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MURAL HISTORYThe 14 murals in the airport terminals are as much a part of Cincinnati's heritage as the Delta Queen and a Reds home game. The 20-by-20-foot mosaics have received national acclaim for being outstanding examples of Art Deco design.
The murals originally adorned the walls of Cincinnati's Union Terminal railway station. Although built in the midst of the Great Depression, the railroads spared no expense in making their terminal a majestic "Temple of Transportation," complete with Italian marble floors, cascading fountains and towering works of art.
The Life and Times
German-born artist Winold Reiss (1886-1953) was commissioned to design a decor that would fit the station's grandiose architecture. Reiss had come to the U.S. to study the art and folklore of the American Indian. Yet he soon established a reputation for his progressive work in the field of interior design.
As evidenced by his portraits of American Indians, Reiss felt a strong affinity with people of humble origins. With his Union Terminal murals, Reiss' found way to showcase the strength and dignity of the American worker on a massive scale.
Art Deco was just beginning to gain widespread popularity at that time. Reiss chose this modern form to depict the industrial workers in his murals. Appropriately enough, Art Deco drew inspiration from the machine age and its developing technology. It is characterized by a symmetrical style, exotic colors and rectilinear design.
How They Were Made
Reiss began the arduous task of creating the giant murals by photographing workers on location at various industries. From these photos he drew large-scale drawings, which were sent to the Ravenna Mosaic Company in Berlin. The firm rendered the drawings into half-inch-square pieces of colored glass and attached the pieces to huge sheets of paper.
Back at Union Terminal, the glass was pressed into the wet plaster of the terminal walls. When the plaster dried, the paper was peeled off, and the remaining areas were plastered with colored mortar. This silhouette style was considered a money saver at the time because glass was more costly than workers' time in the 1930s. Even so, intricately weaving stucco around the mosaic was extremely time-consuming and required great skill.
History on the Move
The murals captivated travelers for nearly 40 years. But when Union Terminal was sold in 1972, the new owners announced plans to demolish the portion that contained 14 of Reiss' murals. This prompted citizens to raise money to remove the murals and transport them to the airport.
Moving the murals proved a monumental task. A special protective coating was applied to the mosaics to keep the glass pieces in place and prevent chipping. It took engineers three months just to devise a method of removing the murals from the concourse walls. The freestanding panels were then encased in rigid steel frames and lowered into steel cradles where they were padded with Styrofoam and crated in wood.
The crated murals were transported in an upright position on a specially rigged flatbed truck to avoid stress and cracking. Various telephone wires and overhanging signs along the 15-mile route to the airport were temporarily removed to make way for the murals. The first pair of murals arrived at the airport in August 1973, some five hours after leaving Union Terminal.
History's New Home
When the Kenton County Airport Board agreed to accept the murals, the airport was in the midst of a major expansion. Airport architects had to reinforce the foundations and walls to support the weight of the eight-ton murals. Since construction was already under way, the murals were hoisted over structural steel beams and lowered into the airport terminals.
All 14 murals remained crated until construction was completed to avoid damage. Then the tedious task of stripping the protective coating began. Steam was applied to loosen the gauze-like covering. Brushes were used to scrub away the remaining residue of glue in the tiny crevices.
It cost the Save the Terminal Committee $400,000 to relocate them to the airport in 1974. The airport board spent $136,000 to have them installed and refurbished. Yet it is impossible to put a value on the murals. As works of art they are considered priceless.
The Murals Today
Twenty years later the airport would find itself again moving five of the murals. To make way for a larger Terminal 3, the airport and Delta built a special climate-controlled building to house five of the murals during demolition and construction. Engineers devised special lifting devices, ramps and casters to relocate the mosaic giants into the new terminal. Total cost of this second effort to save the murals: $1 million.
All the effort has paid off, with all the priceless mosaics safely installed in the terminals. Careful consideration has been given to the placement of each mural, weighing such details as color coordination and lighting. Critics agree that the end result has far surpassed original expectations for preserving the murals. The refurbished panels create an imposing sight that delights and impresses millions of visitors annually.
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Murals In Transit
Mural Being Installed
Murals In Terminal 3