History of Union Station

Historical Facts and Anecdotes  |  Architectural & Design Facts
Restoration Facts  |  Union Station Today  |  Photo Album

Historical Facts and Anecdotes

  • On September 29, 1988, Union Station reopened its doors with a gala celebration. A public/private partnership funded the $160 million restoration of the Station per legislation enacted by Congress in 1981 to preserve Union Station as a national treasure. It was the largest, most complex public/private restoration project ever attempted in the United States.
  • On September 28, 1988, LaSalle Partners/Union Station Venture hosted a gala to celebrate the re-opening of the Station and to benefit the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
  • In honor of the nation's bicentennial, Union Station was designated as a National Visitor Center. The Center opened on July 4, 1976 and featured an elaborate audiovisual experience, a national bookstore, a hall of flags and multi-lingual information booths. The center closed two years later because it failed to draw sufficient crowds to sustain its operation.
  • In 1961, as a testament to the strength of the Station's design and construction, a civilian firm surveying the Washington, DC area buildings determined that Union Station could serve as a fallout shelter for hundreds on an extended basis and thousands in an emergency. One key location was a deep, heavily pillared storage area originally designated as a swimming pool and steam room for affluent railroad patrons.
  • On January 15, 1953, the Federal Express train, out of control on Track 16, crashed through a newsstand and into the main concourse of Union Station. Miraculously, no one was killed. Thanks to a tower crewmember located about a mile from Union Station who had been able to warn the stationmaster's office that a runaway train was on its way, the concourse was cleared in two and a half minutes. Although the floor collapsed under the locomotive, 96 hours later, at 8:00 a.m., an Eisenhower inaugural special train rolled to a stop on Track 16 into a concourse that showed little evidence of the accident.
  • On November 29, 1951, 19 special trains pulled out of Union Station bound for Philadelphia, carrying 25,000 fans to the annual Army-Navy football contest. President Truman's special train included his private car, two dining cars, a club car and cars for Cabinet members and reporters.
  • On May 31, 1946, the Union Station's Serviceman's Canteen closed. It had served an average of 3 million customers annually since it opened in December 1941. The canteen was open 24 hours a day and operated with a five-cent top price on every food item it sold, including soup, milk, sandwiches, ice cream and soft drinks.
  • On April 14, 1945, a funeral train crossed the Potomac and backed into Union Station carrying the casket of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
  • In 1937, between 35,000 and 42,000 travelers swarmed through Union Station's vast concourse on a daily basis.
  • During World War I, troops were mobilized through Union Station, and many prominent women worked in the Station's canteen, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. It was reported that Mrs. Wilson had kept her husband, the President, waiting for her outside the Station, until she had finished her duties at the canteen.
  • On January 23, 1911, J.P. Morgan broke the fast train speed record for the trip between Union Station and New York City by making the 226.8-mile trip in a special train in three hours, 55 minutes and thirty seconds. Mr. Morgan's train beat the record by one hour and four minutes and thirty seconds.
  • In 1909, President Taft was the first president to use the Presidential Suite. Over the years, many famous dignitaries were officially greeted in these rooms, including King George VI, Queen Elizabeth of England, King Albert of the Belgians, King Prajadipok of Siam, Queen Marie of Rumania, and King Hassan II of Morocco.
  • The exterior of the Station was built of white granite from Bethel, Vermont. Although there were limitless quantities of the material, it had not previously been used for the construction of buildings. After his only son had been killed in a terrible railroad crossing accident, the owner of the quarry vowed that as long as he lived, the material would never be used for anything but tombstones. When the property passed to other hands after his death, Bethel granite was introduced as a building material. Union Station was the first major structure built of Bethel granite.
  • On October 27, 1907, Union Station officially opened at 6:50 a.m., when the Baltimore and Ohio Pittsburgh Express pulled into the Station. The Station was ultimately completed in 1908.

