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Capital's 80-Year-Old Train Station Being Restored--for Second Time

February 21, 1988|DONNA CASSATA | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The often sidetracked restoration of Washington's 80-year-old Union Station, which fell on hard times with a leaky roof and toadstools growing in its marble floor, is finally nearing completion.

But the $150-million budget is much bigger than anyone envisioned back in 1967 when Congress tried to save the Beaux Arts-style train station by turning it into the National Visitors Center.

That project, in which the station was redesigned to serve as a tourist gateway to Washington during the 1976 Bicentennial celebration, proved to be short-lived. Lack of interest in the center, whose renovation had increased in price from $16 million to $48 million because of construction delays and bureaucratic squabbling, forced officials to close the facility in 1978--two years after it had opened.

Waste of Federal Funds

Congress, painfully aware of the waste of federal funds, decided in 1981 to return the white granite edifice designed by Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham to its primary purpose--a train station--and its original name--Union Station.

Congress called on the private sector rather than the government to manage the station's restoration, which now fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation rather than the Department of the Interior.

The Union Station Redevelopment Corp., handling the project for the Department of Transportation, selected a commercial developer, real estate firm and general contractor. It chose also the architectural firm of Benjamin Thompson Associates Inc. of Chicago, designer of Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, Harbor Place in Baltimore and South Street Seaport in New York City.

The bulk of the project's financing comes from Amtrak, which put up $70 million. The private sector has added $30 million and the District of Columbia provided $40 million in federal highway funds to build a 1,200-car, 80-bus parking garage. The Federal Railroad Administration supplied additional funds to operate the station during the redevelopment.

Naked Roman Soldiers

Today, workers are restoring the gold-leaf coffers in the barrel-vaulted ceilings and cleaning the 32 statues of Roman soldiers that were outfitted with shields at the turn of the century to appease railroad officials shocked by their nakedness.

A few steps away, in a trailer housing temporary offices, the developer is seeking specialty shops, trendy restaurants and fast-food operations to fill some of the station's 215,000-square feet of retail space.

The refurbished Union Station, scheduled to be opened in September, 1988, will be divided into three levels--a Metro Concourse on the lower level, the Head House/Station Concourse on the street level and a newly created Shopping Concourse on the upper level. A head house is the part of a terminal providing accommodations for persons waiting for trains.

A nine-screen movie theater, a Washington Metro subway system station and fast-food outlets will fill the lower level, and stores like Banana Republic and The Limited will occupy the upper level.

Amtrak, which has shunted passengers off to a makeshift station nearby, will take up 60,000 square feet of the station, including a section of the Head House and the station concourse.

'On Time and on Budget'

Jonathan Bortz, vice president of LaSalle Partners, the developer, said recently that the project is "on time and on budget" to serve approximately 6 million annual train and subway travelers as well as the more than 230,000 people who live and work within a 15-minute walk of the station.

On a daily basis, about 8,400 people use Amtrak, about 15,000 ride the Metro subway from Union Station and 7,000 take a commuter rail line to points in Maryland.

The number of visitors is a far cry from what the Washington Herald newspaper referred to as the station's "human swarm" during the First World War--35,000 to 42,000 daily passengers and 229 trains.

They poured through the three mahogany doors of the huge Head House--220 feet long and 120 feet wide--with its Vermont marble floor with red diamonds, brass lamp fixtures and mahogany benches for travelers. They pushed through the arches of the Head House to the cavernous concourse beyond and the gates to arriving and departing trains.

Huge Concourse

The concourse, at 760 feet long and 130 feet wide, exceeded by nearly 9 feet the length of the Capitol. Critics said the station was so big that spring met you at the entrance and winter greeted you when you walked out.

Charles Van Horn, who worked for the B&O and C&O railroads for 49 years, remembers the hundreds of First Families, foreign dignitaries and wartime heroes who packed the station, which he calls "a great old lady."

"It was always packed, well-maintained, the service was always good," Van Horn said.

The station, part of Burnham's beautification movement for the nation's capital, opened on Oct. 27, 1907, on a site formerly known as Swampoodle, once a settlement of Irish immigrants.

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