Essential Architecture- Washington D.C.

Union Station


Daniel Burnham, FAIA


50 Massachusetts Avenue NE Washington, DC






limestone facade


railway station

  With special thanks to Peter van der Krogt

The central block of the immense front façade

Union Station is the grand ceremonial train station designed to be the entrance to Washington, D.C. when it opened in 1907.

It is one of the busiest and best-known places in Washington, D.C., visited by 20 million people each year. The terminal is served by Amtrak, MARC and VRE commuter railroads, and the Washington Metro transit system of buses and subway trains.

When the Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio Railroads announced in 1901 that they planned to build a new terminal, people in the city celebrated for two reasons. The decision meant, first of all, that both the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad would soon remove their trackwork and terminals from the Mall. Though changes there appeared only gradually, the consolidation of the depots allowed the creation of the Mall as it appears today. Second, the plans to bring all the city's railroads under one roof promised that Washington would finally have a station large enough to handle large crowds and impressive enough to reflect the Capital's role.

Architecture and construction

USGS satellite image of Union Station, taken April 26, 2002, reveals the complicated network of tracks descending into the station from the northeast. The large building to the left of Union Station is the Postal Square Building, home to the National Postal Museum and the Bureau of Labor Statistics; to the right is the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building.Architect Daniel Burnham, assisted by Pierce Anderson, used a number of techniques to convey this message: neoclassical elements combined the Roman architecture of the triumphal arch with the great vaulted spaces of Imperial Roman public baths, such as the Baths of Diocletian in Rome; prominent siting at the intersection of two of Pierre L'Enfant's avenues, with an orientation that faced the United States Capitol, just five blocks away; a massive scale, including a facade stretching more than 600' and a waiting room ceiling 96' above the floor; stone inscriptions and allegorical sculpture in the Beaux-Arts manner; expensive materials such as marble, gold leaf, and white granite from a previously unused quarry.

Above the main cornice of the central block stand colossal statues designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens whose iconography expresses the confident enthusiasm of the "American Renaissance" movement: Fire, Electricity, Freedom, Imagination, Agriculture and Mechanics. The substitution of Agriculture for Commerce in a railroad station iconography vividly conveys the power of a specifically American lobbying bloc.

Burnham drew upon a well-developed tradition of treating the entrance to a major terminal as a triumphal arch, a tradition that had been initiated in London at Euston Station. He linked the monumental end pavilions with long arcades enclosing loggias in a long series of bays that were vaulted with the lightweight fireproof Guastavino tiles favored by American Beaux-Arts architects. The final aspect owed a great deal to the Court of Heroes at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, where Burnham had been coordinating architect. The setting of Union Station's facade at the focus of converging avenues in a park-like green setting is one of the few executed achievements of the "City Beautiful" movement: elite city planning that was based on the "goosefoot" (patte d'oie) of formal garden plans made by Baroque designers like André Le Notre. The radiating avenues can been seen in the satellite view (illustration, right).

Modernist architectural critics detested the imperial bombast of the Beaux-Arts style in all its manifestations, and Union Station has been no exception. Within the station was a full range of dining rooms and other services, including barber shops and a mortuary. Union Station was equipped with a presidential suite (now occupied by a restaurant) that was prompted by the recent assassinations of Presidents James Garfield and William McKinley. Garfield had actually been shot at Washington's Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station July 2, 1881, while he waited for a train.

Union Station opened on October 27, 1907 with the arrival of a B&O passenger train from Pittsburgh. The terminal quickly became the portal to the Capitol. At no time was it busier than during World War II, when as many as 200,000 people passed through in a single day.

On the morning of January 15, 1953, the Pennsylvania Railroad's Federal Express crashed into the station. When the engineer tried to apply the trainline brakes two miles out of the platforms, he discovered that he only had engine brakes. He radioed ahead and the concourse was cleared as the train coasted downhill into track 16. The GG1 locomotive, No. 4876, hit the bumper post at about 25 miles per hour, jumped onto the platform, destroyed the stationmaster's office at the end of the track, took out a newsstand, and was on its way to crashing through the wall into the Great Hall. Just then, the floor of the terminal, having never been designed to carry the weight of a locomotive, gave way, dropping the engine into the basement. The 447,000-pound electric locomotive fell into about the center of what is now the food court. Remarkably, no one was killed, and passengers in the rear cars thought that they had only had a rough stop. An investigation revealed that an anglecock on the brakeline had been closed. The accident inspired the finale of the 1976 film Silver Streak.

