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“Construction Complete in Union Station’s Main Hall – Room is Unobstructed for the first time in 50 years!”

by Prince Of Petworth May 9, 2016 at 11:30 am 15 Comments

union station
Courtesy Union Station Redevelopment Corporation

From a press release:

“Today, Washington Union Station reveals a restored, historic Main Hall. Covered for the past four years in scaffolding as rehabilitation work was underway, the historic space is now unobstructed, as originally designed, for the first time in almost 50 years.

Opened in 1907 as the General Waiting Room of the station, the Main Hall was well known for its impressive scale, stretching 219 feet by 120 feet, with a ceiling height of 96 feet, and grand gold-coffered ceiling. Historically lined with mahogany benches, the Main Hall functioned as large open space until the 1940’s. The onset of World War II resulted in increased traffic at the station, and ticket counters were expanded from the West Hall into the Main Hall, to accommodate the demand. In the 1970’s as train travel declined, and air travel became more popular, ideas to reactivate the grand space were evaluated.

The search for a new use resulted in repointing the station as a National Visitor Center in honor of the Nation’s bicentennial. Again, the Main Hall was reconfigured, this time to accommodate a Primary Audi-Visual Experience (PAVE). Sunken in the center of the floor, the PAVE featured a wall of slide show monitors that flashed scenes of Washington. Unpopular, and failing to draw in visitors, the PAVE was closed in 1985, along with the rest of the station, for a full-restoration. In 1988 the station was re-opened, with the Center Café prominently positioned in the Main Hall, and additional retail introduced to ensure the station’s long-term economic independence.

In 2011, an earthquake struck Virginia, and damage to the station needed to be evaluated, igniting a larger discussion amongst station stakeholders and historic agencies on the Main Hall’s preservation and historic restoration.

In 2012, work began on restoring the damaged ceiling, including the installation of an elaborate system of steel framing to provide a completely new and seismically sound support structure for the historic plaster ceiling. The entire ceiling bay was also repainted and new gold leafing applied, thanks largely to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and its $350,000 corporate donation from American Express to Union Station. The grant assisted USRC in re-gilding the ceiling inside the Main Hall by aiding in the replacement of more than the 120,000 sheets of 23-karat gold leaf.

In addition to all the work on the ceiling itself, the heating and air-conditioning systems in the attic, behind the ceiling, were greatly improved by realigning ductwork and creating new connections to the ceiling diffusers that will allow them to be cleaned and serviced regularly in the future. In April, once the ceiling restoration was completed, deconstruction began on the center café, and two circular planters, which once served as fountains.

“Today, we are very excited to reveal a fully-restored Main Hall for the public to enjoy that is also consistent with the original design envisioned by the world-famous, station architect, Daniel Burnham. This is the first time in many of our lives where we can fully appreciate this space as it was historically designed.” said USRC President and CEO, Beverley Swaim-Staley. “This has been a milestone we have been working to achieve for almost four years, and we appreciate the assistance received from the Federal Railroad Administration, our leaseholder, Union Station Investco, an entity of Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, the State Historic Preservation Office, and other historic agencies that continue to support all we do here at Union Station.”

“Our civic spaces say a lot about our priorities and our values, and as the restoration of Union Station underscores, multimodal transportation is not just part of our past, but it is also central to our future. For the thousands of visitors to our nation’s capital who pass through Union Station every day – via trains, buses, cars, and more – the newly-restored Main Hall will serve to demonstrate the value of transportation that is accessible, open, and welcoming to everyone.” said Secretary Foxx, United States Department of Transportation.

“We are delighted by the return of the Main Hall to its original splendor and commend American Express for its leadership in helping support the stewardship of this National Treasure,” said Stephanie Meeks, President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Continued dedication to holistic, preservation-based planning for Union Station’s future will ensure it moves into its second century with all the grace and grandeur it deserves, while serving as a fully modernized transportation hub and grand gateway to the Nation’s Capital.”

