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August 27, 2004 9:03 AM CDT

Masonry Plays a Symbolic Role in New Freedom Center


The legacy of freedom as embodied in the stories from the Underground Railroad will inspire visitors from around the world with engaging storytelling, innovative exhibits and dialogues on modern-day freedom events when the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened on August 23rd in Cincinnati.

Several elements of symbolism are powerfully represented in the Freedom Center's architectural design by Walter Blackburn, Blackburn Architects of Indianapolis, in cooperation with BOORA Architects of Portland, Ore. The three buildings of the structure signify courage, cooperation and perseverance, and the rough exterior stone symbolizes steadfastness. Curved elements inside and out are also inspired by the challenging path to freedom and the winding Ohio River.

The five-story, three-pavilion, 158,000-square-foot learning center sits on the north bank of the Ohio River as the crown jewel of a $2 billion redevelopment of Cincinnati's central riverfront. The various stylist elements help to frame the facility as a beacon for the past, present and future.

Before 1863, the Underground Railroad was a system of cooperation among African-American slaves, free African-Americans, abolitionists, sympathetic whites and Native Americans to help slaves escape their bonds and claim the promise of freedom. This informal system arose as a loosely constructed network of escape routes that originated in the South, intertwined throughout the North, but also extended into western territories, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The center rests in the middle of the sacred river's "freedom corridor" ? a 200-mile stretch of 19th-century towns that played leading roles in the freedom stories of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. Most scholars agree that as many as 40% of all fugitives escaping from enslavement crossed the Ohio River, making Cincinnati the gateway to Ohio's over 500 Underground Railroad routes ? one of the most well-traveled states in the nation.

The center's focus is to recount the powerful American story of freedom using a variety of programs, interactive media and live performances. Beginning with an opening film experience, "Suite for Freedom," guests will explore three basic themes of "unfreedom," slavery and freedom. Next, they will discover the two-story slave pen, donated by a Kentucky farmer and preserved as the defining artifact of the center. Other exhibits include an interactive environmental theater experience focused on the Underground Railroad's heroes and an examination of the Underground Railroad legacy that has influenced later-day freedom movements through contemporary society.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was first proposed in 1994 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews ? now called the National Conference for Community and Justice. In 2000, Congress passed the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Act establishing the Cincinnati monument as the national interpretive center, which later became an affiliate program of the Smithsonian Institute. The Freedom Center marks the first time that a national cultural institution has been dedicated to commemorating this powerful American story of freedom from slavery and oppression.

Mason Contractors
Expert Masonry, Inc., West Chester, Ohio, and Blakely Corporation, Indianapolis, IN

Blackburn Architects, Indianapolis, IN
BOORA Architects of Portland, OR

Construction Management
Megen, Dugan & Meyers, Brown, LLC

Further information on the Freedom Center and the building's architecture is available by calling (513) 412-6900 or visiting

About the Author

Masonry, the official publication of the Mason Contractors Association of America, covers every aspect of the mason contractor profession - equipment and techniques, building codes and standards, business planning, promoting your business, legal issues and more. Read or subscribe to Masonry magazine at


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