Meet the man behind the Union Terminal makeover

Posted at 12:00 PM, May 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-05 12:00:54-04

CINCINNATI — Nick Cates was the architect behind several high-profile projects in New York City, including the new Statue of Liberty Museum and the redevelopment of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. He has also worked on projects in the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Canada.

It’s an impressive resume, but only part of the reason why he’s now the architect for the restoration and renovation of Cincinnati’s 83-year-old Union Terminal.

“It’s a really weird coincidence that I’m working on this,” Cates said.

Nick Cates

Union Terminal, a former railroad station in the Queensgate neighborhood, houses the Cincinnati Museum Centerwhich includes three museums, an OMNIMAX Theater and the Cincinnati History Library and Archives. The $212.7 million overhaul of the 500,000-square-foot half-dome structure will begin this summer and take two years to complete. Cates credits the building for sparking his interest in architecture, art deco and World War II history.

“It’s one of my most favorite buildings in the world,” Cates said. “The first time I saw the inside of it when I was in high school, I was utterly amazed by it. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.” 

Cates, 42, is a native and resident of Madeira. While a student at the University of Cincinnati, he did several co-ops at architecture firms around the world. Just prior to graduation, he received his first full-time job offer from one of those firms.

“It was an old boss who called me and asked if I was interested in a historic preservation project they were starting in New York City,” Cates said. “It wasn’t a hard decision.”

After five years with that company, Cates moved to a larger one in the city that put him on the Lincoln Center Public Spaces project. The massive undertaking included a rehabilitation of about a half-dozen buildings, such as the Juilliard School, and the creation of public spaces between those buildings.

“I worked on that project for six years straight and really enjoyed it,” Cates said. “The Lincoln Center was old, but it wasn’t a landmark. The work we did was preservation, but with new elements added.”

In 2014, while still in New York, Cates received an email from a friend about Union Terminal being listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” Later that fall, about the same time Hamilton County voters passed Issue 8 to fund the restoration of Union Terminal, Cates was coincidentally considering moving back to Cincinnati with his wife and their young son.

“I told my wife that if we moved, I’d have to work on that building, but I really had no way of achieving that,” Cates said. “I had no idea who would be bidding on it. I had no contacts. All I could do was hope that it might happen.”

And it did.

Last year, during a job interview with GBBN Architects in Cincinnati, Cates talked about Union Terminal. “They said ‘Well, we just happened to get this job…’ They had won the Union Terminal job just a day or two before my interview,” Cates said. “I couldn’t have planned it the way it worked out. I didn’t even know they had bid on it.”

The crux of the project will be the overall restoration of the infrastructure and guts of the building, such as the brick and stone, the steel behind it, the roof, the plumbing and the mechanical system.

Elizabeth Pierce, CEO of the Cincinnati Museum Center, said a temporary lobby will be constructed in July, which will allow the Duke Energy Children’s Museum and the special exhibition space to remain open during the project. The Museum of Natural History & Science will close at the end of June, though its popular “Nature’s Trading Post” exhibit will move to the Children’s Museum. The Cincinnati History Museum will also close at the end of June, and the OMNIMAX theater will be closed starting July 5.

Elizabeth Pierce

“This is an awesome moment for us in every way the word ‘awesome’ can be construed,” Pierce said of the restoration. “We’re fixing the building, the museums will continue to live and thrive within it, and Union Terminal will continue to be a beautiful asset in the community.”

Pierce is excited to have someone with Cates' experience and passion working on it.

“There is something very ‘Cincinnati’ about coming home and putting your talents to work for the betterment of this community,” Pierce said. “I like Nick’s experience, which includes a combination of historic preservation and good design sensibility. The range of expertise that everyone working on this building has should make everyone feel that it's well loved and well cared for.”

Cates expects this will rank as one of his favorite projects when finished.

“I really like the fact that when it’s done, the public will be able to enjoy it,” he said. “It’s unique, and I know a lot of people love this place. I am honored to be working on it.”

For more information on the project, visit and