Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Union Station--Saint Louis

One hundred and fifteen years ago, St. Louis Union Station opened as the largest, most beautiful terminal in the united States. And based on my recent visit there, I think it still rates as one of the outstanding attractions of Saint Louis, Missouri. It was an enormous project for its day, that was conceived in 1889, when the Terminal Railroad Association was formed for the purpose of consolidating the numerous railway entries and exits of the St. Louis area. Union Station was designed by St. Louis architect, Theodore C. Link, and his design included three main areas: the Headhouse, the Midway and the Train Shed. The Headhouse contained the Terminal Hotel, ticket offices, waiting rooms, restaurant, and railroad offices. The Midway was the covered transfer area for passengers. The Train Shed was a large, roofed area covering the loading platforms and tracks. The Carl Milles' Fountain in the park in front of the station (upper left photo) made some waves in Victorian-era St. Louis, with its controversial sculpture. On the very hot day that I visited, I was amused by a man who got into the fountain in his swimming trunks, and appeared to be not only cooling himself off, but also retrieving the coins thrown in the fountain by sentimental visitors to the site. The last time I visited Union Station, its sky-piercing clock tower had been enclosed in scaffolding, so I was glad to get to have the opportunity to photograph it in its renovated status, without the unsightly ( but always necessary) renovation scaffolding. From the time it opened in 1894, to the end of the 19th century, St. Louis had become the "Gateway to the West" and its new Union Station was the rail crossroads of America. In fact, in 1900, SIXTY-TWO percent of St. Louisans had foreign born parents. This fact makes sense to me when I remember that a relative of mine from St. Louis, had one parent who was born in Italy, and one parent that was born in Germany. In its heyday in the mid 1940's, the Midway area of Union Station was the spot where over 100,000 passengers a day traversed on their way to or from a train. However, after World War ii, the general public began choosing other forms of transportation, and on October 31, 1978, the last train pulled out of St. Louis Union Station. (Just one more reason to heed the words of the Psalmist who wrote "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God." Psalm 20:7 )

Fortunately for all of us today, however, visionaries took on the project of redeeming Union Station from the wrecking ball. In August of 1985, St. Louis Union Station reopened after a $150 million restoration, making it the largest adaptive re-use project in the United States. And I, for one, am very thankful for their efforts. Otherwise, we would not be able to see the magnificent Grand Hall with its gold leaf, Romanesque arches, 65 foot barrel vaulted ceiling, and stained glass windows (upper photos). The most well known of these stained glass windows is the "Allegorical Window" (lower right), which is framed by what is called the "Whispering Arch". My room at the Marriott Hotel in Union Station had a wall hanging as part of the room decor, that was a reproduction of the Allegorical Window. I learned that the female on the left represented the East Coast of the U.S., the female on the right represented the West Coast of the U.S., and the female in the center represented St. Louis, which---thanks to Union Station---linked the two coasts together. As you would expect with such a rich history, Union Station was designed a National Historic Landmark, in 1970.
In the "old days", the track/platform area was covered by an enormous single-span Train Shed of trusses that was one of the largest train sheds ever built. This area has been re-designed to house a lake, complete with paddle boats (upper left), remote-controlled miniature ships (lower left), floral displays (middle right), scenic photo areas (middle left), fish-feeding spots (upper right), as well as, waterside dining and lodging (lower right).
As soon as you go inside from the plaza level, you can hear the lively clapping and cheering and singing of the crew from "The Fudgery" (lower left). They get you into a festive spirit as soon as you enter the shopping level, and will even give you a free sample of fresh fudge, at the end of their "performance/culinary demonstration". Although Union Station is not classified as a Museum, it houses a very nice room with exhibits of transportation relics of the past, a video that plays continuously from its location in the window of a caboose, telling about the history of train travel in the U.S., and how it all relates to Union Station in Saint Louis. There are also displays about Fred Harvey's famous western hospitality on the railroads, through the use of his exquisitely dressed "Harvey Girls", who provided passengers restaurant service by offering great food and gracious rapid service (upper and lower right). Many displays also show the impact of those who used the station during their time in military service. In the middle of all the retail businesses, commercial trampolines have been set up that (for a small fee) will harness you up to bungee cords, enabling you to turn flips on the trampoline without the need for gymnastics lessons. It was great fun to watch brave "future Olympians" on the trampolines,from both the lower and upper levels of the shopping sections (upper left). And lest you fear not being able to spend that money you received in your "Stimulus Bonus" from the government, there are plenty of shops where you can buy souvenirs, clothing, gifts, food, and, of course, Cardinal Baseball Team items. Just a few steps from the plaza area of Union Station, you can board the public light rail transportation in St. Louis, known as Metrolink. It will take you to all the sights downtown, across the Mississippi into Illinois, and back West to the airport, where you can fly anywhere in the world. So in a way, this extraordinary structure from the 1800's, is still your "Union Station" to a big world just waiting for you to explore! Miles of smiles! Tricia
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