Union Station – A trip back in time (part 1)
February 18, 2023
How long has it been since you have given any thought to visiting Union Station in Los Angeles other than you can get there from here by taking Metrolink from Lancaster – usually to catch a train to somewhere else? Due to its recent restoration, Union Station is as much a museum as it is a transportation hub.
On Jan. 28, a group of 19 people from Tehachapi, representing Friends of the Depot, the Heritage League, the Tehachapi Railroad Club and others traveled by Metrolink to Union Station for a guided tour of the facility sponsored by the LA Conservancy. Tour Guide, Dave McMenamin, talked the group through the history of Union Station from its construction in 1939 through the amazing 9-year restoration that was completed in early 2021 and made it the gem it is today.
McMenamin said the City of Los Angeles originally had three railroad stations. That number was eventually reduced to one by public vote. In 1900, architect John Parkinson was hired to design the new structure. He is also known for his designs of Los Angeles City Hall, the LA Coliseum and Bullock's Wilshire. It is said that his design was influenced primarily by the architecture of the Santa Barbara Courthouse. It was a blend of Spanish Colonial style and the then-popular Art Deco. McMenamin pointed out the eight-pointed Moorish star that became a recurring theme throughout the decoration of the station, a design popular at the time.
All of the original beauty of Union Station had been hidden for decades by caked tobacco tar, smoke and dirt. When the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) purchased the station in 2011, they developed a plan for restoration that was begun in 2013 and finally completed in March 2021. It was during the ceiling cleaning of the ticket area in 2017 that workers discovered that it was not solid wood but painted plaster with a floral pattern printed in colors of bright orange, yellow and peach. Further work on the waiting room uncovered additional shades of green, purple and lavender. The chandeliers were cleaned and restored as were the black-walnut ticket counters and the bronze-trimmed windows. Other versions of that painted ceiling were found throughout Union Station, in the floor tiles and other wall and ceiling designs.
Restorers discovered that the assumed cast iron grills that covered electric panels were found to be a gold-colored mix of bronze and aluminum. During the exterior restoration, the clay tile roof was replaced and it was during the exterior renovation that workers discovered that the black bells, assumed to be solid cast iron were actually covered with 24 karat gold leaf filigree.
Continued work on the restoration was in question when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. As the station was suddenly empty, it was decided to push to finish the restoration. The $4.1- million terminal restoration project was completed in March of 2021, just in time to be a part of the 93rd Academy Awards Ceremony held that year. The huge ticket area is no longer a waiting room, nor is it used for ticketing. It is now used as event space that can be rented. The day of our January tour, the space was being set up to host a huge wine-tasting event.
Our tour moved on to cover the remainder of the historic Union Station as well as the more modern additions. This part will be covered in a future issue of The Loop newspaper. Don't miss the history of the Fred Harvey Restaurant and the works of art that are scattered throughout the complex.