River's Edge: The Underground Railroad Freedom Center lends gravitas to Cincinnati's waterfront development.
Originally published in Metropolis magazine
October 2004

When escaped slaves made their way north to freedom along the Underground Railroad, the Ohio River was a place to celebrate a bit before continuing on. Here Ohio law banned slavery, but superseding federal law allowed whites to re-capture slaves that had crossed the river and return them to Southern slave owners. As a result, most slaves using the Railroad continued further north.

So when founders of Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center began meeting with architects to plan their museum’s design, the notion of continuing passage was stressed. Designed by BOORA Architects of Portland and Blackburn Architects of Indianapolis, the newly completed Freedom Center consists of a series of undulating stone walls, made from massive stacked travertine blocks and connected in between with three copper-clad pavilions. The undulating walls have multiple symbolic value, standing for the meandering rural pathways slaves traveled to freedom, the nearby river that meant the first step, even a set of open arms in welcome.

Most of all, says architect John Meadows of BOORA, “There was this idea of stitching the building and the land together, because as you used the Underground Railroad to tell the story, it tended to become a more earthy story about the land.” As such, the architects partnered with renowned landscape designer Martha Schwartz (who left the project before it was completed) in scheming a second block adjacent to the museum that will act as its extended front door, with ambling pathways amid vegetation. Inside the Freedom Center is a slave pen discovered in a Kentucky barn that will be the museum’s centerpiece, and a striking counterbalance to the surrounding contemporary forms. But because it was a late addition required last-minute revisions to the architectural design.

The Freedom Center is part of Cincinnati’s billion dollar riverfront redevelopment, and the museum is bookended by the city’s two new sports stadiums: the Great American Ballpark for baseball’s Reds and Paul Brown Field for football’s Bengals. The development also includes new riverfront greenspace, moving of a nearby freeway partially underground, and construction of a multi-level parking garage beneath the river’s flood plain. And as if the two stadiums weren’t enough of a presence for the Freedom Center to contend with, it is also situated beside the landmark John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, named for the man who also designed the Brooklyn Bridge.

“A lot of folks on their way to games or riverfront events will walk through and around this building,” says Alpha Blackburn of Blackburn Architects, who took over the firm’s leadership after her husband, architect Walter Blackburn, passed away during early construction. “And I think the quiet dignity of the Freedom Center’s architecture will be attractive to people, and a welcome kind of foil for the more chaotic streetscape of activity.”

“One of my big concerns was that we’d be overshadowed by the stadiums,” adds Freedom Center CEO Ed Rigaut. “But the museum really stands tall. I’ve even heard a few people comment that, in a way, we dwarf the stadiums.”

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