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Great Hall's new look could accentuate its past

Having spent most of my life in the DC area, I have a good stock of memories of things that I found particularly impressive or pleasing: Meridian Hill Park, rowhomes in Capitol Hill, the Tidal Basin, and seeing the Washington Monument at night have stuck, indelibly, in my head.

Photo by A. Strakey on Flickr.

Union Station is the train terminal for DC, and it's historic, too. It should be on my personal list of attractive, engaging sights. But when I rode Amtrak in and out last weekend, it was as unremarkable as ever. Unfortunately, the station was marked by dim lighting, low ceilings, an unattractive boarding area, and a Great Hall marred by an ill-lit and looming Center Cafe.

The plans put forth by the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation (USRC) massively shake up the space's current status quo. Housing Complex's Lydia DePillis reviewed the issue on Monday: The proposal includes a 1,300-square foot "hole" cut into the floor of the Great Hall. Elevators and stairs running through the "hole" will connect all three stories, and the Center Cafe will be elevated from its current height. Much of the design appears to use glass, which will make new structure less obtrusive.

Needless to say, this proposal is distinctly unlike the rest of Union Station, and DC's preservationist strongholds—including the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, the Committee of 100, and the DC Preservation League—are not pleased.

Dozens of comments were submitted in opposition to the proposal as part of the Historic Preservation Act's Section 106 public review process. The bulk of the comments aren't necessarily anti-change: Many express a desire to return the floorplan to one that recalls the station's appearance in the 1940's. This would require the complete removal of the Center Cafe and would move all ticketing to the Great Hall. The oft-repeated refrain in the public comments is that that's how Union Station was intended to be laid out, similar to other train stations of the era.

But, I think Union Station's redevelopment is a prime opportunity to seize hold of an innovative design, while integrating some of the space's more traditional aspects—and the USRC plan for the Great Hall's floor does just that. Train stations across the country look as they did in the early 20th century. Why does Union Station need to be just like Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, Denver's Union Station, or Los Angeles' Union Station?

This proposal retains most of Union Station's original qualities, such as its vaulted ceiling, vendor stands, and benches, while giving the center of the space a considerate and timely upgrade.

Current and proposed center cafe overlayed.
Image from Union Station Redevelopment Corporation.

All of the proposed changes for the Great Hall are well within the "non-historic floor". The glass structure will visually and physically open the space: It's slimmer than the existing Center Cafe platform, which should open up sightlines in what's currently a low-feeling, harsh space. The current Center Cafe doesn't draw a viewer's eye toward the vaulted ceiling, but a glass column probably would. It will improve handicap access and promises better signage. And, the glass and light should certainly enhance what's currently a rather dismal dining experience in the food court.

Though the DC Preservation League has taken Union Station's redevelopment plan as an opportunity to publicize their fundraising efforts via a contest with the National Trust for Historic Preservation's This Place Matters campaign, DePillis reports that the League doesn't have any plans for how they'd spend the money (and that they might spend it on projects unrelated to Union Station). Essentially, their campaign for the $25,000 unlimited grant is based on the fact that Union Station's growth and change should be stuck in the 1940s and 1950s.

Preservation does not need to be a process that relegates spaces merely to the way things once were. Instead, it should be a chance to smoothly combine what we do now with the way things once were. This "pit"—which bears little resemblance to the 1970s-era audio-visual display "pit" that the DC Preservation League and others operate in fear of—could give Union Station truly unique qualities that would stick in its visitors' heads.

A building's physical characteristics don't deserve to remain stagnant; preservation should be reflexive, honoring our past but incorporating the change of present. Union Station is a real, living space, not a memorial, and thousands of users engage with it daily. Instead of giving those users what any other train station could give them, why not take the opportunity to create a brand-new experience and an individual identity for Union Station?

