When you visit Union Station, you're stepping into the heart (or at least into a major artery) of everyday Washington life. Located within walking distance and full view of the Capitol, the station is a vital crossroads for locals. You'll see Hill staffers who debark the Metro's Red Line at its stop here ("Union Station" is the station name, naturally); commuters, who ride MARC and Amtrak trains from outlying cities such as Baltimore; residents who walk or Metro here to shop, work, dine, or dawdle; and travelers from all over who arrive and depart by train all day long. Paths collide, quite literally sometimes, as ambling visitors and people running to catch a train crisscross the same ground.
When it opened in 1907, this was the largest train station in the world. It was designed by noted architect Daniel H. Burnham, who modeled it after the Baths of Diocletian and Arch of Constantine in Rome. Its facade includes Ionic colonnades fashioned from white granite and 100 sculptured eagles. Graceful 50-foot Constantine arches mark the entryways, above which are poised six carved fixtures representing Fire, Electricity, Freedom, Imagination, Agriculture, and Mechanics. Inside is the Main Hall, a massive rectangular room with a 96-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling, an expanse of white-marble flooring, and a balcony adorned with 36 Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculptures of Roman legionnaires. Off the Main Hall is the East Hall, shimmering with scagliola marble walls and columns, a gorgeous hand-stenciled skylight ceiling, and stunning murals of classical scenes inspired by ancient Pompeian art. (Today this is the station's most pleasant shopping venue: less crowded and noisy, with small vendors selling pretty jewelry and other accessories.)
In its time, this "temple of transport" has witnessed many important events. President Wilson welcomed General Pershing here in 1918 on his return from France. South Pole explorer Rear Admiral Richard Byrd was also feted at Union Station on his homecoming. And Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral train, bearing his casket, was met here in 1945 by thousands of mourners.
But after the 1960s, with the decline of rail travel, the station fell on hard times. Rain caused parts of the roof to cave in; and the entire building -- with floors buckling, rats running about, and mushrooms sprouting in damp rooms -- was sealed in 1981. That same year, Congress enacted legislation to preserve and restore this national treasure, to the tune of $160 million. The remarkable restoration involved hundreds of European and American artisans who were meticulous in returning the station to its original design.
At least 25 million people come through Union Station's doors yearly. About 120 retail and food shops on three levels offer a wide array of merchandise and dining options. The sky-lit Main Concourse, which extends the entire length of the station, is the primary shopping area as well as a ticketing and baggage facility. A nine-screen cinema complex lies on the lower level, across from the Food Court. You could spend half a day here shopping or about 20 minutes touring. Stop by the visitor kiosk in the Main Hall.
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