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Ties to the Past : Trains: Some call Union Station 'the last great train station.' It offers a window on yesterday, but plans for commercial development are afoot.

November 24, 1991|ELIZABETH LOPREST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not many people are waiting in Union Station on this particular Sunday. A few pigeons tap at the shining floors. A small film crew uses the cathedral ceilings and the large-paned windows as a backdrop for a goodby scene.

Goodby seems an appropriate word for this place, built just past the peak of railroad travel.

These days, with millions of cars jamming the freeways and one-hour plane trips an affordable everyday happening, it seems filming a movie is all Union Station is good for.

You don't have to say goodby, however (as they always did in the movies), because Union Station is a place where you can peek and poke at your leisure.

As you enter on Alameda Street through the 50-foot arch with its Moorish grating, you walk into something of a movie set. Confronted by a melding of styles, you have a panoramic view of the entire station.

Directly in front is an information booth, which is no longer in use; it remains stately looking with its pencil-Gothic lettering--a feature of many areas in the station. This walkway is lighted by elaborate suspended Spanish-style light fixtures, 10 feet in diameter. Even the phone booths are accented by concave flourishes set in the wall above them.

To your left, a large archway frames the largest room in the station: the ticket concourse. It is blocked off by a line of dark wooden doors, which try to pathetically fit into the larger decor. The 115-foot black walnut ticket counter dominates the room, which leads to where the men's and ladies' rest rooms once were, the two separated by a barber shop.

"People would line up by the thousands," a man says, pointing to the ticket counter as he plays tour guide to his friends. "Now it's like a mausoleum."

The room, cut off now from the general public, is rented out for parties.

Following the walkway on a strip of quarry marble tile--fashioned like a carpet runner--you come to the waiting area. In one of the comfortable leather-and-wood settees provided by the Los Angeles Furniture Co., you can lie back and lose yourself in the intricate woodwork of the high ceilings.

The station was built with an eye for tourists hunting down the opulence and mystique of Los Angeles, then dominated by Hollywood. Although the Spanish-Mediterranean style, developed because it reflected the history of the area, dominates, the station also has the distinct stamp of the Art Deco era.

On the north side of the waiting area is a patio, a tiny oasis of grass and flowers, offering a brief escape for travelers and explorers. It's completely enclosed, blocking out the eyesore of Metro-North construction. It's a beautifully tailored area with a Streamline Moderne flowing fountain.

Union Station, named for unity of three railroad lines--the Santa Fe, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific--was almost a relic from the day it opened in 1939. Although it was conceived two decades earlier, a bitter struggle ensued between Los Angeles city officials and the railroad commission over the notion of a united station.

The battle was fought in the newspapers, the courts and in the political sphere, and when the station finally opened, it was the twilight of train transportation. Years later, when Los Angeles International Airport opened, railroad transportation was more than dying in Southern California: It was dead.

After years of neglect, Union Station has recently undergone substantial renovation. The station is owned by Catellis, a real-estate development firm that has revamped it--from polishing the bronze doors to rewiring the light fixtures.

"This place had some really bad periods in the early '80s," says Will Walters of Domeliner Rail Tours as he points out the repairs to a friend. "And I've seen this place at all times (of) day and night."

The renovation and beefed up security are in anticipation of a plan to develop the station commercially. According to Walters and the Los Angeles Conservancy, plans are in the works to close some tracks and convert the area into stores and businesses. Plans also include finding a new occupant for the vacant Fred Harvey restaurant. Renovations also could encourage more filming. However, these plans may lead to a controversy over the fate of the station.

"Personally, I hope it never really loses its purpose as a train station," says Walters.

Head out of the waiting area, under the "To Trains" sign and you enter the practical area of the station. The Amtrak ticket booth with its plexiglass and fluorescent lighting is startling compared to the older areas. This is where passengers--in fewer numbers than in Union Station's heyday--purchase their tickets. Most enter here, instead of through the main entrance, reminding us of how Union Station has changed from the days when everyone unloaded out front.

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