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Washington DC Union Station: Celebrating a landmark's past, present, and future

Located on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, DC Union Station welcomes millions of visitors from around the country and around the world.
Located on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, DC Union Station welcomes millions of visitors from around the country and around the world.
David Kriso

Friday, March 14th couldn’t have been a more beautiful day to board an Amtrak train. The temperature was perfect for riding the rails. For forty-nine degrees, it was the ideal weather for strolling around the nation’s capital. It was such a beautiful day. The weather couldn’t have been better for visiting one of the most gorgeous railroad terminals in the United States.

Beverly Swaim-Staley, President and CEO-Union Station Redevelopment Corporation
David Kriso

Washington, DC Union Station was completed in October of 1907. Like all historical monuments around the DC area, Washington, DC Union Station was designed by Daniel H. Burnham to stand as a monument as well. Built of white granite from Bethel, Vermont, the station’s architecture set the standard for construction of the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Federal Triangle, the Supreme Court Building, and the National Gallery of Art. In the 1970s, Union Station was in the worst state of disrepair imaginable. Its ceiling was caving in. The clock in the station’s main hall stopped working. Worst of all, there were mushrooms and mold growing on the walls and in the floors. For a building once so glorious, Washington, DC Union Station was infamously referred to as a “public embarrassment”.

In 1981, Congress took action. Congress passed the Union Station Redevelopment Act. The project was to restore and preserve Union Station as a national treasure. The Department of Transportation was put to the task of devising a plan that would enable Union Station to financially support its continued operation. In August 1986, ground was broken to begin the restoration of Washington, DC Union Station. In late September 1988, Washington, DC Union Station was re-opened to the public. Union Station was once again a train station, and then some. Union Station is home to 210,000 square feet of retail space and 50,000 square feet of restaurant space. In addition, Amtrak occupies 10,000 square feet of office space for its corporate headquarters.

Washington, DC Union Station is truly an architectural wonder. Fortunately, there is a lot more to Union Station than what meets the eye. It was best to speak with someone who had the inside scoop and a wealth of information about Union Station. Ms. Beverly Swaim-Staley, the president and CEO of the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, couldn’t have been happier to share some key facts about Union Station’s everyday operations. Ms. Swaim-Staley joined the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation in 2012. As president, her primary responsibility is the development and implementation of a comprehensive master plan for Union Station.

On Friday, March 14th, she had the opportunity to discuss an array of information about Washington, DC Union Station. Upon arrival at Washington, DC Union Station, it was just amazing to see the non-stop swarms of passengers, for both Amtrak and commuter companies MARC and VRE. Ms. Swaim-Staley was asked how many passengers and patrons walk through the doors of Washington, DC Union Station on a daily basis. “Union Station handles 30,000 commuters daily, and 7,000-8,000 intercity bus passengers daily.” The numbers she shared about Amtrak’s passenger volume was even more astounding. Ms. Swaim-Staley said, “Union Station handles 100,000 Amtrak passengers a day, and 30 million passengers on a yearly basis.” She added, “Union Station is the second largest train station in the United States, and it has the busiest Metro station with 65,000 movements daily”. Given those numbers, one can easily comprehend the complexity of such a busy transportation center. That is just the tip of the iceberg.

Shortly later, the major details came about. Ms. Swaim-Staley was asked what reactions are shared with her by passengers and visitors. She candidly answered, “People love the station. Many people who I meet every day tell stories about it. We even have the number one bike rental here at Union Station, with an average of 400 daily rentals.”. She further added, “We even rent the East Hall for weddings.”. The question that had to be asked was what made developers want to build a mall inside Union Station, instead of a hotel. She was very straight forward in her answer. “In 1981, Congress passed the Union Station Redevelopment Act. The Department of Transportation took over the station from the National Park Service. The National Park Service let the station slip into the disrepair which many remember so well.”. She added, “The Department of Transportation then leased the building to us, the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, which is a non-profit corporation.”. All in all, it has taken a massive consorted effort, to turn Washington, DC Union Station into a full-functioning transportation center as seen today.

As the interview continued, the wealth of information continued to be shared. Ms. Swim-Staley was asked the simple question as to what goes into keeping a glorious train station like Washington, DC Union Station looking so sharp, given the fact that artists from the turn of the century are hard to be found in present day. She answered, “We now have historic preservers, historic plasterers, and even guilders who put in hundreds of hours of research and effort into making Union Station look as sharp as it did in 1907. When working with a train station that’s over 100 years old, you need those kinds of skilled workers to keep a piece of American history alive.”. She then added, “American Express donated $300,000.00 through a grant to the National Trust for Historical Preservation for the 23 karat solid gold to be used in restoring the station’s 96 foot high vaulted ceiling.”.