For most of its existence, Union Station served as a hub, with service of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Pennsylvania Railroad, and Southern Railway. The Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad provided a link to Richmond, Virginia, about 100 miles to the south, where major north-south lines of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and Seaboard Air Line Railroad provided service to the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.

Decline and restoration
As with many American railroad stations, the financial and physical condition of Union Station deteriorated after World War II as train travel declined and federal funding created a competitive interstate highway system. In 1958, the B&O and Pennsylvania Railroads considered giving away the station or perhaps razing it and constructing an office building on the site. In 1963, the feasibility of transforming the station into a cultural center was evaluated, but that proposal eventually became the Kennedy Center. Two years later, a Smithsonian Institution study suggested using Union Station as a railroad museum, but the organization's secretary felt other projects - including the National Air and Space Museum - took precedence.

In 1967, the chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission expressed interest in using Union Station as a visitor center during the upcoming Bicentennial celebrations. Funding for this was collected over the next six years, and the reconstruction of the station included outfitting the Main Hall with a recessed pit to display a slide show presentation. This was officially the PAVE - the Primary Audio-Visual Experience, but was sarcastically referred to as "the Pit". The entire project was completed, save for the parking garage, and opening ceremonies were held on July 4, 1976. Due to a lack of publicity and convenient parking, the National Visitor Center was never popular. Following a 1977 General Accounting Office report indicating Union Station was in danger of imminent structural collapse, the National Park Service closed the presentation in "The Pit" on October 28, 1978.

As a result of the Redevelopment Act of 1981, Union Station was closed for restoration and refurbishing. Mold was growing in the ceiling of the Main Hall, and the carpet laid out for an Inauguration Day celebration was full of cigarette-burned holes. In 1988, then-Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole awarded $70 million to the restoration effort. "The Pit" was transformed into a new basement level, and the Main Hall floor was refitted with marble. While installing new ventilation systems, crews discovered antique items in shafts that had not been opened since the building's creation. The decorative elements of the station were also restored.

Current use

The station reopened in its present form in 1988. The former "Pit" area was replaced with an AMC movie theater (now Phoenix Theatres) and a large food court in the former baggage-mail level, a variety of shops opened along the Concourse and Main Hall, and a new Amtrak terminal at the back behind the original Concourse. In 1994, the passenger concourse was renamed to honor retired Amtrak president W. Graham Claytor Jr. of Roanoke, Virginia, who served for 11 years, from 1982 until 1993.

Today Union Station is again one of Washington's busiest and best-known places, visited by 20 million people each year. The terminal is located at the southern end of the Northeast Corridor, an electrified rail line extending north through major cities to Boston, Massachusetts.

Passenger services include Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express, Amtrak's intercity trains, the MARC and VRE commuter railways, linking Washington to Maryland and Virginia, respectively; and the Washington Metro Red Line.

The headquarters of Amtrak is located in the building.

Union Station carries the IATA airport code of ZWU. [1]

Union Station in the Media
Washington's Union Station has featured as a location in numerous movies, not all as memorable as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Others include Hannibal, The Recruit, Along Came a Spider, Collateral Damage, The Sentinel and Wedding Crashers. In order to be featured in the Tom Cruise film Minority Report, parts of the station had to be configured to look like a futuristic model consistent with the film's 2054 setting.

Several episodes of the television series The West Wing have used Union Station as a setting.

The station has also been the subject of multiple books. The 128-page Union Station: A Decorative History of Washington's Grand Terminal by Carol Highsmith and Ted Landphair tells the complete history of the station through text and photographs. Presidential daughter Margaret Truman's Capital Crimes mystery series includes a Murder at Union Station novel.


The front of Union Station at dusk

Various treatments of arches and vaulted spaces characterize the interior

The grand central interior of Union Station

Northeast Corridor platforms and tracks at Union Station