel. I’m wondering if my black dress shoes, now layered with gray dust, were the best call for a construction tour. Swisher explains the front of the building has undergone a massive waterproofing system replacement.
Water is one of the 85-year-old building’s “biggest enemies,” he says, and waterproofing only lasts for so long. So, the team has torn out the old roadway, landscape and fountain structure to waterproof the entire roof structure leading up to the building. The crews are now in the process of putting these pieces back together in the same position as before.
We stop at the front entrance, next to a number etched into the side of the building: 1933, the date the Union Terminal first opened as a great railroad station and Art Deco masterpiece. Since then, Union Terminal has grown into a piece of Cincinnati’s history. During World War II, the railway was a central hub for Cincinnati factories, moving products all over the country. After the war, Union Terminal welcomed home returning soldiers. The 1950s and ‘60s brought the age of the automobile and airplane, nearly putting the Terminal out of business. In the 1970s, the City of Cincinnati purchased Union Terminal, attempting to save it from demolition, revamping the Terminal into a sort of urban shopping center. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when the Cincinnati Historical Society and the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History were looking for a new home, that Union Terminal began shaping into what it is today.
“If you’re from the area, you know what Union Terminal means,” says Swisher. “You grow up with it, and you know how much it means for the community. It’s part of Cincinnati’s story. Part of the fun with this project is learning about and preserving that story.”
Swisher points out the polished limestone and new light fixtures as we enter the building’s front doors. He tells us that this restoration is not going to make the Terminal into a “shiny penny.” Instead, the restoration is a preservation project. The crews clean and polish the many different historical fabrics of the building, sometimes using creative processes like dry ice blasting, all while conserving the original material. This process preserves the center’s historic tax credits, which are crucial to the overall funding of the project, but it also preserves the history.
Inside, the Union Terminal is not the open-air lobby guests are familiar with. A temporary lobby divided by large drywall partitions takes its place. Most of the exhibits at the Museum Center are closed during this stage of the renovation, explains Swisher, but the Children’s Museum and special exhibits still remain open, making a working lobby necessary. Swisher takes us through a door that says “Construction Crewmembers Only” and we fall into the space I recognize. Kind of.
The open-air lobby of Union Terminal still looks the same from fifteen feet and up, where the murals start. The ground, however, is different, loaded with construction material: garbage bins, scaffoldings, blueprints, boxes, piles of wood. A multi-layer floor protection system covers the entire floor, which, Swisher says, protects the historic terrazzo during the renovation. Not even the scaffoldings can be bolted to this floor; crewmembers had to bolt them to large wooden planks instead.
Swisher looks up to artist Winold Reiss’s iconic murals, pointing out the restoration the team has already completed. Swisher says the crew has cleaned and repaired the murals, making them more vibrant. “People that haven’t seen these murals in a while will likely notice details that they haven’t seen before,” he says. “It will be a positive topic of conversation.”
We walk through familiar exhibits turned inside out, the rooms’ personalities stripped down to plywood and plastic wrap. Exhibits that once filled the space are completely empty of any artifacts. In fact, afterwards I hear that one of the dinosaurs planned for a new exhibition space is at Rhinegeist, a local craft brewery.
Corrie snaps pictures as we make our way through these empty halls and eventually to the lower levels. Just navigating through the center, one can see new changes unfold. The renovation part of the project is intentional in how it ties together its exhibits, Swisher explains. Before, to get from exhibit to exhibit, one had to travel through the entire Cincinnati History or Natural History & Science exhibit, and then turn around and go back upstairs. Now, by adding glass walls, open hallways and additional entranceways, the team has connected the space, making it more usable and accessible.
Now we're down in the Children’s Museum and special exhibit halls. Swisher explains that he and the team collaborated with the Museum Center’s exhibition team down here, moving around exhibits when necessary to update the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems in the spaces. This collaboration gave the exhibition team a chance to reassess how they use their space. Swisher called the partnership between the construction crew and exhibition team a “fine dance back and forth.”
We end our 45-minute tour climbing up several stories to get to the rooftop behind the building’s facade. Swisher points out more changes. The project team has really left no stone unturned. Standing on the black roof with the sun beating down on us, Swisher explains how the roof has undergone plenty of water damage over the years, but with limited funds prior to the restoration an renovation project, the Union Terminal staff had to be creative with how they managed it. Corrie takes some final shots of Swisher, and I snap a couple pictures for myself (it’s not every day you’re on top of Union Terminal).
As we make our way back down, I ask Swisher what he has enjoyed most about working on Union Terminal. “Every project we are part of means something to a community and has a positive an impact on someone,” he says. “Having the opportunity to learn the history of this iconic building and understand Union Terminal’s importance to Cincinnati is what I loved most about this.”
Swisher's right. From patrons of the museum to residents of Cincinnati to Corrie or me, Union Terminal means something different to everyone. Union Terminal's connective tissue is the story it tells – like the trains of the ‘40s, exporting steel or bringing young men home from war; or the museum center of today, educating children and encouraging innovation.
Union Terminal means a lot to the community. Its Art Deco design is marveled as an architectural gem. Its status as a historic landmark connects us to its rich past. And, as home to the Cincinnati Museum Center and the lobby’s iconic murals, it’s a hub for creativity and exploration. Whatever part of Union Terminal we choose to remember, what remains constant is its place in Cincinnati’s history. Steve Swisher and Turner Construction are preserving that history, so that future generations can enjoy it as much as we have.