Alex Baca holds B.A. degrees in English and American Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently pursuing a Master of Historic Preservation at the same institution. She works for Washington City Paper, but views here are her own. She lives near the U Street corridor and occasionally blogs at Good Hope


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There is much here we can agree upon. Even as author of the counterpoint piece opposing these changes, I can agree that taking away all the people and returning the hall to its 40s waiting room status would be bad. I even agree that the current center cafe could stand some improvement.

But that having been said, I think it is illuminating that even Alex cannot come up with any reason or defense for those holes in the ground.

by BeyondDC on Aug 26, 2010 10:43 am • linkreport

Aside from the holes in the ground, isn't the center cafe structure actually historic itself? Isn't it the actual remnants of the old ticket stand?

by steve on Aug 26, 2010 10:44 am • linkreport

Dan, I wrote this from a point of total agreement with the proposal—which means I think the holes in the ground are acceptable because of the reasons stated above (open space, light, visually engaging, etc.). I was viewing the holes as part and parcel of the design proposal, which I defended. I like them. I think they're different and would bring unique qualities to the Great Hall's space (as I think the whole redesign could).

The public comments demonstrated that the opposing parties were not in favor of the proposal because they'd like to see it restored as an early 20th-century train station. I doubt the Committee of 100 or the DC Preservation League would be in favor of a glass column, sans holes, either.

by alexbaca on Aug 26, 2010 10:50 am • linkreport

I agree with BDC, you make some good arguments why we shouldn't oppose all change but you fail to make much of an argument as to why this particular change is any good.

I think we're focused on the wrong part of Union Station. The Great Hall is fine. What is an abysmal mess is the actual train station part of Union Station. It is ugly and not functional. Lines back up down the concourse causing unnecessary crowding. This is no way to run a station. Why do we need to wait inside in the first place? It can't be security because plenty of stations along the north east corridor allow you to wait for your train on the platform. Why not at Union Station? Turn the concourse into an elegant waiting room, not a queue-staging area.

by Reid on Aug 26, 2010 10:52 am • linkreport

Train stations across the country look as they did in the early 20th century. Why does Union Station need to be just like Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, Denver's Union Station, or Los Angeles' Union Station?

That's primarily because we've demolished the ones that were built in the middle of the 20th century out of disgust. Need I say anything further than Penn Station? Yeech.

Union Station also happens to be in a *much* better state of repair than most 20th-century train stations.

Personally, although I don't mind the addition of modern accents in historic structures (glass seems to usually work well in these places), I happen to quite like the center cafe.

On the other hand, London did an incredible job of mixing the old with the new, with their redevelopment of St Pancras station. It's gorgeous, especially compared to the neighboring Kings Cross, which remains dark and disgusting.

Leave the great hall alone, and work on fixing up the actual train station portion of the building (which is a much more recent construction, and is currently looking a bit 80s-tastic). The key difference between Union Station and St Pancras is that Union Station already looks fantastic, while St Pancras was at risk of being condemned. Don't fix what isn't broken.

Can we also talk about remodeling the food court into something resembling Grand Central's gorgeous dining concourse? I might be a bit more receptive to the hole in the floor if the food court didn't look worse than one that you'd find at an average shopping mall.

by andrew on Aug 26, 2010 10:52 am • linkreport

Putting a hole in the middle of Union Station's Great Hall recalls the unfortunate "Pit" when the space was the ill-fated Washington visitors center of the 1970s. The Pit was removed when Union Station was last renovated and somewhat restored.

by Joe on Aug 26, 2010 11:21 am • linkreport

Completely agree with andrew; I could get behind the holes in the ground if they looked down onto something that wasn't incredibly ugly. Combine this proposal with a proposal to completely renovate and spruce up the food court, and I could get behind it.

by JS on Aug 26, 2010 11:28 am • linkreport

I still don't think taking more space from an already crowded Great Hall is a good idea. This proposal is designed to squeeze more revenue from the shopping mall portion by expanding it into the movie theater space without regard to the primary purpose of the building - a transportation hub. Union Station already serves more people than it was designed for (both the train station and the Metro station, not to mention buses, bikes, cars and pedestrians). Placing a big obstacle in the middle of the Great Hall that makes circulation more difficult for travelers and reduces seating space is not a good idea.

I agree with those who have noted a need for renovation of the train station portion, expanding the Metro Station and moving the bus station into the garage. There will be plenty of space in Brunham Place to expand retail without making it less functional as a transportation hub.

by Stanton Park on Aug 26, 2010 11:58 am • linkreport

@Alex B, I've posted a response for you on the preceeding thread dealing with the same subject.

by Lance on Aug 26, 2010 12:07 pm • linkreport

Lance, I did read through the public comments—all of them. Otherwise, I wouldn't have summarized what the majority of them said in this post. I wrote here in support of the changes proposed by the USRC, because I like the proposal and because I don't think that Union Station should be relegated to simply "what it once was," which seems to be the prevailing opinion in the bulk of the public comments.

by alexbaca on Aug 26, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

Agree that the big problem that needs to be fixed is the awful waiting area, which does not match the character or charisma at all of thre rest of the station. The tile floors and steel framing are just awful.

Putting a hole in the great hall only seems to rattle people's feelings when everyone can agree, the concourse area is the real issue

by norb on Aug 26, 2010 12:26 pm • linkreport

Move the waiting areas (c. 1984 Amtrak style) to the Great Hall. Then put the sky cafe in with the Sbarro's and McDonald's with the other cafes.


This isn't about preservation though. This is about cafe interests trying to maximize profits, at the expense of a public treasure. They want the ritziest spot so they can charge higher prices for the cache of eating in the Great Hall, even if that ruins the Great Hall for the rest of us. Instead of the Great Hall, the public will be stuck looking at diners' butts. Is that an advantage or disadvantage of proposing glass walls?

It's the same as people moving out to the "country" but ruining it in the process and becoming an "exurb" instead.

by crin on Aug 26, 2010 12:59 pm • linkreport

You say the plan would "massively shake up the space's current status quo." I wonder why a "massive" shakeup is called for -- the space is almost universally admired as is. The problems that you describe are minor -- miniscule -- compared to the "solution" that's proposed.

For example, I really don't agree that the lighting is all that poor, or that the center cafe "looms", but the solution to an ill-lit space is to *add more lights*, NOT to dig a hole in the floor. The solution to a "looming" structure is to remove the existing structure, NOT to replace it with something else.

The glass and steel structure that's proposed is too conspicuous in its own right to complement the historical architecture of the setting. Instead, it must contrast, but to what purpose? What's so bad about the historical setting that it cries out for a modern centerpiece?

If you want to rip out the center cafe for aesthetic reasons, fine, make the case. But you have to make a separate case for opening up a hole to the food courts ventilating the area with the smell of fryer grease. Some things are more important that easy access to fast food.

by mark on Aug 26, 2010 1:14 pm • linkreport

What I don't like about the proposed center structure is that it's much larger than the current one - and much taller. Frankly, I think the current one is just fine, but I'd rather see the information desk at the front be turned into an actual information desk, rather than a ticket booth for the Old Town Trolley. I'd also like to see an upgraded arrival/departure board, and some improved wayfinding signage.

For improved vertical circulation, perhaps they could add some glass elevators to the current access to the Food Court - insert the elevator shafts inside the axis of the two spiral staircases...

I'd also like to see more seating in the Great Hall, but I don't think returning it to waiting room status is appropriate, given the change in the station's function over the years. There's now a mall between the Great Room and the track access. The Great Hall is more than just a waiting room now, it's like an indoor street. I'd happily get rid of the fountains/planters and maybe restructure the restaurant seating a little bit (and add more wooden benches), but I don't see the need for a fundamental re-shaping of the space from what's there right now - nor would turning the Great Hall back into a waiting room make renovations to the train concourse unnecessary. Those renovations will still be needed no matter what.

by Alex B. on Aug 26, 2010 1:30 pm • linkreport

Can someone explain to me what exactly is wrong about the great hall? Have any of you traveled to other train stations in this country? I will put Union Station at the top. yes, above Chicago (but not Grand Central).

The station part does suck. Leave the great hall alone.

by beatbox on Aug 26, 2010 1:53 pm • linkreport

I like the current center structure. It is a perfect place to wait for people arriving. Unfortunately, the preservation nazi's wont let them put a small LCD up with the train schedule.

by beatbox on Aug 26, 2010 1:56 pm • linkreport

I'd like a much improved LED Display for train arrivals and departures.

If that's not historic enough, I'd also accept a Solari board:

by Alex B. on Aug 26, 2010 2:19 pm • linkreport

The part where you first walk in from Cap Hill is perfect. Don't touch that. The part that is underwhelming are the waiting areas for trains. Fix that up so it looks more like the other part (great hall?).

The thing is, the waiting areas are so underwhelming because the train service is underwhelming. There's just not a lot to be proud of, I guess. Fix the train service and THEN fix the other part. It's all about getting the order correct.

But don't touch that first entrance, please!!

by Jazzy on Aug 26, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

Don't touch the main hall, that's idiotic...

The actual train station section needss the work, and the bathrooms need to be redone/better maintained..

The section coming from the Old Post Office needs work, near the Bike station - the jersey barriers and blacktop convergence with concrete is ugly..

Also, scare away the homeless.

by Todd on Aug 26, 2010 5:04 pm • linkreport

The Great Hall isn't memorable? I guess if we can't agree on that basic premise, then there's not much left to agree on. I can't come up with a single convincing argument as to why the Great Hall should be messed with. I, for one, find it visually astounding. Definitely the nicest portion of any train station along the east coast.

I do agree with those whow ould like to see the actual train boarding area revamped, but I actually don't think that should be a high priority. I only visit Union Station when I'm taking a train or the family is in town, but honestly I think of it as one of those things in DC that "works". I'm just not getting an overhwleming reason to screw with it.

by 14thandyou on Aug 26, 2010 6:53 pm • linkreport

If you want to rip out the center cafe for aesthetic reasons, fine, make the case. But you have to make a separate case for opening up a hole to the food courts ventilating the area with the smell of fryer grease. Some things are more important that easy access to fast food.

Exactly right.

Plus, aren't many of those restaurants down there failing anyway? What is the point? When I used to go there in the 90s, it was a decent bustling place. Last time I went about 3 months ago, people were hustling me to go here or there, to come to their stand. It was a very different, almost aggressive experience.

by Jazzy on Aug 26, 2010 7:11 pm • linkreport

Can some answer these please

What is the point of the great hall ?

Why do we need it ?

What would be different if it was not there ?

Do you use the great hall if so for what ?

I dont care what is really done with it as long as a need is served whether its seating, elevator access, or spreading things out in the rest of the building. Right now it is just a big ass empty room which has no functional purpose.

by kk on Aug 26, 2010 7:23 pm • linkreport

Anything changed for an aesthetic reason that serves no purpose should not be acceptable at all.

by kk on Aug 26, 2010 7:25 pm • linkreport

A waste of money. the great hall functions as it should. The waiting areas are functional. This is what they're like at Grand Central. Penn Station (the new one--I'm not old enough to have seen the old one) has always been that way, except with more seating. Cleveland's Union terminal before it's gates were covered in the 70s was a big empty space--huge, with nice details, but boring. Bottom line, spend the money on something else.

by Rich on Aug 26, 2010 8:55 pm • linkreport

What's with the new Stairs to Nowhere?

by Turnip on Aug 26, 2010 9:23 pm • linkreport

When contemplating any changes to any parts of Union Station, it's important to remember that this is the most-visited place in all of DC. 32 million people a year pass through here, and a large share of those are not just there to take a train. This is a space that "works" right now, and changes should not be considered lightly.

