After World War II, when air travel became much more affordable and family vacations in cars on newly built roads became the norm, the passenger rail industry spiraled downward in a devastatingly rapid fashion. Majestic stations and terminals were abandoned or demolished. However, many survive, and the bullet trains of Asia and the success of the Chunnel are just two indicators that rail travel is far from history and will not be relegated to merely your daily commute to work. You should be sure to check out these architectural triumphs—very often located in the heart of the city that you’ve just flown into. These are my favorites.
#1: Union Station (St. Louis, Missouri)
Opened in 1894 in the heart of downtown St. Louis, Union Station immediately entered the history books as the largest and busiest terminal in the world, featuring the largest single-span train shed ever constructed (covering 32 tracks and stealing that record from London‘s St. Pancras). This indisputable gem emits a magnetic allure that commanded my attention every time I passed by. Combining Richardsonian and French Norman styles, this enormous station, with its red roof, fortress-like round towers, and soaring clock tower, was serving upwards of 100,000 passengers per day on 22 different railroads using 42 tracks at its peak. It chugged along until operations ceased in 1978. A restoration project completed in 1985 preserved its flawless exterior that makes you feel like you’re about to embark on something special as soon as you approach it. Now serving only the city’s light-rail transit system on just two tracks, Union Station has been repurposed as a hotel, entertainment center, restaurant and shopping complex, and Memories Museum that traces the station’s history—including its role as the spot where the famous photo of newly elected President Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune‘s very incorrect headline (“Dewey Defeats Truman”) was shot. Inside, I was completely taken by the 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling over the spacious Grand Hall covered in gold leaf and frescoes, and the Romanesque arches over windows and doorways. After enjoying a cool drink at the stylish bar, I made sure to admire one of the station’s highlights, the Allegorical Window—a stained-glass window depicting St. Louis as a goddess sitting regally and confidently on a long marble bench while rival goddesses New York and San Francisco rest on either side of her, eyeing her jealously.
#2 St. Benedict Railway Station (Porto, Portugal)
Just a few blocks from my wonderful hotel in Porto, Infante Sagres, chaotic activity abounded. A new subway station was being constructed, and pedestrian and vehicular traffic swarmed everywhere. In this little bottleneck, where you’ll find St. Anthony of the Gatherers Church, an existing subway station, open-air tour buses, the head of the shopping street Rua das Flores, and the tourist information center, stands the impressive São Bento Railway Station. Built on the site of a Benedictine monastery, the station opened in 1916 after a dozen years of construction and after King Carlos I placed the cornerstone himself. The symmetrical granite building is a Beaux Arts beauty, with arched windows with decorative keystones, a heavily bracketed cornice, and a couple of synchronized clocks on the corners. But it’s what’s inside that makes this station so spectacular. The ceiling of the entrance hall, painted a sunny yellow, sports beautiful white plasterwork, and I soon found myself gaping at the walls, covered with 20,000 azulejo pieces—ceramic tiles that are one of Portugal’s most iconic symbols. At the top of the walls, two bands of blue and gold stylized flowers sandwich a polychromatic frieze depicting the history of transportation in Portugal, from the earliest times to the arrival of the train. Below that, framed by pilasters and conforming to the arches of the windows and doorways, gorgeous murals in blue and white tile depict romantic and rural scenes, while the larger works represent key moments in the country’s history. Although I was unfamiliar with the historical scenes depicted, such as Prince Henry the Navigator’s conquest of Septa, the Battle of Arcos de Valdevez, and the arrival of King João I and Philippa of Lancaster in Porto on horseback, I was bowled over by the artistry that took 11 years to complete. Each blade of hay, each wrinkle in a banner, each fold in a woman’s garment, each insignia on a knight’s shield is expertly crafted, a prime example of an art form that has been beautifying this country since the 14th century. You may not use the train station for a practical transportation purpose when you’re in Porto, but you’ll long remember it as one of the world’s best.
#3: Dunedin Railway Station (Dunedin, New Zealand)
Fronting the triangular Anzac Square, the Dunedin Railway Station—once New Zealand’s busiest railway station in what was once its largest city—was completed in 1906 in a beguiling Flemish renaissance style, combining dark basalt with lighter stones, pink granite, and slate-gray terracotta shingles. A tall clock tower anchors one end of this exceptionally eye-catching and extremely long structure, and a protective colonnade runs along the front. The interior booking hall is highlighted by a floor of 750,000 mosaic tiles with locomotive and other train-related symbols. I caught the best view of it from upstairs, leaning over the rails of the balcony lined with a porcelain frieze and stained-glass windows, also containing rail motifs. Although its original purpose has been largely diminished, New Zealand’s most photographed building remains relevant by housing both the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame and the Otago Art Society, and by hosting the South Island’s main fashion show every March, when its 1,640-foot platform is transformed into the world’s longest catwalk.
#4: Union Terminal (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Walking through the expansive plaza fronting Cincinnati‘s Union Terminal gave me plenty of time to admire this Art Deco treasure. The largest manmade half-dome in the Western Hemisphere became an iconic symbol of the city as soon as it opened in 1933, but a doomed one at that. Rail travel was already starting to taper off, and the last train departed the station in 1972. After a tumultuous few decades under the constant threat of demolition, Union Terminal has emerged as a cultural center containing three museums, a library, an Omnimax theater, and the Cincinnati Railroad Club. Limited rail service—one train, three times a week —was restored in 1991, and those lucky passengers get to walk through a striking interior, characterized by sweeping circular lines, rich woods, unmistakable Art Deco fonts in the old signage, and, especially, brilliant murals in the rotunda. At 22′ high and 110′ long, the murals depict the city’s history through images of everything that shaped the “Queen City”—railroads, steamships, industry, farms. Unfortunately, Union Terminal is once again at a critical juncture, having been listed as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2014 due to extensive deterioration and water damage. Hopefully, Cincinnatians will find a way to keep Union Terminal from the wrecking ball—it deserves better.
#5: Union Station (Omaha, Nebraska)
Upon first sight of the now defunct Union Station in Omaha, Nebraska, I was awed by the grandeur of this gorgeous structure, opened in 1931 as Union Pacific’s first Art Deco station. At its peak, it served up to 10,000 passengers per day on seven different railroads not only with rail service, but a 24-hour restaurant, newsstand, barbershop, telegraph office, and small hospital. During World War II, a USO canteen was set up for thousands of servicemen passing through. The station closed in 1971, and Union Pacific donated it to the city; it’s now home of the Durham Museum. The exterior is an eye-catching vocabulary of strong lines and stylized sculptures and fixtures. When I walked into the Great Hall, I was completely won over by the 60′-high ceiling with herringbone patterns, cathedral windows, chandeliers that weigh more than 2,000 pounds each, brass ticket windows, terrazzo floor with three large sunbursts, statues in period dress buying tickets or waiting on the high-back wood benches (that had both lighting installed at the top, and the heating system built into them, with the vents at the ends) or hurrying through the doors to board their train, and the giant birds on either side of two clocks, stylized with zigzags, squares, and lines. After taking it all in, I couldn’t resist sitting at the counter of the soda fountain, slurping an old-fashioned chocolate milk shake and watching the staff set up tables, chairs, and floral arrangements for a wedding later that evening.
- Central Railway Station (Helsinki, Finland)
- St. Pancras International (London, United Kingdom)
- Grand Central Terminal (New York, New York)
- Amsterdam Centraal Station (Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
- Union Station (Washington, D.C.)
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July 17, 2015 at 10:49 am
Very informative! Thanks for this post!
July 17, 2015 at 10:50 am
Thanks, Bel. Glad you enjoyed it!
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