• U.S.

Design: America’s Great Depot Gets Back on Track

3 minute read
Kurt Andersen

“Make no little plans,” architect and city planner Daniel H. Burnham wrote at the century’s turn, “they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” When Burnham’s plan for the glorious beaux- arts Union Station was realized in Washington 81 years ago, it was one of the world’s biggest rail terminals but otherwise very much of its time. Before World War I, budgets for civic building were generous, beaux-arts neoclassicism was almost obligatory, and the U.S. had more than 80,000 busy train stations — yes, 80,000.

Just 1 in 10 of those stations remains today. During the past five years alone, however, as preservation of historic buildings has attained mom-and- apple-pie popularity, 1,000 old train stations around the country have been renovated. They have been transformed into museums or municipal office buildings or restaurants. Happily, some of the old depots where trains still stop have also been refurbished: New York City’s Grand Central is undergoing a / partial restoration, and in Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia, once run-down train stations are back in order.

And now, at long last, here again is Washington’s Union Station. Last week, after a thoughtfully conceived and meticulously executed $160 million restoration, the great national depot — the bustling terminus for hundreds of thousands of troops sent off to two world wars, the Capitol Hill transit point for eleven Presidents and 11 zillion federal hangers-on — reopened in something like its original form for the first time in more than a decade. It may be the most breathtaking public interior in the U.S. The vast, spiffed-up old station, packed with 140 new shops and restaurants and movie theaters (replacing, among other older amenities, a bowling alley, an ice house, a resident doctor and a mortuary), seems certain to become one of the liveliest, most authentically urban spots in a largely anodyne city.

Despite the renovation, a sense of Manifest Destiny grandeur and industrial heft remains. Diesel locomotives will use the station as well as croissant- eating lawyers. “This isn’t a suburban mall,” says Benjamin Thompson, the renovation and revitalization architect, based in Cambridge, Mass., who designed the new retail spaces. “This is Washington, D.C. We wanted to maintain Union Station as a transportation center.” Until Amtrak service is fully restored, within a year, rail passengers will continue to use a dreary annex built in 1975, when Park Service officials turned the main station into a tourist-information bureau. The National Visitor Center, both conceptually and physically a bust, was closed in 1981. Soon the place was overrun by bums, rats, pigeons, toadstools.

For the first several decades of its existence, Union Station was a wonder, a glowing masterwork of civic architecture that the authorities maintained and everybody used. Its redemption today is salutary not just as an example of impeccable restoration but also as a reminder that in this age of retrenchment and diminished dreams, ambitious federal public works can still amount to something more than strategic-weapons systems and superhighways.

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