The Great Hall is a majestic public space that functions very much as a living room for the city, and beyond anything, I'd urge great caution before recommending any radical changes with a space so beloved and so visited.

It's pretty clear at this point that the consensus from users and "enjoyers" of Union Station that the actual food court, the waiting/ticketing area and the platform itself are far more in need of change and restoration that the majestic Great Hall itself. FIx the glaring problems with Union Station before jacking around with the room that not only works but is dearly beloved by millions.

by Steve on Aug 26, 2010 10:09 pm • linkreport

@ Steve

How do you know its loved by millions. I would bet that millions dont really give a damn about it

Just because people visit a place doesn't make it special. The people passing through are trying to get to somewhere not just stand in the Great Hall; they are either leaving out of the building and they have to exit through the Great Hall, go from one corner of the building to another and must pass through.

I bet less than 500 people yearly go to Union Station just to see the Great Hall and everyone else is going there to either take a train, eat, browse shops, meet someone, or work which have nothing to do with the Great Hall.

by kk on Aug 26, 2010 10:20 pm • linkreport

I'm just amazed that any changes to the great hall, especially drastic ones, are being proposed, and I will find out as soon as possible what can be done to stop this. The space works. It's calming, it's majestic even though I've never once been to that cafe. The space works. I'm astounded anyone would think it doesn't. Do we need to follow a money trail?

by Jazzy on Aug 26, 2010 11:14 pm • linkreport

Fix the exits from Metro, where people are backed up on overcrowded escalators every day, before working on the great hall.

by Brian White on Aug 27, 2010 4:18 am • linkreport

Union Station's Great Hall works. It's wonderful. Don't mess with it.

Union Station's train station doesn't work. There is already not enough space for the current numbers of train riders and trains, and those numbers are only going to increase. Can we fix those problems instead, please?

by Miriam on Aug 27, 2010 6:59 am • linkreport

Last I checked, Union Station already has a giant hole in the floor with staircases in it. It's only about 20 steps from the Great Hall.

Instead, Union Station should spend the money on something useful, like making it a pleasant place to wait for and board trains. They could:

1) Rearrange the 100-year-old tracks so that:
- all platforms are the same length and height
- there are no more weird gaps, equipment, double platforms, etc between the tracks
- the farthest left track is track #1 instead of track #7
- there is dedicated space to store MARC trains during the day
- all tracks are electrified

2) Bring in more natural light. The concrete parking lot above the tracks and the yellow industrial lighting make the track area seem like a forbidding place where people should not be. The Great Hall is spacious, inviting and has plenty of natural light, why shouldn't the track area feel that way too?

3) Update the electronic and fixed signage to make it easy to find your train without having to be told exactly where it is.

4) Add conveniences such as benches along the platforms

The space may have worked in the 30s (when there were many more tracks) and it may have worked in the 70s (when everything was concrete), but now it is simply an anachronism.

Every part of Union Station is beautiful, friendly and functional, EXCEPT for the part for which the station was actually intended to be used.

by Andrew on Aug 27, 2010 8:04 am • linkreport


Platforms are at different heights because different trains use different rolling stock. The NE Corridor has high level platforms, while VRE trains and MARC's Camden and Brunswick lines use low platforms. You can't change Union Station's platforms until you change the rest of those on the line.

Natural light isn't going to happen, either. If anything, the tracks will be covered and decked by the Burnham Place development.

And I don't see the need for benches on the platforms. They aren't supposed to be where you wait for trains, they are supposed to be used to access the trains. The waiting room/concourse is for waiting.

I doubt the security guys would want benches there, either.

by Alex B. on Aug 27, 2010 9:01 am • linkreport

@kk the fact that 32 million people visit it each year testify to the fact that it's a public space that people love and enjoy being in. Train boardings aren't enough to account for all 32 million visitors each year.