As we all know, the August 2011 earthquake caused some significant damage to many buildings in Washington, DC. There was a significant amount of ceiling damage in Union Station. Plaster crumbled from the ceiling and the gold plating cracked and fell to the floor, making the preservation of the station once again a top priority. Union Station is undergoing a three-year restoration project, re-plastering the ceiling and replacing the solid gold plating. There is also a twenty-year plan in place to allow hotels and other high rise structures to be built. It is exactly the same development concept that has taken place in New York City, building over the tracks at Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station.

With the many thousands of Amtrak, commuter rail, intercity bus, and Metro subway commuters that walk in and out of Washington, DC Union Station’s doors on a daily basis, there has to be plans for updating and expanding the boarding areas. Ms. Swaim-Staley was asked that very question. Her response was never so intriguing. She responded, “Amtrak has a seven billion dollar renovation project to start in the near future. Even though the current boarding area was completed in 1988, passenger volume has risen. It’s a bit narrow for current use and awfully cramped.”. She was then asked how her administration views Washington, DC Union Station, as a train station, as a historic landmark, and as a well known tourist destination. Her response was fascinating. “We see Union Station as three-fold picture. We are stewards of the train station. It is our mission to maintain the train station’s structural integrity, maintain it as a full multi-modal transportation center, and also a successful commercial enterprise”. She then added an even more amazing hint of information when she said, “There will be up to 100,000 school children visiting Union Station within the next three months on school field trips.”.

As the interview progressed, it seemed as if Washington, DC Union Station’s resume has more than meets the eye. Ms. Swaim-Staley was asked a challenging question. She was asked, “If you could put Washington, DC Union Station over all the historic train stations in the United States, what descriptions would you give it?”. She was also asked if there were any advantages the train station has over other historic terminals, and any disadvantages if applicable. Ms. Swim-Staley replied, “Union Station has recently been named by Travel & Leisure Magazine as one of the top three most beautiful train stations in the United States.”. For a train station over 100 years old, that is without a doubt, a well-deserved honor. As for the disadvantages, Ms. Swaim-Staley provided a very positive view on the matter. She couldn’t have said it better that “It takes a lot of maintenance, love, care, and money to keep Union Station in good shape. The station is also dealing with a congestion issue, with the continuous rise in passenger volume.”.

The second to last question was about whether the station looks any sharper before or after the August 2011 earthquake. She was asked for her overall reaction. She said, “Most definitely it’s going to look a whole lot sharper once the earthquake restoration is complete. The plaster and gold used in the restoration is of a higher quality. Once the work is complete, the plaster and gold will hold their true form for a 75-100 year span.”.

The final question asked to Ms. Swaim-Staley, was in regards to her impressions of what Washington, DC Union Station signifies to her. In other words, she was asked if there are characteristics which passengers and visitors from around the country and around the world should take better notice to. Very candidly she responded, “That is a very deep question. To answer it in the very best way, Union Station is a blending of the past, present, and the future of transportation.” She added, “Union Station is an architectural wonder and a prime example of preservation.” Finally, she said, “Being the stewards of such a beautiful building, my administration and I see it as being a viable and vibrant transportation center that serves the needs of today’s travelers.”.

Washington, DC is one of the cities frequently visited by millions from both around the country and the world. The one building where every Amtrak passenger’s story begins and ends is at Washington, DC Union Station. A building so rich in history and a transportation icon so prominent deserves to be at the very heart of every Amtrak passenger’s must-do list. For more than 100 years, this grand train station has stood the test of time. It has been the site of presidential funerals, hundreds of weddings, and the site of vacation memories cherished by millions of visitors. As shared by Beverly Swaim-Staley, Washington, DC Union Station is more than just a buzzing Amtrak terminal. It is a “viable and vibrant transportation center that serves the needs of today’s travelers”. More importantly, it is an architectural wonder and a prime example of historical preservation with a rich past, present, and bright future.

Union Station stands out as an example that depicts how Washington, DC has developed as one of the world’s most beloved cities. Our nation’s capital becoming what it is today, is a tribute to that beautiful train station on Massachusetts Avenue. Like all the well-known historical structures in the DC area, Union Station is truly more than a train station. It is a monument which depicts the evolution of our country’s transportation culture, while commemorating the millions of treasured vacation experiences in the nation’s capital.

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