- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

While 66,000 Metro passengers, 10,000 Amtrak riders, 25,000 MARC train travelers and another 2,500 Virginia Railway Express customers scurry each day through Washington’s Union Station, amid the hustle and bustle of commuters and tourists there are plenty of people with no intention of traveling farther.

Just ask Brooke Ellis and Patrick King, visitors from Atlanta, who on a recent Monday were enjoying the late-afternoon happy hour seated at the corner of the bar at the station’s Thunder Grill, just to the right of the

station’s Main Hall on the street level.”After we decided to meet here at the train station, we didn’t bother going outside. Everything is here,” Mr. King said. “We were just shocked. Five Points Station in Atlanta is real boring.”Union Station, which houses Amtrak headquarters and executive offices, more than 130 shops and restaurants, art exhibits and a nine-screen multiplex cinema and has its own architectural aesthetic, is far from boring. It has become a destination in its own right. With more than 25 million people passing through each year, it is the District’s most visited locale.

• • •

Waiting for these visitors is a structure that, by the time it was completed in 1908 at a cost of $125 million, covered more ground than any other building in the United States and was the largest train station in the world.

Union Station officially opened Oct. 27, 1907, with the arrival of a B&O; Railroad passenger train enroute from Pittsburgh. In the years to follow, the station was a major stop along the line of the Chesapeake & Ohio; Southern; and Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P;) railroads as well as the Seaboard Railroads and Atlantic Coast Lines.

The product of skyscraper pioneer Daniel Burnham — principal architect of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and designer of New York’s Flatiron Building in 1902 — Union Station took its inspiration from ancient Athens and Rome.

This was, after all, the original gateway to the nation’s capital. The 600-foot facade and the 96-foot-high main lobby ceiling of marble, gold leaf and granite is consistent with the neoclassical elements used to build the classic Greek and Roman cities. The statues of soldiers symbolically standing guard on the lobby balconies above the Main Hall also recall the spirit of empire.

Burnham’s vision was of a grand structure that would be a “city within a city.” According to the station’s official history, at times it employed a staff of more than 5,000 people and housed a bowling alley, mortuary, baker, butcher, YMCA, hotel, icehouse, liquor store, Turkish baths, first-class restaurant, nursery, police station, and a silver-monogramming shop.

The station’s white granite and its beaux-arts design became the standard for monumental structures, and in Washington, it inspired a 40-year spurt of building that saw the construction of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and the Supreme Court building.

• • •

The station’s present glory obscures its history, a riches-to-rags-to-riches story that takes it from its heyday in the early 20th century to a zenith during World War II — when it served some 100,000 passengers a day — and then through a slow decline that began in the 1960s, when air travel eclipsed the railroads.

By the late ‘60s, the building was considered obsolete, a gorgeous white elephant. Preservationists pushed a saving plan: Turn it into the National Visitor Center in time for the nation’s bicentennial. Reopened to much fanfare on July 4, 1976, the visitors center not only generated very few visitors and little public interest, but its concept and execution provoked general derision as well. It closed in 1978, a failure.

The old station slipped into disrepair. Rain rotted the roof and bred a fungus that led to the entire building’s being sealed off until Congress could decide whether to raze or resurrect it.

The Union Station Redevelopment Act of 1981 saved the day. It gave rise to a public-private partnership that aimed to restore the building to its original splendor and create a mixed-use commercial center. At a cost of $160 million over three years, the station was renovated by the LaSalle Partners group, which also would be responsible for the restoration of New York City’s Grand Central Station a few years later. Most of the Washington station’s original design was retained.

The station reopened on Sept. 29, 1988 — and the rest of the story is the other “riches” part.

“It just shows what a futuristic thinker Daniel Burnham was that we could re-create his original ‘city within a city’ theme,” says Lisa McClure, vice president of marketing and manager of tourism at Union Station.

• • •

Today, the Thunder Grill’s interior dining room sits adjacent to an eclectic mix of shops in the station’s East Hall, which was the main dining room when the building opened in 1907. Here, teenage mall rats rub elbows with business commuters, couples on dinner dates, and art and jewelry collectors.

In the East Hall, workmen are installing the “Memories of World War II” photography show. Derived from the archives of Associated Press, this tribute to the “greatest generation” — and to the heyday of Union Station — will open Monday and be on display through July 31.

The shops of the East Hall and the hall itself unfold like an art gallery, and the items available are of an artistic sort.

• KDZ Miniatures offers replicas of famous buildings from around the world.

• The Echo Gallery is a multicultural collection focusing on Afrocentric arts and collectibles.

• Aurea and the Bouvier Collection create their own collections of one-of-a-kind jewelry using precious and semiprecious gemstones.

• The Great Zimbabwe uses batik fabrics to create artistic clothing and wall hangings.

• Appalachian Spring is an American crafts showcase.

At the far end of the East Hall, tucked away behind the shops, is B. Smith’s, a restaurant owned and operated by former fashion model Barbara Smith that specializes in Cajun, Creole and Southern cuisine. The restaurant’s dramatic dining room was once Union Station’s presidential suite.

According to Ms. McClure, the addition of a presidential suite was prompted by the assassinations of Presidents Garfield and McKinley — the first shot at Washington’s Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station July 2, 1881, while he waited for a train, the second shot at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, N.Y., Sept. 6, 1901, as he greeted visitors to the Pan American Exposition.

Washington Terminal Co. directors authorized a spacious presidential suite to be built for the security of the president, his family and staff as they waited and greeted kings, queens and dignitaries, Ms. McClure says.