It's not about having millions of people who just decided to go over and see the Great Hall, it's about how it's used. And it's used by far more than the numbers of people who are taking a train.

You don't think that people choosing to shop there or walk through the space are doing so on some level because it's an enjoyable place to visit? People choose to meet others there, choose to have a meal there instead of the strip 10 blocks away, choose to walk through for random reasons.

Suggesting that it's not beloved just sounds silly.

All I'm saying is that it's the most visited place in all of DC, outpacing all of our museums even, and that the Great Hall and mall area functions well as a public space for millions of people each year. And we should tread carefully with changes to those spaces.

Go do a straw poll of 100 DC residents and just ask them if they love the Great Hall of Union Station. Pretty sure you'll find out that it's "beloved."

by Steve on Aug 27, 2010 10:30 am • linkreport

You are not provide proof that people love it. Who has said that they love it plain and simple

People are going to Union Station who has ever said they are justing going for the Great Hall

How many are going specifically for the Great Hall vs the train, a specific store or stores in the same location, a type of restaurant or restaurants, the restroom , meeting location (which might not be the Great Hall) or a mall atmosphere.

What does enjoying the place have to do with the Great Hall ? There are times when it was closed off and people were still in other parts of the building therefore they aren't coming for the Great Hall.

If you were to close everything in Union Station would people still visit the Great Hall yes or no ? Then would it still be 32 million ?

If anyone is visiting Union Station just to visit it is because some mentioned that there was something there that they would like in some way or form and I doubt 32 million agree with it being the Great Hall it is probably because there are many things in one location.

Most DC residents probably don't know what the Great Hall is and probably just call it the empty space in the front or the area by the restaurant, the area near so and so stand, the area near the taxi's.

by kk on Aug 27, 2010 12:57 pm • linkreport

The above was directed at Steve

Also who says the 32 million are unique visitors.

Many could be people who travel there everyday due to commuting, food (breakfast, lunch or dinner), work there, do check ins for the HQ on a store that is located there (those can occur every 3 months or once a year), get out of the nearby office and just walked around in there, get out of the weather outside while waiting for a bus or someone to pick you up, or have nothing else do and go to see what is going on at Union Station.

by kk on Aug 27, 2010 1:13 pm • linkreport

Nevermind KK, you're right. No one likes the Great Hall or Union Station at all. It's a massive coincidence that it's the most-visited place in this city filled with places that people love to visit in huge numbers. They're all forced to go there each day. No one goes there to eat or shop because they prefer it over something else, no one likes the grandeur that makes it feel like something other than a mall or plain building thrown up in the last 20 years. Sheer coincidence. And clearly from the volume of comments on this post and Dan's, no one really cares about the building at all.

High comedy.

by Steve on Aug 27, 2010 3:27 pm • linkreport

You suggest that people only use the Great Hall to pass through. And they take no value from it.

Perhaps that is the case. (I disagree). But perhaps it's the case.

That doesn't mean it would be a good thing to destroy it. There are plenty of other "empty" spaces in this city that serve a purpose.

Dupont Circle, for instance. Lots of people pass through. Some people just sit around in it waiting for something to happen. Should we replace it with something more active? Can you prove that people go there because they like the space?

I'm sure we could have a functional train station without the Great Hall. But Union Station wasn't built just to be a train station. Union Station was built to be the entrance to a world capital.

It was to be Washington's grand foyer. And it served that purpose for many years. It still serves that purpose.

Sure, we could get rid of the Great Hall. The President would have to move one of his inaugural balls. (I'm sure the majesty of the space had nothing to do with the choice, by the way.) Washington survived without it in the 1980s.