“Over the last 30 years both Union Station and the adjacent Capitol Hill neighborhood have been transformed by restoring the historic urban and architectural fabric. The restoration of the Main Hall’s open floor plan, together with repairs to the coffered and gilt barrel vault ceiling, are important milestones in this recovery. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) congratulates the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation for its ongoing restoration of the magnificent Main Hall of Daniel Burnham’s Union Station.” said Lisa Dale Jones, President of Capitol Hill Restoration Society.”

  • TX2DC

    It’s nice to see the Main Hall restored to its original condition, although I’ll miss the Center Cafe. They used to have a good happy hour upstairs and Doug was an awesome bartender.

  • LionofLedroit

    Stunning. We live in a gorgeous city!

    • annonny

      Agreed. I remember first moving to DC and thinking about how lucky I was to commute to and from work via union station. I would often walk through the historic sections just to soak in the majesty of the space. Glad to see it brought back to its original gleaming self – recently it was getting a little grimy, earthquake or not!

  • Miter

    I’m not sure I understand this project. Why do we want a vast open space throughout the hall with nothing activated?

    I’m reminded of Chicago’s awkwardly empty main hall that you just shuflle through quickly on your way to something more engaging, or the side hall that is largely empty off Grand Central’s main hall in New York.

    Considering no one’s waiting for trains in this part of Union Station, it seems better to add more nuance like a vibrant neighvorhood rather than a uniform expanse like a strip mall or the National Mall.

    • Blithe

      I realize that my point of view is likely outmoded — but it’s a grand, beautiful space. We want grand, beautiful, open spaces because they can encourage us to view ourselves as grand, beautiful, open people. If you want a “vibrant”…”activated” environment, I’m sure that there will be plenty of that on the lower level of the station, as well as in the concourse. I remember the horror that was the visitor’s center, so I’m delighted by the return of one of DC’s great spaces. If my idealism isn’t an ample justification for such spaces, perhaps knowing that it can be re-purposed for the occasional inaugural ball might suggest engaging uses for the space.

      • textdoc

        Agreed with Blithe. And I believe the grand open space was one of the things that people really missed when New York City’s original Penn Station was demolished.

        • Hill Denizen

          Well Penn Station is a bit of an extreme. They could install more seating so there isn’t just open space, kind of like 30th Street Station in Philly. This space is much more pleasant to kill the time than the waiting area near the trains.

      • Miter

        The conversation jumped right to the basement clutter and the awful Penn Station. That’s a little extreme. I wasn’t suggesting we fill it up to maximizing ROI on every square foot.

        I guess I just liked the central restaurant. It was well designed to complement the space with a modern accent, created a bustle of activity that made the space feel intimate and inviting, yet still maintained the grandeur of the hall so I could view myself as an even more beautiful person, if that’s possible.

        • [rrrrr]

          I hadn’t realized that Center Cafe was coming down, I’m only in Union Station every so often. I think it’s a real shame as I thought it was a lot easier to appreciate the grandeur of the room and the energy of everyone coming and going from a seat up top. Plus it was a great meeting spot, I don’t want to see someone off from Shophouse or Shake Shack or a food court.

        • Philippe Lecheval

          You illustrate a good point. Seems like a lot of people these days think a bit too much of themselves already. Maybe we shouldn’t be encouraging more of this narcissistic behavior with architecture.

    • Actually, Chicago’s main hall is not empty. It’s full of old time pew like benches where people can sit and wait. The exception would be when the hall was rented for an event and the benches moved.

      Recently an Amtrak customer service desk was added; and general boarding (not sleeper, business class, elderly, or handicapped) now occurs from the main hall.

  • I love the photos of old Union Station, back when rail was a primary means of transit. It was such a bustling, center of the city type place, sometimes hard to remember with the ghostly feeling you get some days walking through such a cavernous space.

    • Philippe Lecheval

      I don’t know which part you’re walking through, but that place is still pretty bustling at just about any time of the day.

  • bruno

    All the better to see you with my dear.
    I did not know this was underway. I like it!


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