William Howard Taft was the first president to use the suite, in 1909. Since then, Union Station has hosted 17 presidents. In the 20th century, the room welcomed numerous dignitaries, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II of England, King Albert of Belgium, King Prajadhipok of Siam (now Thailand), Queen Marie of Romania and King Hassan II of Morocco.

During World War II, the suite was converted into a USO lounge and was Washington’s principal point of departure for soldiers and sailors. President Kennedy and his wife entertained Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, in the presidential suite in 1963. President Clinton and both Presidents Bush have used the presidential holding room briefly during their tenures.

With ornate, vaulted 30-foot ceilings and period chandeliers, this national landmark is perhaps the most striking room in Union Station. In its first restaurant incarnation, it was Adirondack’s, which opened in 1988 and closed in 1992. It became B. Smith’s in 1994.

Above the East Hall, the Columbus Club, not an actual restaurant but a room with a spectacular aerial view of the Main Hall and mezzanine level above, is used for catered private events for groups of 50 to 500.

• • •

At the opposite end of the street level, the West Hall contains two more restaurants: America, offering menu items representative of all 50 states, and Pizzeria Uno, on the mezzanine level above the West Hall gift shops.

Made in America, a souvenir shop, features gifts and trinkets with a distinctly Washingtonian flavor, including political items such as campaign pins and bumper stickers and a very politic approach to the presidential horse race.

“A tossup,” says the salesperson behind the counter when asked how current election souvenirs were selling. “Ask again in August, and maybe we’ll have a better picture.”

Across the hall, Making History, a souvenir shop specializing in historical memorabilia, carries period campaign pins as well as sports paraphernalia of the old Washington Senators and the current Baltimore Orioles baseball teams.

• • •

In the middle of the Main Hall is the Center Cafe, with an elegant spiral staircase leading to an upper-level dining area. It is circled by the marble pillars and sculptures that define the building’s beaux-arts style, providing Union Station with its most recognizable imagery.

Behind the Main Hall is the Amtrak ticket counter and even more shopping and casual eateries. Many passers-by stroll through stores with shopping bags in tow. The mezzanine level closely resembles a shopping mall: Shops such as Nine West, Ann Taylor and Victoria’s Secret circle the concourse.

Specialty stores such as President Cigars and Godiva Chocolates draw customers to the station for luxurious necessities. The Cafe Renee coffee shop is a popular pit stop, and the East Street Cafe serves Asian cuisine at moderate prices in a casual dining atmosphere.

Dining is a running theme on all three levels of the station: Breakfast, lunch and dinner items from a variety of ethnic food types occupy more than two dozen spots on the lower-level food court.

• • •

A pair of stylishly dressed young women stroll the mezzanine, window-shopping to kill time before heading down to the nine-theater AMC 9 on the lower level.

The two are students from Daegu, South Korea, working one-year internships in Washington. Geena Jeon, 22, and Mettel Kwak, 25, say they come to Union Station primarily for the movies and not necessarily to ride trains.

“Amtrak is too slow and expensive,” Miss Kwak says, “but Union Station is a great Metro stop. We always come here for movies.”

She adds, almost on cue: “Union Station itself is a very nice background for movies.”

As she speaks, actor Christopher Walken is working with a crew filming a scene in front of the main entrance for a movie called “The Wedding Crashers.”

It’s only one of several films: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Hannibal,” “The Recruit,” “Along Came a Spider,” “Collateral Damage” and several episodes of the television program “The West Wing” have used Union Station as a backdrop. One small irony: The only film actually titled “Union Station,” the 1950 William Holden thriller, centered on Los Angeles’ terminal.

• • •

Back at the Thunder Grill, probably named for the rumble of the Metro trains below, happy hour is relaxed and comfortable. The reduced prices on margaritas, beer and appetizers are affordable and make it easy to stay a while.

The bar crowd arrives in the late afternoon and lingers until just after the sun sets just out of view to the right side of the windows that look south to Capitol. In menu and decor, the place gives off a warm orange glow that suggests the American Southwest.

“Most of our people come in after 5,” manager Mike Marrana says. “We get a lot of city employees, District and federal workers, … and the regular train people come in to have a drink before they catch the train.”

“It’s about half and half between the regulars and train travelers,” Mr. Marrana says.

Brooke Ellis and Patrick King seem content. The two have just finished shopping and window-shopping, picking up Spider-Man comic books for a young relative at the B. Dalton bookstore. They are having such a good time, they are not sure when they’ll leave.

“I postponed my flight by a day just to stay here for a while,” Mr. King says.

Reasons to take a later train

Union Station, at 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE, is no longer the Washington gateway it once was, but it’s a center of activity, particularly on weekdays, with dining, shopping and entertainment under one roof. Here are details on just a few of its attractions.


• B. Smith’s: In the rear of Union Station’s East Hall in the former Presidential Suite, a historic landmark. Restaurant specializing in Cajun, Creole and Southern cuisine. Live jazz during dinner Friday and Saturday nights; the Donnie Most Trio performs 6:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday brunch $20 per person from 11:30 a.m. Sundays. Call 202/289-6188 or see www.bsmith.com.

• Thunder Grill: In front of the station’s East Hall to the immediate right of the main entrance. Great views of the Capitol and of the station’s Main Hall. 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Happy hour weekdays 3:30 to 8:30 p.m. with reduced prices on margaritas, beer and appetizers. 202/898-0051.

Art exhibit

• More than 170 photographs drawn from Associated Press archives, on show in the Main Hall and West Hall on the street level. Free. See www.unionstationdc.com.


Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide