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Union Station Main Hall redesign is close, but not quite right

The Main Hall at Washington Union Station is undergoing a redesign that will eliminate the Center Cafe, punch holes in the floor for escalators to the lower level food court, and change the room's furniture layout.

The proposed redesign. Image by USRCDC.

The comment period for the redesign proposal ends tomorrow, so now is the time for anyone interested to take a look and send in comments. Update: the comment period has been extended to November 15.

The gold-trimmed Main Hall is a fantastic and beautiful civic space, recent scaffolding aside. It's one of the best Beaux Arts rooms in America, and is lively with visitors through long hours of the day and night. It's a space that is working very well already, so any changes need to be carefully considered.

The hall was temporarily ruined by a poorly-conceived redesign in the 1970s. If project architects get too carried away with changes, the same could happen again.

The good news is that the redesign being proposed now is relatively restrained. That wasn't always the case. The first proposal back in 2010 would have overwhelmed the historic character of the Main Hall with a clashing metal and glass structure in the center of the room. Two years later, the new proposal is a lot better. It makes less significant changes, and leaves the aesthetic focus of the hall where it belongs, on the world-class Beaux Arts features.

The proposed escalators down to the food court are a little troubling, because punching holes in the floor of such a grand space sounds very similar to the 1970s mistake. On the other hand, without the Center Cafe in that space the Main Hall may seem too large, maybe even a little barren. There needs to be something in about that location that breaks up the floor mass. Both the raised cafe and holes for escalators would be too much, but one or the other is just about right.

The escalators will also improve circulation in the station, and add a new reason for visitors to go through the Main Hall.

The 2010 escalator proposal was garish and inappropriate, but this new redesign is subdued enough that the benefits it brings are worth the trade-offs.

Except for the signs. The signs are awful.

The escalator proposal also includes a pair of vertical signs, sticking out from the holes in the Main Hall floor and up in to the middle of the room. This is actually a great idea, because a vertical element fills the huge room volume a bit, and something near the center of the hall adds a focal point. Unfortunately, the design of the signs themselves is all wrong.

Take a look:

Rendering of the proposed redesign, showing large LED signs. Image by USRCDC.

Talk about clashing!

LED signs that look like they came straight from a suburban strip mall aren't right for one of the most famous Beaux Arts rooms in America. A vertical element that incorporates signs would be good there, but the design needs to be improved.

A better option would be to go with something dignified and ornate, that stands out but also works with the room's historic character. Something like an iron street lamp with a banner attached would look great, and be far more appropriate for the context.

For more details on the proposed redesign, visit the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation. If you want to comment you can use the form on that site, but be sure to get your thoughts in by Thursday, October 25 November 15.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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Wow, definitely better than now and the earlier redesign. But good lord are those signs hideous.

I like removing the center cafe - it's always perturbed me wildly that you have that booth underneath labeled "information" that provides no such thing, and is in fact just a stall now for a private trolley vendor. Opening up the space will make a huge difference.

Along similar lines, are there any plans to remove the awful retail in between the main hall and the weird mall? Like the Godiva shop that people are walking through now to get to their trains. I understand that a lot of the inconvenience is due to the ongoing repairs, but in the long-term, it really does belittle that vestibule-type space to just stick a bunch of shops directly in walking paths. And don't even get me started on the awful floor plan and layout of everything around the food court pit.

by WMATA Rage on Oct 24, 2012 1:01 pm • linkreport" alt="Union Station">

I don't know. Doesn't look too barren to me.

by TM on Oct 24, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

Ok, I guess I don't know how to add photos to comments. Can anyone instruct me?

by TM on Oct 24, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

Any idea why they rejected the style of signage in alternatives 12(a) to 12(e)

by Nose Straw on Oct 24, 2012 1:14 pm • linkreport

There's nobody walking in that picture, and only a few sitting. It's pretty devoid of activity and use by actual people. That's barren.

by Dan Malouff on Oct 24, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

Just put back the original long benches and no holes in the floor of the Great Hall!

by GWalum on Oct 24, 2012 1:18 pm • linkreport

@Dan Malouff @TM

I mean, as WMATA would say, that's "just a snapshot in time." What time of day is it? What year is it? What is the train schedule for that day? If the only criteria against "barrenness" is the presence of people, then there's no way that Union Station would ever be barren nowadays.

I happen to think that that picture actually restores some grandeur and community to the station, and wouldn't mind a return to that.

by WMATA Rage on Oct 24, 2012 1:20 pm • linkreport

Was Rebecca Miller consulted for this piece?

by Jazzy on Oct 24, 2012 1:22 pm • linkreport

I like the plan for teh most part. Bring back the historic looking long benches with individual seats in earlier plans (11a). I see the proposed flat benches being used as beds.

by keithdcil on Oct 24, 2012 1:52 pm • linkreport

The suggestion about a historically sensitive signpost is spot-on. But rather than looking to the Taft Bridge for inspiration, I'd stay a bit closer to home. Here are two ideas:

1) The columns on the train platforms

2) The longship lampposts, which may have been erected for Columbus Circle rather than the train station.

by b-in-DC on Oct 24, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

Dan, due to the long exposure, there are more people there than it appears. Also, if the definition of barren is: how many people are around, I don't see what impact the changes would have. Instead of tourists taking the escalators by the ticket office, they'll use the new ones. Since they mostly walk through the main hall to get to the current escalators, why would the change make a difference?

This change has absolutely nothing to do about improving the Main Hall. It's all about getting more mouths to the depressing food court below.

by TM on Oct 24, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

Sure that picture could be from late at night or something, but besides the lack of people in it there are other reasons why a more open floor plan creates a better public space there.

I've been in plenty of stations that have those old high-back wooden benches, and I don't like them. A bunch of 5-foot-tall benches lined up like that functionally turns the grand big space into a bunch of narrow hallways, with much less opportunity to see or interact with anything other than people sitting on benches. It's a less flexible, less public layout. Instead of a bunch of criss-crossing activity you just get people sitting quietly.

Secondly, since the actual train platforms have now moved well behind this room, along with the services people waiting for trains are most interested in using (convenience shops & bathrooms), it's unlikely very many people would actually choose to wait for trains in the Main Hall.

I want Union Station to be as vital as possible, and I don't think there's anything magical about rows of high-back benches. I wouldn't mind a small number of them, but covering the room with them would be a big step back.

by Dan Malouff on Oct 24, 2012 2:07 pm • linkreport

Didn't USRC recently hire Lance Wyman's firm to design new signage for Union Station?

Hopefully those signs are just flourishes in the architect's renderings that are outside of the scope of this project.

Also, even though its current function is sub-optimal, I like the Center Cafe. It breaks up the space. That said, the most recent rending is pretty decent.

My one complaint is that there really should be some kind of information kiosk or directional signage in the room for visitors entering through the front door. Heck, the departures board is facing the wrong way! Why would you hang that over the exit? Seems like a very poor compromise of form versus function. At the end of the day, Union Station is still a train station.

Now, how about the East Hall? Has anybody figured out what to do with that space, or some ideas to make the basement feel a bit less dated? The most recent string of improvements to the food court did very little to improve the ambiance of the space.

by andrew on Oct 24, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

it's unlikely very many people would actually choose to wait for trains in the Main Hall.

I do, mainly because the departure lounge sucks, and because the dining options up front are a bit better. It's like they designed the waiting area to ease the transition for passengers arriving from NY Penn Station....

by andrew on Oct 24, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

I like your comments, esspecially how discordant the signs are. I would expand that criticism to the holes in the ground. They belong in a 1970's mall. Why not coordinate the openings with the architecture stylistically? They could have railings in keeping with the great hall upper floors and be more orthogonal like the floor plan. But I'm glad they aren't going for the glass and steel sculpture that will look dated by next year.

by Thayer-D on Oct 24, 2012 2:18 pm • linkreport

If you click through to the proposal pdf there are several pages with details and additional of exactly how the signs will work. I don't think they're supposed to be placeholders.

by Dan Malouff on Oct 24, 2012 2:24 pm • linkreport

andrew wrote:
My one complaint is that there really should be some kind of information kiosk or directional signage in the room for visitors entering through the front door. Heck, the departures board is facing the wrong way! Why would you hang that over the exit?
Actually, there is an info desk (made of components to allow removal during Main Hall private functions, it seems) right in the center. I suspect they kept its profile low -- i.e., no roof & clock as at Grand Central info desk -- to avoid visually obstructing the Amtrak sign beyond.

And the Amtrak sign is on the north wall (above Godiva, more or less), as it should be.

by 20002ist on Oct 24, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

I don't understand getting rid of the center cafe? It is a logical meeting place (like the clock at Grand Central) and fits in with the station.

by beatbox on Oct 24, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

And what is the purpose of all those benches? What is really needed is a redesign of the Amtrak waiting area. These benches will be unused and just get in the way of traffic.

by beatbox on Oct 24, 2012 3:04 pm • linkreport

beatbox, I think the (legitimate) knock on the Center Cafe is that it's a) a visual obstruction b) with a purely private purpose rather than a useful public function. You have to admit that it's pretty bizarre to have an elevated restaurant & tourist trolley stand there instead of the clock (above equally useful info desk) that graces Grand Central.

by 20002ist on Oct 24, 2012 3:31 pm • linkreport

Won't the escalators in the center of the Main hall lead down to where the movie theater space is, not the current food court? The movie theater space is where the café, several restaurants, and from the signs additional retail stores will go, correct?

