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First the Trains, Now the Arts

Museums and other cultural groups are putting old rail facilities to useful purposes. But the projects are fraught with difficulties.

July 21, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

On a breezy morning down by the old Santa Fe station in San Diego, the palm trees rustle, the rail commuters bustle and, along the platform, the broad doors of an 87-year-old baggage storage building groan open.

Following the footsteps of countless baggage handlers, Hugh M. Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, steps in, looks up at the scarred tile walls and steel trusses that support a 38-foot-high ceiling, and says something no baggage handler has ever said.

"The whole space is thought of primarily as a sculpture space," says Davies, waving an arm. "It's about volume, not pristine white walls."

If Davies has his way, this blue-collar building will be reborn in two years as an exhibition space--which may seem a novel transition, at first glance. But follow the tracks north for 120 miles, to a long-bedraggled, semi-bohemian corner of downtown Los Angeles.

Since September, about 400 undergraduates and grad students have been gathering here to make little wooden models and pace the halls of a vast, concrete curiosity of a building, 40 to 60 feet wide and 1,250 feet long. This is the new home of the Southern California Institute of Architecture: a freight depot, built in 1907 by the same company that built the Santa Fe station in San Diego.

"We like the unrelenting and extreme nature of the building," says Gary Paige, the SCI-Arc faculty member who served as principal architect of the adaptation.

The prospects may seem dimmer by the day for Amtrak and interstate passenger rail service, but across the U.S., museums and other cultural groups are making over old rail facilities at a startling pace. Within the last five years, redevelopment campaigns in Los Angeles, San Diego, Baltimore, Kansas City, Mo., Tacoma, Wash., and elsewhere have transformed historic railway buildings into museums or campuses, or both.

In Baltimore, where Baltimore & Ohio railway workers laid the nation's first mile of long-distance railroad track in the 1820s, several buildings from the early years of railroading have been converted to cultural uses, most recently the city's 1849 President Street Station, which in April 1997 reopened as home of the Maryland Historical Society's Baltimore Civil War Museum.

In Tacoma, the University of Washington won a 1999 National Trust for Historic Preservation award for its renovation of six brick warehouses in the Union Station district to create a new campus. Federal officials had already turned the main station nearby into a courthouse and filled it with native son Dale Chihuly's art glass pieces, including a massive cobalt chandelier. Now the campus enrollment has reached 2,000, and in the neighborhood surrounding the terminal, a history museum has opened, the Tacoma Art Museum is putting up a new building (to open in 2003), and a glass museum opened this month.

In Santa Monica, city officials in the early 1990s found themselves in possession of Bergamot Station, a 7-acre rail yard where trolleys stopped as long ago as 1875. There was no grand terminal, just a collection of warehouses. But developer Wayne Blank saw possibilities, made a deal with the city, and put together a complex of more than three dozen art galleries and related businesses, including jewelers, framers, an auctioneer and a cafe. The complex opened in late 1994, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art joined the scene, taking over an adjacent plot owned by Blank and his wife, gallery operator Shoshana Blank, in early 1998.

All these relocations come despite many strong practical arguments against the attempted rescue of a railroad property. Restoration costs can be staggering, surrounding neighborhoods are often rotten, and tales are plentiful of redevelopment campaigns awash in red ink.

But to paraphrase an old Amtrak ad slogan, there's something about a train station. Admirers cite the soaring ceilings, the broad passages for foot or freight traffic, the bold, purposeful architecture, and, in some cases, the economics. Many rail buildings come cheap because of their location, and many offer the chance to defray costs with preservation grants from governments.

Cultural groups often step into these projects when entrepreneurs fail. In other cases, developers seize upon nonprofits as collaborators when they need a civic-minded partner to ease government approval. In San Diego, for instance, the Santa Fe station's owner--Catellus Development Corp., a publicly traded offspring of the old Santa Fe Pacific Railroad--has pledged renovation, donation and reuse of the baggage building space (with the museum as tenant) in exchange for permission to build two residential towers next to the tracks.

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