But this city would be worse off because of it. Amtrak has built many so-called "Amshacks" around the nation. And they do their job. But they aren't lovable. They aren't memorable. They aren't fitting to be the welcome mat for Jacksonville, let alone Washington.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 27, 2010 3:44 pm • linkreport


"[platforms] aren't supposed to be where you wait for trains, they are supposed to be used to access the trains. The waiting room/concourse is for waiting."

Yes, this is how it is, but is it how it should be?

Unfortunately, the U.S. is the only country in the world where this is the cases. In most places, you find your platform, you spread out along it, and you wait for your train to pull in. The platform area is well lit, usually has a high canopy ceiling, and is generally a pleasant place to be while waiting.

The U.S. took the opposite approach in all of its large station buildings; you wait inside the building, and then scurry out along the platforms as quickly as you can because they are ugly and unwelcoming.

This has a number of drawbacks; most notably, it takes much longer to board trains. And at stub-ended stations like Washington and Boston, you have to rush down the platform with your bags among a mass of people if you want to board any car but the last one.

I know that Burnham place is coming which will probably cover over the tracks completely. But there are a myriad ways to make the platform area less gloomy. The metro stations are not terribly well lit, but yet they feel like a place humans are supposed to be. The platforms at Union Station do not. They feel much more like a basement you found accidentally and should leave hurredly before you're caught.

This is a far cry from the "Grand Foyer" that the rest of station is supposed to be (and largely is). The jetways connecting airplanes to the terminal are well lit and pleasant, why shouldn't trains have the same privilege?

With all due respect, Alex, I don't have a strong opinion on how much the Great Hall is modernized so long as it maintains the character of the place. But I feel like if they have money to spend, there are many more useful ways to spend it to make the rest of the station more appealing and useful.

by Andrew on Aug 28, 2010 10:18 am • linkreport

Now I'm curious:

I'm sure some of you history buffs know how Union Station used to work when it was first built. I know the ticket windows were in the Great Hall. I also know there must have been at least 7 more tracks on the west side, and have seen an old abandoned bridge where one of these tracks used to curve out of the station, though I don't know what it was used for.

Was there an indoor waiting area, or did people wait along the tracks? When exactly was the parking garage built?

I'd be interested in a future GGW article about this. :-)

by Andrew on Aug 28, 2010 10:40 am • linkreport

No doubt, they can make the platforms better.

And they will, as part of Burnham Place. That's the point, it's a separate project.

by Alex B. on Aug 28, 2010 10:41 am • linkreport

Why not try to make the station similar to those all over Europe & Asia which have better lighting, seating and are usually more spacious. They building could have a better atmosphere as a entertainment destination and a railway station if only some logical changes were made.

They could have extended the platforms north and perhaps added a level of platforms above or beneath the current ones which can never be done now because Burnham Place and the NY Ave wmata station.

There is always the option of building a new railway station somewhere else in DC near L'Enfant Plaza, New York Ave or along the Metropolitan branch trail somewhere.

by kk on Aug 28, 2010 1:19 pm • linkreport

What a waste!

They want to spend the $$ where its least needed, as the front is basically fine.

Yet they ignore that atrocious rear end.

I saw rip it out, especially that ugly asymmetrical elevated parking garage, build a giant glass panel canopy over the platforms extended a bit north, with a tear drop shape like that at the bases of the old WTC Twin Towers, framed by the upper service roads likewise extended north, preferably with at least a partial demolition of the stupidly too close US Securities and Exchanges Building, with the walls reclad more appropriately as an extension of the monumental core.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Aug 29, 2010 12:09 am • linkreport

I just want to recommend that anyone with an interest in Union Station read the excellent online history, "Now Arriving Washington." It's extremely well-researched and brings the arduous planning, building and opening of the station to life:

by Skinny on Aug 29, 2010 10:41 am • linkreport

If you are outraged at the ludicrosity of the plan to redevelop Union Station, write the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation. Consider cc'ing the Historic Preservation Office and Traceries.

by Jazzy on Aug 29, 2010 2:17 pm • linkreport

@Andrew: There is considerable logic in seperating waiting areas from boarding areas. Seperating these spaces allows the station to accomodate varying passenger volumes without having to worry about the loading platform becoming inadequately sized, either in the future or on a daily rush hour basis.

