50 Massachusetts Avenue NE
When the B&O Railroad first came to Washington, DC in 1835, its original depot was in an old tailor's shop on Pennsylvania Avenue. Located almost adjacent to the Capitol, the building attracted so much of the negative element that Congress passed a bill in 1858 and the station moved a few blocks away while the old depot became a tavern. Noticing the B&O's success, archrival Pennsylvania Railroad bought a dormant Baltimore & Potomac line that ran directly over the National Mall. By 1901, downtown Washington was so clogged with grade crossings, grubby terminals, and the dirt produced by locomotives of the day that a Senate commission ordered a reorganization of all lines. Enter Daniel H. Burnham, a renowned Beaux Arts architect who had already produced Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Station. It was Burnham who suggested that, rather than putting in two new stations, one single location be built that could accommodate both lines. The federal government provided a three million dollar grant to offset the cost of putting a tunnel under Capitol Hill, which enabled the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks to join the B&O Railroad tracks leading to a station that would unify the two.
The site selected for this new Union Station was called "Swampoodle," an Irish shantytown. Richard M. Lee's book Mr. Lincoln's City described the area as notorious for its "dirtiness, crime, and dubious loyalty to the Union" and "the ideal place to turn a dishonest dollar." The first full year of construction was spent building up the street grade and spreading nearly four million cubic yards of fill dirt, and the first slab of granite was laid at the site in 1905. The design was exceptionally pompous, with Constantinian arches and gilt leaf on a ceiling too high to see. Grand skylights were incorporated, and sculptor Louis Saint-Gaudens produced statues for both the interior and exterior. Upon completion, the Concourse became the world's largest hall. Rooms included space for a dining hall, soda fountain, waiting area for the disabled, a reading room, a billiard parlor, a bowling alley, a smoking lounge for men and a sitting room for women, offices, a Presidential Suite, and an upstairs room so long it was rented by District Police as a shooting range. The first train arrived from Pittsburgh at 6:50am on October 27, 1907, but the first ticket was not purchased until the station's formal opening a year later. All told, the station and its approaches cost $125 million.
Heyday and Runaway
The main Concourse was neither heated in winter nor cooled in summer, yet it remained a popular destination for the locals as well as those arriving by train. James "Doc" Carter, a redcap in 1945, remembered that at times the station was so crowded "people used to bribe me to put them in wheelchairs so they could get to the trains in front of the crowds." During World War II, an army sergeant who had been wounded in Germany suffered a broken leg when he was trampled by the holiday crowds at the station. Further tragedy struck on January 15, 1953 when Train 173, the Federal Express service from Boston, plowed directly into the station. Although there were about 400 passengers on the train - many already waiting by the door - and several people in the station itself, no one was killed and only 43 people required hospitalization. The station, however, suffered a worse fate: the floor, unable to support the weight of the engine and first car, collapsed just five days before the inauguration of President-elect Eisenhower. Within two days, a false floor had been built and visitors could barely tell anything had happened even as repair crews cut up the remains of the engine so it could be removed. Track 16 was back in service three days after the accident, which an Interstate Commerce Commission inquiry determined was caused by a faulty brake valve. The Commission also absolved the train crew of any guilt and commended them for bravery.
In 1967, it was decided that Union Station would become a "grand scale" Visitor Center for those coming to Washington to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. Seymour Auerbach, chosen as architect, tried to avoid cluttering the Main Hall with freestanding exhibits and instead ripped out the entire floor in that portion of the station to make room for a few large exhibits. His plans were so detailed, however, that the National Park Service ran out of money and Auerbach was replaced. By that point, though, there was not enough funding for anything else and the Center was left with a slide show and a few other displays. President Nixon had described the Center as "indispensible," and Congress awarded the project $8.7 million in federal funding. It was too late, though, and after the July 4th opening interest, attendance, and maintenance deteriorated rapidly despite the addition of a Metro station underneath the terminal and center. Those actually attempting to catch a train were forced to go all the way through the Visitor Center to reach the backyard tracks hastily established by the Penn Central railroad company. The slide show was closed little more than two years after opening, and by December 1980 Congress had to lay out $11 million to have the leaks in the roof repaired. When the contractors had gotten partway through the work, the rest of the roof collapsed; a few days later a corroded pipeline on the third floor burst and sent nearly 10,000 gallons of water into the building. Union Station hosted events surrounding Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981 and was then ordered closed.
Amtrak, not happy to see its passengers forced through a plywood maze to reach trains, helped convince senators Daniel Moynihan and Robert Stafford that the station should be kept from ruin (also helpful to the cause was the view of the terminal from several Senate offices). Congress authorized repairs of the roof, and the Redevelopment Act of 1981 transferred the building's lease from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Transportation. The secretary of that department, Elizabeth Dole, helped Amtrak president Graham Claytor come up with $70 million in Amtrak funds to refurbish the station into the company's headquarters. Another $40 million came from the interstate highway money allotted to the District of Columbia, which the city had been unable to use. The Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, a public-private partnership, took on the task of returning the station to service. The original Concourse became Claytor Concourse, gained heating and air conditioning, and was designated the ticketing/baggage handling area as well as a three-level shopping center. After "the Pit" - home of the failed slide show - was covered in the Main Hall, other tasks included dropping part of the floor five feet to accommodate a movie theater and recreating the original style of the marble floor. The project was reviewed by historic preservation and fine arts groups before proceeding, and extra care was taken to match pain colors, fabrics, and even the pattern in the glass ceiling, a style not made since 1912. $160 million later, in 1988, the work crews finally left the station and a gala reopening was held.
Union Station today is efficiently run, providing all the services of both a shopping mall and train station. Home to stores such as Victoria's Secret and a thirty-vendor food court, the station also showcases cultural exhibits from around the world in the Main Hall and is a popular venue for inaugural balls. The only indication of the Visitor Center's having existed is in the Metro station, where a single pylon still reads "Union Station/Visitor Center." Eleven gates provide access to more than twenty-five tracks, which in addition to Amtrak passengers also service commuters on VRE and MARC routes.
The above writeup was originally much shorter. New version written 24 August 2001. While the original writeup was entirely based on what I knew in my head, this one is a blend of personal knowledge and information from Union Station: A History of Washington's Grand Terminal, by Carol M. Highsmith and Ted Landphair.
A station of the D.C. Metro
Address: 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, DC
Location: Intersection of First Street NE and Massachusetts Avenue NE
Parking: Up to two hours, with validation from Union Station, $1.00.
Opened: March 27, 1976
Shady Grove, weekdays: 11:59pm
Shady Grove, weekends: 1:59am
Glenmont, weekdays: 12:11am
Glenmont, weekends: 2:11am
Metrobus: 80, 91, 96, 97, D1, D3, D4, D6, D8, X1, X2, X8
Located beneath the heavy rail Union Station terminal, this subway station is near the National Postal Museum, Capital Children's Museum, a number of government buildings, and offices of C-SPAN and CNN. The station itself is also a tourist destination, featuring shops and eateries.
From here you can...
go back to the Metro project,
jump to the red line,
go inbound to Judiciary Square,
or outbound to Rhode Island Avenue.