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Union Station, Washington, D.C.
Washington D.C.’s Union Station is a stylish reminder of America’s not-too-distant past.
The elegant Beaux-Arts railway station harkens back to an era when trains were not only the foremost mode of long-distance travel, but also the preferred means of travel chosen by presidents and movie stars.
Union Station’s designer, Daniel H. Burnham, was among America’s best known architects when he was hired for the project. Burnham had already built New York City’s Flatiron Building and Pittsburgh’s Frick Building; he had overseen the construction of the dazzling 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in his hometown of Chicago.
Burnham did not believe in “little plans,” and his work showed his admiration of Greece and Roman classical designs and structures.
When Union Station opened in 1907 (it was completed the following year) there was nothing little about it. From its 96-foot waiting room ceiling to the marble and white granite used in its construction, Union Station was a grand building and largest train station in the world.
When it opened, Union Station covered more ground—about 200 acres—than any other building in the country. Located only a few blocks away from the United States Capitol Building, tens of thousands of people passed through the station daily.
Burnham modeled the three main archways of Union Station on Rome’s Arch of Constantine and placed six allegorical statues honoring “The Progress of Railroading” above the graceful arches.
Another twenty-six centurians line the main hall, all were designed by Louis St. Gaudens.
With train travel being such a popular mode of transportation for everyone, including U.S. Presidents, a Presidential Suite where many dignitaries including Kings and Queens were officially welcomed was added in 1909. President Taft was first to use the Presidential Suite at Union Station and President Eisenhower the last until an inaugural Ball for George Bush in 1989. The room is now a restaurant.
After its busiest years during World War II, Union Station suffered from both the passage of time and the increasing dominance of the automobile and the airplane. As its cosmetic and structural problems worsened, the station was closed in 1981.
There was talk of razing the building. Luckily, a public/private partnership was formed to restore the station and to redevelop it for retail space. Three years of work and $160 million were all that it took to return the building to its former glory. The plan was to use it as a National Visitor Center run by the National Park Service, an unsuccessful project scuttled two years later.
A double-scale replica of the Liberty Bell—manufactured for the 1975-76 Freedom Train—stands in front of Union Station. Known as the Children's Freedom Bell, or just Freedom Bell, it was cast by Whitechapel Foundry, the same foundary in England that cast the original Liberty Bell—now at Independence National Historical Park in Philadlephia—and London's Big Ben.
Train whistles still echo in the terminus—Amtrak trains arrive and depart from the station, which also lodges the rail corporation’s headquarters. It's also one of the stops on the Red Line of the Washington D.C. Metro rail system. Many Washington D.C sightseeing tours originate at the station.
However, transportation is only part of what draws over 32 million visitors a year to Union Station. Today, the century-old landmark houses more than 100 stores and restaurants. Union Station is also the site of many special events, such as inaugural balls, galas, and exhibitions.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson