Image by Beau Finley used with permission.

American train stations are great expositions of art in public places. Washington’s Union Station is one of the grandest examples of this, and it typifies early 20th Century ideals in urban planning.

Image by JY O’Reilly used with permission.

Rail service at the Baltimore & Potomac Station

Union Station was not the original train station for the District of Columbia. In 1870, Congress approved the Baltimore & Potomac Station, located where the National Gallery of Art stands today. The location of the train station, like many other aspects of 19th Century Washington, blatantly disregarded Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for the city.

There have been rail facilities near the Mall since the 1830s, but the B&P Station was particularly unpopular. The building boasted a gothic design and showed the city’s modernity, but the train shed, coal piles, and smoke pollution near the Mall was unsavory. The train station’s bad reputation peaked in 1881, when Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield while he was trying to catch a train.

Image by Jordan Barab used with permission.

The City Beautiful movement and the McMillan Plan

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, incidentally, helped spell the end of the B&P Station. There, the architect and planner Daniel Burnham directed an exhibit that revolutionized Americans' idea of what cities could be as an advocate of the City Beautiful movement.

Burnham advocated for parks and public spaces in particular. He designed many of America’s early skyscrapers such as the Rookery Building in Chicago and the Flatiron Building in New York. In line with thinking of the Progressive Era, Burnham’s vision of cities sought to embrace democracy and order, but Burnham also had grandiose plans and European influence.

Image by JY O’Reilly used with permission.

Burnham helped reimagine cities all around the world including a beautification and preservation plan for Manila after the Spanish American War, the partially implemented Cleveland Group Plan of 1903, and the mostly unimplemented Haussman-esque Plan of Chicago and Plan for San Francisco.

In 1901, the McMillan Plan aimed to revitalize Washington, DC and reimagine L’Enfant’s original vision for the city. Burnham, along with Charles McKim, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frederick L. Olmsted, and Charles Moore, formed the commission that oversaw the new plans for the city.

Image by Jordan Barab used with permission.

In the spirit of the Founding Fathers, McMillan and his colleagues chose the classically-influenced Beaux-Arts architectural style to represent the reimagined L’Enfant plan. The commission also incorporated influence from great European cities such as Paris and Vienna.

When the McMillan Commission recommended building a new train station to replace the B&P Station, Burnham and his colleagues used it as an opportunity to create a grand design according to these ideals.

Image by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

Beaux-Arts and the architecture of Union Station

In 1901, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroads announced that a new station would replace B&P. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a law supporting the construction of the station, and in 1908, Union Station was open for service. To the delight of residents, the B&P Station and the tracks on the Mall were promptly removed.

Union Station utilized a Beaux-Arts style, which Burnham helped popularize the architecture style in the United States at the Columbian Exposition. Named for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France, it was an eclectic late 19th and early 20th Century style, representing a grandiose neo-classicism. The style often included Greco-Roman elements, such as columns, arches, vaults, and domes. Indeed, the Arch of Constantine in Rome served as the primary inspiration for Union Station’s design.

The Arch of Constantine  served as inspiration for the architecture at Union Station. It was erected to commemorate Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. Image by Daniel Chodusov licensed under Creative Commons.

The ornamentation in Burnham’s vision was elaborate, using marble and thousands of gold leaf sheets on the main hall (restored only in the last couple years). The main hall itself is huge, measuring 96 feet in height and 600 feet in length.

Multiple avenues radiate from the station, allowing vistas of it from multiple directions, with the Columbus Fountain in the middle. The radiating street grid in particular was a nod to the earlier styles of the L’Enfant Plan. Frederick Law Olmstead Junior designed the landscape around the station, while Augustus Saint-Gaudens designed the sculptures.

Union Station’s opulence was hardly a waste, however, as during its peak, nearly 200,000 people traveled there daily.

Union Station arch. Image by buoscio nworks used with permission.

Decline and revival

While the first half of the 20th Century was the golden age of American train stations, the second half saw their precipitous decline. With the rise of the Interstate Highway System and jet travel, passenger rail became increasingly irrelevant in American life.

Nothing symbolized this quite as much as the 1963 destruction of the original New York Penn Station. Much like Washington’s Union Station, it encompassed great Greco-Roman designs on a grand scale, but railroad executives opted to raze the building for easy cash. Union Station luckily did not suffer as horrible a fate (although it was considered), but the station fell into disrepair during the subsequent decades.

The federal government attempted to rebrand the station as the National Visitor Center in the 1970s. The Visitor Center idea was a failure, and by 1978, the National Park Service had to close the station due to the station’s poor structural conditions.

Image by Jordan Barab used with permission.

Considering the station’s poor condition, making it usable for train service again was no small feat. Congress passed the Union Station Redevelopment Act of 1981, which created the largest public-private partnership in the United States at the time. Beyond the massive restoration plan, Union Station also benefited from the new Washington Metro and the restoration of rail commuter service to the DC region.

Although the restoration suffered bumps along the way (such as the 2011 earthquake,) the revival of Union Station has been spectacular. Today, Union Station has over five million Amtrak riders alone, making it the second busiest train station in the country. As passenger train service continues to rebound, Amtrak is looking to further modernize the station in order to triple passenger capacity in the next 20 years.

Union Station continues to stand the testament of time combining train travel, retail, and architecture.

Image by Trish N licensed under Creative Commons.

And perhaps most impressively, what other train station can offer a view like this?

This post has been updated to reflect that there were rail stations near the Mall since the 1830s, but tracks did not run down the middle.

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Stephen Hudson resides in Southwest DC — the fourth quadrant he has lived in. He works for a government relations firm and has previous experience with transportation policy at a trade association. His professional interests include transportation and infrastructure, foreign languages, and comparative international politics. The views expressed are his own.