ONCE THE VERY HEART of downtown St. Louis, Union Station has come through hard times to celebrate its one hundredth birthday—and even though the trains don’t pull in here anymore, it’s still an urban draw
The country’s largest railroad station as well as once one of the busiest will turn one hundred on September 4, and preceding the anniversary will come a summer’s worth of celebrations. Theodore Link, the architect of the handsome towered structure, patterned the station’s headhouse after the walled medieval city of Carcassonne in southern France and fashioned an elaborate interior, using mosaic, gold leaf, stained glass, and tile to inspire the awe that was simply the due of a prosperous Midwestern city’s rail terminal at the century’s turn. Link could not have imagined how quickly rail travel would slow to a near halt (the last train pulled out of the St. Louis terminal in 1978) and that his great public spectacle might soon settle into dust. Saved in the 1980s by the forces of preservation allied to promoters of the newest urban phenomenon, the mid-city mall, Union Station has come roaring back. It’s busy again—although with shoppers and diners rather than travelers. You can even stay overnight there; not by nodding off in the cavernous waiting room as thousands of troops on the move did during the Second World War, but by checking into the Hyatt Regency that has cleverly and almost seamlessly attached itself to the station. Its lobby, the former Grand Hall, features Link’s six-story barrel-vaulted ceiling.
Even though it’s not possible to catch a train in Union Station anymore, the summer’s celebrations will be filled with railroad history. There will be guided tours, documentary films shown in a 1950 Pullman Standard Coach, and a museum called Artrain (because it is housed in a train) featuring the exhibit “The Romance of Transportation.” Two great locomotives from 1926 and 1938 will be on view, along with a series of classic passenger cars. A short play called A Long Hard Journey will tell the story of the Pullman porters’ struggle to forge the first black-controlled labor union, which became a training ground for many of the great African-American leaders from the first half of this century.
While the 1980s resteration program was under way, the developers received numerous letters from former employees, travelers, and local people who were moved to explain what the station had meant to them. These notes were assembled into a surprisingly affecting display in the Midway. “In 1925 when I was ten years old our family of six arrived from a small town of five hundred in Arkansas to live,” reads one letter. “I had never seen a large city. The Station was beautiful and seemed huge. I was turning around and around staring up wide eyed in amazement as it all seemed to glitter with lights. I hollered out, ‘So this is St. Louis,’ thinking the Station was St. Louis in my childhood mind.”
(For further information, call Union Station at 314-421-6655.)