This is efficient space planning, and the Union Station actually does a poor job of utilizing it now. The original layout was clear and efficient. The Great Hall handled ticketing and held waiting benches- if you have to wait a long time for a train, at least you waited in a place with great visual interest!

The vaulted room behind the Great Hall (the one that is now packed with shops and the stairs descending to the food court) held a great transitional space, allowing passengers to flow from the Great Hall waiting area to the train gates at the end. The ornamental gates that collected and routed people to their platforms are now set near the back of the station, and are not as fucntional or as useful.

If you want to get a sense of the correct flow of people through the station as the designers intended, take a look at Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station or especially Utica's Union Station. Utica never tore down it's old station and nobody ever thought of packing the Great Hall with a restaurant or other programs, so its Great Hall is still what it was designed to be, a Waiting Room, complete with long benches!

by dcist on Aug 30, 2010 12:18 pm • linkreport

There has been some question about where various station functions were in the original layout of Union Station (which was 1908-1974 or so):

--West Arcade, where Metro escalator is now, had a covered lane for taxis.
--West Hall, this had ticket counters along the south wall and baggage and other services along the north wall. Ticketing was never in the Great Hall.
--America, this area was the men's room, barber, shoeshine, etc.
--Thunder Grill, this area was the women's room, etc.
--East Hall, this was a sit-down restaurant.
--Columbus Club, this was the lunch counter.
--Great Hall (or Main Hall), long benches for waiting. At various desks/alcoves around the perimeter there were (at times) a telephone room, small drugstore, newstand, telegraph desk, florist. See the Shorpy site for a photo:
--B Smith's, originally the Presidential waiting room, then the USO from about 1942 to about 1967.
--Concourse, this was one long room where the two-story shopping area is now. It was longer but the ends were chopped off for the ramps to the parking garage. It had entrances from parts of the areas named above (Presidential waiting room, lunch counter, main hall, telephone room, baggage room). It had a stationmaster's hut and a newstand. It had a long, metal fence with a gate for each of the 32 tracks (the fence line was about 2/3 of the way into the concourse, about where the front of today's ticket counter is). People lined up at the gates to have their tickets checked by an usher before boarding. Arriving passengers exited through a smaller number of larger exit gates that were opened only when a train had arrived. A few of the 32 gates were preserved and are in today's boarding area. The north wall of the concourse was held up by iron columns and was open to the elements. See the Shorpy site for two excellent photos - and

As built, the station had 32 tracks, 20 upper and 12 lower. This has been diminished:
--Tracks 1-3 (approx.) for the Metro (and the west garage ramp).
--Tracks 4-6, support columns for the parking garage and relocation of certain station services when the main station building was closed to passenger rail use.
--Tracks 7-20, all shorter than before to accommodate what is now today's waiting area.
--Tracks 21-22, no access to station, one track removed.
--Tracks 29-30, no access to station, used for storage.
--Tracks 31-32, now part of SEC building property.

The current layout of Union Station was completed in 1988. The current waiting area was designed in the few years before that. Amtrak ridership has grown since then - in Fiscal 1984 (design period), 2.3 million on+off; Fiscal 1988 (station re-opening), 3.1 million; Fiscal 2009, 4.3 million. There was no VRE back then and MARC was smaller. If the federal and state governments carry out various plans to expand intercity and commuter rail traffic, the counts will increase.

"Now Arriving Washington" cited above by Skinny is excellent but only covers the earliest periods of Union Station's history.

The master plan for future developments and improvements at the station may be of interest and is on the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation's website,

by Scott Leonard on Aug 30, 2010 1:35 pm • linkreport

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