When it opened in 1907, this was the largest train station in the world. It was designed by noted architect Daniel H. Burnham, who modeled it after the Baths of Diocletian and the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Its facade includes Ionic colonnades fashioned from white granite and 100 sculptured eagles. Graceful 50-foot Constantine arches mark the entryways, above which are poised six carved figures representing Fire, Electricity, Freedom, Imagination, Agriculture, and Mechanics. Inside is the Main Hall, a massive rectangular room with a 96-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling, an expanse of white-marble flooring, and a balcony adorned with 36 Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculptures of Roman legionnaires. Off the Main Hall is the East Hall, shimmering with scagliola marble walls and columns, a gorgeous hand-stenciled skylight ceiling, and stunning murals of classical scenes inspired by ancient Pompeiian art. (Today this is the station’s most pleasant shopping venue: less crowded and noisy, with small vendors selling pretty jewelry and other accessories.)
In its time, this “temple of transport” has witnessed many important events. President Wilson welcomed General Pershing here in 1918 on his return from France. South Pole explorer Rear Admiral Richard Byrd was also feted at Union Station on his homecoming. And Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral train, bearing his casket, was met here in 1945 by thousands of mourners.
But after the 1960s, with the decline of rail travel, the station fell on hard times. Rain caused parts of the roof to cave in, and the entire building—with floors buckling, rats running about, and mushrooms sprouting in damp rooms—was sealed in 1981. That same year, Congress enacted legislation to preserve and restore this national treasure, to the tune of $160 million. A remarkable 2-year restoration involved hundreds of European and American artisans who were meticulous in returning the station to its original design. A new and improved Union Station re-opened in 1988.
Once again a restoration is underway, this time to repair and burnish the Main Hall’s ornate ceiling, which was damaged during the August 23, 2011 earthquake. A specially designed rolling scaffold allows craftsmen to work on one bay at a time, moving across the ceiling from west to east, with minimal interruption to the flow of people making their way through the station. If you’re really interested, look for the exhibit in the Main Hall that displays photos and descriptions of the work in progress, as well as some historical context.
Union Station just keeps on going. At least 32 million people come through Union Station’s doors yearly. About 120 retail and food shops on three levels offer a wide array of merchandise and dining options. The sky-lit Main Concourse, which extends the entire length of the station, is the primary shopping area, as well as a ticketing and baggage facility. You could spend half a day here shopping or about 20 minutes touring. Several tour companies use the station as a point of arrival and departure; at least one, Old Town Trolley Tours, operates a ticket booth inside the front hall of the main concourse.
Restoration aside, Union Station never closes, never pauses. At least 36 million people come through Union Station’s doors yearly, 100,000 a day. About 100 retail and food shops on three levels offer a wide array of merchandise and dining options. Several tour-bus companies use the station as a point of arrival and departure, and operate ticket booths inside the front hall of the main concourse. (See p. ### for more information about tours.) As of Spring 2015, the DC Circulator bus service operates a National Mall circuit that begins and ends at Columbia Circle, in front of Union Station; see p. ###, “Loop the National Mall Aboard the DC Circulator.”
- Elise Hartman Ford