Architectural & Design Facts

  • In 1903, Daniel H. Burnham, Director of Works, principal architect of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, was chosen to design Union Station. He modeled the Station in the monumental Beaux-Arts style and after the Baths of Caraculla and Diocletian and the triumphal Arch of Rome. Union Station's arches symbolize its primary function as a gateway.
  • The white granite and classic lines of Union Station set the mode for Washington's classic monumental architecture for the next 40 years through the construction of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Federal Triangle, the Supreme Court Building and the National Gallery of Art.
  • The original construction of the Station cost more than $25 million; the cost to construct the Station building alone was $4 million. During the construction, Italian laborers were hired and were lodged in camp cars.
  • Ionic columns, chiseled inscriptions, and the allegorical sculpture mark Union Station�s neoclassical facade. Niches in the facade of the main entrance hold carved figures representing fire, electricity, agriculture and mechanics, each weighing 25 tons.
  • All woodwork in the Station, including the suites of terminal offices, booths, counters, and seats, was solid mahogany.
  • The Main Hall, or Head House in railroad terminology, measures 120 feet by 119 feet, and features a 96 foot high, barrel vault with a decorative, coffered plaster ceiling. Standing around the ledge of the balcony is 36 figures of Roman legionnaires hollow cast in plaster with sand finish. The figures were originally cast as nudes, but railroad officials, fearing the public would be offended, ordered shields be strategically placed on each statue. The shields remain in place today, a faithful preservation of the original.
  • On either side of the restaurant in the Main Hall are free standing marble planters, each weighing about 10 tons.
  • The hexagonal coffers are decorated with egg and dart molding, and gold leafing can be found in and around the coffers. More than 70 pounds of gold leafing was used in the restoration. The ceiling and the alcoves on either side of the Main Hall were originally painted to match the masonry sidewalls, finished in white granite to match the exterior building stone.
  • The columns in the East Hall are made of scagliola, an elaborate imitation of ornamental marble made by mixing finely ground gypsum with glue and colors. Scagliola was used in the original construction as a cost-saving measure. The 1988 restoration was actually more costly than it would have been to replace the scagliola with real marble.
  • The East Hall and the Columbus Club feature elaborate Pompeii-style traceries on walls and ceilings. These traceries are colorful, detailed stencils meticulously replicated from the originals using black-and-white photographs and paint chips scraped from original walls. Designs are of fish, griffins, fruit, and geometric designs.
  • There are eight kiosks and two galleries in the East Hall. The retail concept was to provide unique and interesting stores to complement the historical elements and architecture of the Hall.
  • The Presidential Suite, liberated from beneath several dozen layers of white paint, has been beautifully restored to its original design. The walls are painted to resemble the faux leather and faux mahogany used as cost-saving measures in the original construction. The Suite also features elaborate polychromatic stencil designs and replicas of the presidential eagle. The Suite is shaped like the White House Oval Office.
  • The large clock in the Main Hall just over the entrance to the East Hall features "IIII" where the Roman numeral "IV" usually is. The clock has been faithfully restored and the "IIII" has been kept. The original working of the clock could not be restored and was replaced with quartz workings, which are tied into the Station's master clock.
  • Over 2.5 acres of marble were used in the restoration, replicating the original. In the 1950's, the white marble squares had worn down below the level of the pink squares, causing a safety problem, and the marble was replaced in its entirety with terrazzo, a material popular at that time. The pink marble used in the 1988 restoration came from the same quarry used in the original construction.
  • The antique train gates in the Train Concourse are the original gates from the 1907 structure.

Restoration Facts

  • Congress enacted the Union Station Redevelopment Act of 1981 to preserve Union Station as a national treasure. The Department of Transportation (DOT) was charged with developing a plan that would enable the Station to financially support its continued operation.
  • Then Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole created the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation to oversee the restoration.
  • After two years of negotiation, a public/private partnership was formed between the government, Union Station Venture, Ltd., an industry team composed of three firms: LaSalle Partners Limited (Chicago) Co-Developer and General Manager of Union Station; Williams Jackson Ewing Inc., Co-Developer and Retail Leasing Specialists; and Benjamin Thompson & Associates (Boston) Architects.
  • Union Station is the largest, most complex public/private restoration project ever attempted in the United States.
  • The restoration took two years, with groundbreaking on August 13, 1986 and the re-opening on September 29, 1988.
  • The $160 million restoration was funded by a number of sources. Amtrak contributed $76 million, Union Station Venture, Ltd. contributed $42 million, and the District of Columbia government purchased the renovated parking garage for $10 million.

Union Station Today

  • The $160 million restoration and revitalization of Union Station was undertaken without any congressional appropriation.
  • Total retail space: more than 210,000 square feet, including 50,000 square feet of restaurant space.
  • Office space: 100,000 square feet, used by Amtrak for its corporate headquarters.
  • Amtrak passenger/baggage facilities and public space: 200,000 square feet.
  • More than 90,000 visitors pass through Union Station's doors daily.
  • More than 100 specialty shops on three levels selling a variety items from jewelry and apparel to gifts and boutique items and much more. (Please See Directory)
  • There are more than 35 establishments offering international cuisine and six full service restaurants: America, B. Smith's, Center Cafe, East Street Cafe, Pizzeria Uno, The Station Grill and Thunder Grill.
  • Union Station also offers a multitude of services including shoe repair, a pharmacy, car rental services, florist, 24-hour automatic teller machines, photo processing, gourmet delicatessen, and foreign currency exchange.
  • Validated parking is available for 1,400 cars, buses and recreational vehicles.
  • Since its reopening in 1988, Union Station has hosted major cultural and civic events, including 70 major dinners and charitable benefits in the Main Hall; including five Presidential Inaugural Balls and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's 70th Birthday dinner. In its first three years of operation, Union Station has hosted more than 1,000 events at the Columbus Club, and a variety of free concerts, art and photography exhibits and other activities.