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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, so its facade has 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 quietest shopping venue, with a handful of stores and stall 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 involving hundreds of European and American artisans returned the station to its original design.
Union Station never closes, never pauses. At least 40 million people come through Union Station’s doors yearly, more than 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.Amtrak, the commuter MARC trains, Metrorail trains and Metrobuses, DC Circulator buses, taxis, rental cars, local drivers and pedestrians, and the DC Streetcar all converge on Union Station; see chapter 11 for details about Union Station as a transportation hub.