DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, May 12, 2014

Training an Eye on Union Station's Past, Present, and Future

Fascination withTrains span generations
What better way to take advantage of National Train Day than to take a special tour of historic Union Station here in DC.

Our tour would be conducted by 3 guides, all of whom are involved in both restoring the station and making it a practical transportation showplace for the 21st Century. Our guides were Rob Nieweg, a field director and attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation; David Tuchmann, vice president of Akridge development; and Thomas Taylor of the NOMA (North of Massachusetts) BID business group.

Here is what we learned about Union Station:

from Rob Niewig's perspective
Union Station interior
The station, which opened in 1907, was designed by early urban planner Daniel Burnham, who talked of "the city beautiful" and rose to prominence with his work on the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago.

The name Union station comes from the fact that the then-new facility served both of DC's major railroads, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the B & O.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the station provided the main gateway to the nation's capital. In the 96-foot tall, 200-feet long waiting room you could watch trains pull up into the station.

One of the most famous incidents at the train station occurred in 1953 when the brakes on a Pennsylvania Railroad train malfunctioned and it crashed into the station, jumped the passenger platform, and plunged through the floor of the passenger terminal into the basement of the station. Miraculously, no one was killed and only 43 people were injured.

Neiwig says many people have the wrong idea of preservation.

"It's about managing change, it's not about stopping change," he said.

The earthquake that struck the DC area in August, 2011 damaged much of the ceiling, and it is now being restored and strengthened.

Ornate statues based on Greek and Roman lore decorate both the inside and outside of the massive station. "Today, on one of the tours, I asked a young boy how old he thought the station was. He looked at some of those statues and said - a thousand years. And in a way, the little guy is right. The designers were trying to be symbolic with their idea of progress in railroading. This was the thing that the creators of the 1st Century were projecting. We want to keep some of that, but we want to make this a public place for its 2nd Century, too."

Learning on Train Day
from David Tuchmann's perspective
At its height of use during World War II, 200,000 people poured through Union Station every day. While the daily numbers aren't quite that great these days, an estimated 32 million people pass through the station annually. Almost 20 different types of transportation deposit and pick up people at the site.

"Really, this is kind of Washington's 4th airport," Tuchman says, citing the fact that Union Station is only behind Amtrak's New York station in number of passengers. It is also the most-used Metro stop in DC. More than 4,000 riders arrive and depart here from buses daily. "It all makes for an incredible transition for passengers," he said. "There's not enough space to move people on and off the trains comfortably."

Tuchmann has an image he likes to convey to point out the desperate need for modernization and expansion. He said that when 1 train arrives at the platform, it contains as many passengers as three 747 jet planes. "We're definitely overwhelmed at peak riding periods," he noted.

The 20-year expansion project envisioned will move out, over, and under the existing facility and its tracks.  "We need efficient systems to move people in and out," Tuchmann said.

from Thomas Taylor's perspective
View of NOMA today from the top of the station
Taylor, whose BID group is responsible for the growing development around the station,  said that many people believe that the Union Station area was never residential. They recall all the warehouses in the area, which became abandoned after trucks, not trains, became the preferred method of goods transportation.

"This area was once called Swampoodle. It was home to Irish immigrants, who as Catholics, weren't welcome in DC. They were displaced for the warehouses and now the warehouses are being displaced by new businesses and apartments," Taylor said.

Several businesses and government offices now call NOMA home, including Sirius XM, whose huge satellite dishes can be seen from the roof of the Unions Station parking garage. More than 4,000 residents now live in new construction near the station.

All three said the multi-year project is an attempt to bring together the past, the present, and the future.

But most of all a revamped, renovated Union Station has to work for the people who will be using the station and the surrounding sites. "75 years from now, if you are a Congressman, or a commuter, or a visitor, Union Station has to work for you. That's the standard we will be judged by," Tuchmann said.

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