Wednesday, May 27, 2009

All aboard!

Union Station, circa 1969

There are several major turning points in the history of architecture. When the Romans discovered concrete, when the recipe for concrete somehow got lost in the dark ages, when they rediscovered concrete, and when Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. In a world that was obsessed with opulence and drapery, the streamlined clean lines of the Fair's buildings spawned a whole new generation of thinking about cities and building design. Set into an inspired landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the Exposition's enormous structures harkened back to Classical styles, and their white plaster finishes gave the fairgrounds the nickname of "The White City". The fair was a raging success and had an even more spectacular finish when its temporary structures all but burned to the ground in 1894. Regardless, the history of building was forever altered.

The finest example of this style of Beaux-Arts inspired design in Washington (and actually in the United States as a whole) is Union Station, constructed by none other than Daniel Burnham himself, the lead architect of the Chicago Fair. The station was completed in 1908 at a time when the train was king (having experienced a recent major growth in popularity as the most convenient way to access the Chicago Fair) and the train station (not I-395) was seen as the gateway to the city. When the McMillian Commission, of which Burnham was a part, was established as part of a city beautification in 1901, it was immediately decided that the train tracks that crossed through the National Mall should be removed and replaced with a more significant station elsewhere.

Burnham intended for this main train station to be nothing short of monumental. Thought of as the "vestibule of the capital", the completed building had the largest footprint in the United States, and for a time, was the largest train station in the world. The space for such a massive building was carved out of an area once known as "Swampoodle," a shantytown located on the swamp like remains of Tiber Creek north of the Capitol.

In true Beaux Arts fashion, Burnham turned to the majesty of the Roman Empire when looking for references for Union Station. The central pavilion is a tribute to the Arch of Constantine, and the main interior takes its design from the massive Baths of Diocletian. The general waiting room, now the main lobby of the building, was an impressive 120 feet wide by 219 feet long. There were no short cuts on the materials used in this grand space, 70 pounds of 22-karat gold leaf were ordered to embellish the coffers in the 96-foot barrel-vaulted ceilings. The central exterior pavilion is covered in white Vermont granite, and atop the six massive exterior columns are Louis Saint-Gaudens sculptures representing Fire, Electricity, Freedom, Imagination, Agriculture, and Mechanics.

At 760 feet long and 130 feet wide, the grand concourse at the back of the station extended the entire length of the structure and allowed direct access to all trains. In it's heyday, approximately 285 trains on 32 tracks carried about 30,000 passengers in and out of Union Station on a daily basis. But the station did more than just move people from place to place. As a monumental entry into Washington the station housed such entertainment facilities as a YMCA, a hotel, liquor store, Turkish baths, and a first-class restaurant, and at various times was also home to a baker, butcher, ice house, mortuary, nursery, police station, and a silver-monogramming shop.

As with most train stations in the U.S., as other modes of travel became more prevalent and railways fell into a decline, Union Station entered a period of disuse and neglect. The station was closed in 1978 and eventually, in a horrifying turn of fate, water damage caused parts of the gold gilded roof to cave in and toadstools began to grow in the grand interior. Thankfully, in 1981, Congress enacted the Union Station Redevelopment Act which helped establish a plan for a building overhaul. After a three year renovation valued at $160 million dollars, the station was reopened as a transportation hub, a retail center, and a museum. Today, restored to its former glory and frequented by over 32 million visitors each year, Union Station continues to be a major part of Washington DC life.

Columbus Circle in front of Union Station, Courtesy of Christine Ruffo

Union Station History,
National Park Service, Department of the Interior. National Register Nomination, 3/24/1969.

Photo Sources:
Union Station Photo: National Park Service, Department of the Interior. National Register Nomination, 3/24/1969.
Columbus Circle photo: Christine Ruffo. Visit to see and purchase more images of Washington DC!

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