As for the overall layout, looks fine to me. I agree that the pillar signs at the escalators really don't fit the look of the main hall, but they are prominently featured in the September presentation. They also need to move several of the retail stores between the main hall and the Amtrak ticket counter area, because the current arrangement makes people hunt around looking for a way through.

by AlanF on Oct 24, 2012 3:52 pm • linkreport

WTF are they thinking with those digital signs?

I am definitely in favor of keeping Center Cafe. To me it perfectly compliments such a massive, grand hall and a train station is one of the only types of places to see such an interesting spot to have a drink or bite to eat. It is unique!

The new proposal to me is utterly boring and a step backwards, I'm glad they just extended the comment period to November 15.

by Campy on Oct 24, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

AlanF, for depiction of proposed lower-level floor plan in relation to escalators, see the 2011 slides (12MB PDF: starting at page 42.

by 20002ist on Oct 24, 2012 4:34 pm • linkreport

Why did they switch from the older escalator openings with the wood and brass to the current pillar of light idea?

by gooch on Oct 24, 2012 5:43 pm • linkreport

What about a damn elevator actually what about 3 or 4 throughout the entire station. There should be one on the western end of the building, middle and on the eastern end and they should all not be in some hidden corridor

by kk on Oct 24, 2012 5:53 pm • linkreport

I've often thought that the train waiting area at Union Station is *way* too small for the traffic it gets. On a late Friday afternoon, with people lined up all over the place to get out of town on Amtrak for the weekend and commuters dashing for the MARC, the place is utter chaos. Isn't there any way to expand that space into the area where the ticket sales are now? Could a few shops be relocated to make it happen? Imagine if we had all that space in the Main Hall to line up for trains!

by Greenbelt Gal on Oct 24, 2012 6:30 pm • linkreport

It's unseemly to even -begin- to think about inviting those scoundrels to upend the bel étage before we get over our grief about the way they replaced the food court's lovely old maroon-mottled tile (which maintained the building's theme) and replaced it with that incongruous brown and tan stuff.

by Turnip on Oct 24, 2012 6:44 pm • linkreport

Why are they redeveloping that area at all? If there is just money burning a hole in someones pocket they should focus on tackling the completely inadequate seating in the waiting area.

by Alan B on Oct 24, 2012 9:12 pm • linkreport

@Greenbelt Gal, search the posts and subsequent long discussions on GGW starting in late July on the Master Plan for Union station that was released back then. The plan is to build a new much larger and modern concourse area in stages on the north side of the station over the next 10-15 years. Very aggressive plan to expand the capacity of Union station to be able to handle future growth in Amtrak, MARC, VRE passenger numbers.

As for why reconfigure the main hall, the new escalators will allow the movie theater space which is now unused to be turned into new high value retail space to generate more revenue for the station. The additional revenue may help with getting the funds for rebuilding the concourse end of the station.

by AlanF on Oct 24, 2012 11:34 pm • linkreport

Any official who releases a plan with those signs as part of the proposal clearly has no business being involved in designing a 7/11, let alone this building of great national importance.

by MikeR on Oct 25, 2012 10:48 am • linkreport

Although I am sure there would ultimately be more signage, the pylons as shown make it look like there's nothing but shopping ahead. Any traveler entering via the front doors might appreciate equal billing for "This way to the trains".

by DC20009 on Oct 25, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

I am not really surprised by this proposal and the comments but, but I had two thoughts while I was reading.

For the people who argue that its a great grand public space that needs to be a lot like the original, including nothing being placed on the floor to block its grandness and circulation. It think this is ok, but The actual useful grandness was lost whenever they modified the building to be a mall and crammed all the actual train related areas to the back. If we want the space to actually be grand let's go back to Daniel Burnham's design and everyone will love it.

For the people who think the mall is great and the station works well who hate the escalators, I think this is just another adaptation to space. It'll probably make the space easier to use and actually make the hall more usable and visited.

I find a solution with no middle ground to be the most appealing. Either restore the whole thing or modernize and adapt for what it has become. Frankenstein ins't a good model towards adapting a building.

by Matthew on Oct 25, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

A few pieces of information based on attendance at the several Section 106 historic preservation review meetings:

*Amtrak has vetoed seating with backs for security reasons.
*Most everything in the Main Hall is designed to be portable to allow the space to be rented out for large functions.
*Yes, the new escalators are primarily designed to provide access for the redevelopment of the former movie theater area but will also improve access to the lower level food court.
*Lance Wyman's firm is involved, to a degree, in the wayfinding effort associated with the new escalators.

by Steve Strauss on Oct 25, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

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