- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

At Washington's Union Station, you can catch a train, a movie or a meal. Or you can make the building itself the destination, taking in the history that goes with it.

It took the better part of seven years (1901-08) to construct the beaux arts-style, white granite building. In the days when train travel was king, Union Station was a monumental gateway to the city, says Lisa McClure, Union Station's marketing and tourism manager.

"When Union Station opened, it united five different railways under one roof," Ms. McClure says. "It was meant to be a place for all people to come at all times."
With the increase in air travel in the 1960s and 1970s, Union Station withered from lack of use. It spent the 1980s as a moldy, boarded-up white elephant until it got a $160 million renovation. The building reopened in September 1988, and developers hoped it would once again be a place for all people to come at all times.
Because Union Station is first and foremost a train station, the doors never close. It is a lunchtime spot for Capitol Hill staffers and a shopping mall for tourists. Some 23.5 million people visit the station annually, Ms. McClure says.
"Our group made us come here, but it is a really neat place," says Nicole Kalvaitis, 18, of Fremont, Mich. Miss Kalvaitis and her friends, touring Washington with the Close Up Foundation, stood in the main hall, admiring the 96-foot arched ceiling's 22-karat gold leaf decoration.
Miss Kalvaitis and her group enjoyed window shopping at Union Station, which houses more than 100 retail stores. While there are the usual mall standards, such as Ann Taylor and Bath and Body Works, there are also smaller stores more unique to Washington.
In the East Hall, retailers in a variety of small booths display handmade crafts and jewelry. Appalachian Spring, a store that sells work of regional potters, weavers and jewelry makers, has a larger store off the East Hall.
On the opposite end of the main hall, Alamo Flags has a very popular booth. Tourists can pick up pins, flags and patches from every state and many countries. Made in America is another tourist spot, selling the patriotic items that have been so popular since September 11. At the Best of Washington, one can get a book about the White House, and a Washington snow globe, map or shot glass. Next door, at Political Americana, it is easy to pick up election paraphernalia, from bumper stickers to buttons.
Union Station is a great starting point for both tourists and locals enjoying a day trip. The facility has a Metro stop and large parking garage, making it a convenient place for groups to meet or to regroup after touring sites such as the U.S. Capitol or Supreme Court.
"A lot of tourists come here to start their visit," says Kathleen Toler, a customer service representative at the Tourmobile booth in the main hall. Tour buses that take passengers to landmarks around the city depart from Union Station all day long.
"Tourists and locals both always comment on how beautiful it is here," she says.
Union Station plays host to many special events that reflect holidays and the diverse culture in the District. February featured a doll show and arts festival to celebrate Black History Month. This week, the theme is Japanese serenity in honor of the Cherry Blossom Festival. There will be performances of Japanese dance and music daily from noon to 2 p.m. Later this spring, there will be a Cinco De Mayo Festival, a 20th-anniversary tribute to The Washington Times and a tribute to Korea as it prepares to play host to soccer's 2002 World Cup.
History buffs will appreciate the role Union Station has played in the nation's capital.
In the early 1900s, a Presidential Suite was added on the spot where B. Smith's restaurant now stands. William Howard Taft was the first president to use the room, and over the years presidents received foreign dignitaries there. Four presidents also have held Inaugural Balls at Union Station.
In April 1945, the funeral train carrying the casket of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who died at his home in Georgia, made its final stop at Union Station as it returned Roosevelt to Washington.
In January 1953, as preparations were in full swing for President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration, the Federal Express train sped out of control on Track 16.
The train crashed through a newsstand and into the back of the station, where the food court is today. Because the station had advance warning of the train's brake failure, employees were able to clear the area and no one was hurt, Ms. McClure says.
"People worked for 96 hours to cover the area so when Eisenhower's train came through for the inauguration, there appeared to be no problem," she says. "I guess that was Washington's first cover-up."
The train that crashed was pulled out, put together piece by piece and remained in service until 1992. The Federal Express is now on display at the B&O; Railroad Museum in Baltimore.


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