Restoration starts at Washington's Union Station

One would be hard pressed to think of a finer symbol for railroad travel than Union Station here. Designed by Daniel H. Burnham of Chicago and completed in 1908, the massive, white granite building is a classical mixture of Greek and Roman historical precedents.

Inside, the vaulted main waiting room -- one of the city's grandest spaces -- leads to a 625-foot-long skylighted concourse, where one once boarded the trains.

Presidents, royalty, and celebrities all arrived in the nation's capital by train at Union Station. When the passenger train was king, more than 175,000 people a day passed through the station's dramatic portals.

But when trains were replaced by airplanes, Union Station suffered. The creation of Amtrak did not help.

In the early 1970s, Congress decided to convert the station into the National Visitor Center for the Bicentennial.

Amtrak was kicked out and forced into an ignoble new facility in back that makes the average bus station look like a palace.

A huge hole was cut in the floor of the old waiting room to create what the National Park Service described as a PAVE, or Primary Audio-Visual Experience. That was governmentese for a multiscreen slide show, complete with escalators and tiers for observers.

It failed to work, however, and the expected tourists never showed up. The National Visitor Center was a bust, and after the roof started to leak in 1981, Union Station was declared unsafe and was closed. Amtrak passengers were forced to walk around the old station to get to the new station.

Soon that will change. Congress established a Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, and it selected a team that will develop a station capable of supporting itself.

Ground was broken last month for a $150 million, public-private venture that will not only restore the architectural quality of the original building but also allow the addition of 200,000 square feet of shops and restaurants and 80,000 square feet of office space under the station's cavernous roofs. Most important, Amtrak will return to the station proper to handle its 2 million passengers annually.

During the groundbreaking, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, Secretary of Transportation, rang an old locomotive bell. ``In two years,'' she declared, ``the shell we see today will be transformed into an attractive, exciting commercial and transportation complex -- a mecca for shoppers, tourists, and travelers alike.'' She added that the planners hope for 20 million visitors a year.

The initial $49 million construction contract includes installation of modern climate-control and safety systems, cleaning of the interior and exterior, and the addition of a mezzanine in the rear concourse.

The PAVE pit will be filled in and a connection to the Metro subway will be made more convenient. Architects for the restoration are Harry Weese & Associates of Chicago, a firm noted for its sensitive work on historic structures.

Once the shell has been prepared, a retail complex of some 100 restaurants and shops as well as a nine-theater cinema will be developed. The $50 million project is under the direction of Union Station Venture Ltd., a joint effort of LaSalle Partners Inc., a Chicago-based corporate real estate service firm, and Williams Jackson Ewing, a Baltimore specialty retail developer, with Benjamin Thompson Associates as architects.

The Thompson firm is perhaps most noted for its design of Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, the first of a number of urban marketplaces that have proliferated across the country in recent years.

The entire complex, which also includes completion of a 1,200-car parking garage that was stopped in midair a decade ago by cost overruns, is scheduled to reopen in the summer of 1988. Then ``the legacy that was almost lost,'' as Amtrak executive vice-president William S. Norman said at the groundbreaking, will be reclaimed. Union Station will once again be a railroad station worthy of the name.

Carleton Knight III reports regularly on architecture for the Monitor.

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