I walked about a mile from Jefferson House Bed and Breakfast, where I was staying just outside downtown Kansas City, to one of the city’s premier attractions — Union Station. I wasn’t headed there to board a train for somewhere else, but rather to see the station itself and its magnificent evolution from a class of train stations that epitomized the thrill of rail travel to a crumbling, abandoned relic, to a transformed beauty.
I clambered up the hillside staircases leading to the fantastic National World War I Museum and Memorial for the best view of Union Station. With the skyline of Kansas City in the background and the lively Henry Wollman Bloch Fountain in the foreground, Union Station’s grandeur unfolds in architectural harmony and utilitarian perfection, but its history is not as seamless.
After three years of construction, the massive Beaux Arts station with its trio of tremendous arched entrances opened in 1914 as the third-largest train station in the United States to the largest crowd ever gathered in the city. Nine hundred rooms were spread out over 850,000 square feet of space to accommodate the ever-increasing number of passengers who arrived in and departed from the growing city. In 1917, nearly 80,000 trains rolled through the station, and in 1945, more than 678,000 passengers boarded and disembarked here. Post-war, however, with expanded interstates and a booming airline industry, rail traffic started to decline. Only a year after the station was designated a National Historic Place in 1972, passenger traffic had fallen by a whopping 95 percent. Amtrak discontinued service in 1985 (after two years of operating under a plastic bubble inside the station to protect employees and riders from the pieces of crumbling ceiling that were falling to the floor), and the station was completely closed and abandoned. After more than a decade of desertion, voters in four counties approved a tiny sales tax (one-eighth of one cent) to raise funds to save and redevelop the station. After meticulous repairs, restorations, and the removal of 10 million pounds of debris, Union Station reopened to great fanfare in 1999.
I was eager to see how the $250 million project turned out. I entered the station and immediately had to step aside so I could gape at the magnificence of the Grand Hall. First impression: That quarter of a billion dollars had been spent very well.
Indeed, the revitalization of Union Station has revamped it from solely a transportation hub to a cultural and entertainment center. It houses shops, restaurants, a planetarium, both a giant-screen movie theater and a stage theater for live performances, and an interactive science center. It also hosts temporary world-class exhibits in its 20,000-square-foot gallery on the lower level, covering everything from the story of the Titanic to that of Genghis Khan.
To gain a greater understanding of this magnificent place, I headed upstairs to the museum featuring a history of the station and rail service in general. Artifacts in glass showcases explain the glamor of rail travel over the decades, covering everything from porters’ uniforms to the finest menus to the story of the Fred Harvey Company, owner of a chain of restaurants and hotels that was well-regarded for its good food, fine customer service, preservation of local traditions, and decent treatment of its employees, including the popular service staff: all white women, all single, all young, and all of good character, attractive, and intelligent. In addition to their salaries, they received room and board and were subject to such restrictions as a 10 p.m. curfew, enforced by a house mother, and beauty protocols (no makeup, and hair restrained in a net). These clean-cut, “marriageable” women became so popular that their story was turned into a 1942 novel and a 1946 musical movie starring Judy Garland.
I headed back down to the ground floor to the Grand Hall and passed under the three chandeliers weighing 3,500 pounds each that hang from the fully, and beautifully, restored coffered ceiling, 95 feet above me. The highly polished marble floor reflects the light pouring in through tremendous windows.
A clock with a six-foot diameter is suspended from the arch that separates the Grand Hall from the North Waiting Room (now called Grand Plaza). The clock keeps passengers on time to board their train, now that Amtrak restored service in 2002. I walked through the huge Grand Plaza, with its second-story windows flooding the space with light, which can hold up to 10,000 people. You never know who’ll be there — teenagers in tuxedos and gowns posing for prom pictures one day, job seekers attending a career fair the next.
At the far end, I found the entrance to the permanent KC Rail Experience that celebrates the excitement of railroads via an 8,000-square-foot model train setup that’s wonderfully entertaining for visitors of all ages, regardless of whether you ever had a model train set in your own home. Freight and passenger trains run the course of the tracks, through towns, into and out of tunnels, across bridges, past stations. The exhibit plays fast and loose with the uniformity of scale here and there, and throws in a bit of unrealistic whimsy (look for the Tyrannosaurus rex crashing through a rail trestle bridge), but you’ll be utterly captivated by the extent and details of the sprawling display.
Between its cultural and entertainment options, its dining options (score a table for lunch at the open-air Harvey’s at Union Station to look down on all the action, and pick up chocolate-mint cookies at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory for snacks later on), it’s easy to spend an entire day here. And I would recommend you do.