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Architecture and Railroads: A Tribute

Paul M. Weyrich

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October 7, 2008

Last Sunday my son Peter and I were guests of Amtrak, the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation and others in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Union Station in Washington, D.C. The millions who use Union Station see a magnificent edifice reflecting the day when the railroads were royalty in America. President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned Union Station in 1904. In 1908 it opened. As its glorious history was discussed at the event, I could not help but think back a few decades when Union Station was close to being torn down. It was saved thanks to Secretary of Transportation (now North Carolina Senator) Elizabeth Dole.

Many expected Secretary Dole, serving in the Reagan Administration, to relegate this magnificent building to the wrecking ball. In fact, General Counsel of the Senate Steering Committee Mike Hammond arranged for her to do so if she so chose. Instead she constituted the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation as an early public-private partnership. The organization restored Union Station to its previous glory. Of course, there were some changes. There were no longer public baths which permitted the passengers from steam-driven trains to freshen up between trains. The presidential suite was built so that the president and his entourage could arrive the evening before an early-morning departure because White House horses didn’t like to travel in the early-morning dark. That space is now occupied by B. Smith’s Restaurant. Yet it is not so difficult to imagine old “TR” himself in the presidential waiting room.

Prior to the construction of the grand “Beaux-Arts” styled Union Station each railroad had a terminal. The Baltimore & Ohio’s depot was, for example, near the Capitol’s grounds. Union Station brought all the major railroads together in one place. Today it is served by Amtrak (the third busiest station in the system), the MARC (Maryland) commuter lines, the VRE (Virginia) commuter lines and the Washington METRO’s Red Line. All the passenger railroads which serve Washington come together at Union Station. With its many shops, theaters and a large food court, Union Station has become a sort of “downtown” for Capitol Hill. It is one bustling place.

The saving of Union Station marked a major change in the public’s attitude towards the preservation of classic American architecture. How many magnificent classic buildings were torn down in the 50s, 60s and 70s to be replaced by ugly steel and glass buildings which lacked character and soul? When one thinks of railroading one thinks of the great and grand Penn Station in New York City, which was torn down to make way for the cold, ugly Madison Square Garden. Fortunately it now appears that a new Penn Station, built from the actual interior of the Old Farley Post Office Building, may come back into being after all. The Farley Post Office was similar in design to the thoughtlessly razed Penn Station building.

I don’t always agree with Great Britain’s Prince Charles, but when it comes to architecture he is spot on. He has made it clear that he believes classical architecture is a tribute to God Almighty. I could not agree more. I hesitate to suggest to whom the ugly modern buildings are a tribute. Getting back to Union Station, the great architect Daniel Burnham, who was tasked with designing Washington’s magnificent edifice, said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will themselves not be realized. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.” Thank God Mr. Burnham made no little plan for Union Station.

Inscribed on the front of Union Station is this quotation from 18th century English author Samuel Johnson: “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him. So it is in traveling; a man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.”

Ah, train travel. What a magnificent way to gain knowledge.

Read the entire article on the Free Congress Foundation website (new window will open).

Posted: 08-Oct-2008

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