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50 Massachusetts Ave. NE
HOURS: Shops: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. noon-6 p.m.;
food court: Mon.-Sat. 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. 7 a.m.-6 p.m.
It is hard to imagine, but in 1981, Union Station, the city’s magnificent beaux arts train terminal designed by famed architect Daniel Burnham, was shuttered, its roof partially collapsed and its centurion statues in disrepair. Mushrooms grew along its 96-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling.
Built in 1908 during the heyday of rail travel, the ornate station, modeled after the Diocletian and Caracalla baths in Rome, no longer seemed relevant in the world of affordable airline tickets and interstate highways. But a group of senators joined forces with Amtrak to save this architectural masterpiece.
The $160 million renovation called for returning the terminal to a functional passenger station and adding shops, restaurants, movie theaters, and parking. The effort worked: Today, Union Station is on the National Register of Historic Places, a major commuter hub that is the busiest tourist sight in Washington DC drawing nearly 30 million to its impressive spaces each year.
Union Station consists of several impressive spaces: a central hall, two wings, and a main concourse. The Main Hall dazzles with its coffered barrel ceiling, gilded with more than 70 pounds of 22-karat gold leaf. Thirty-six Roman centurion statues by artist Louis St. Gaudens—younger brother of famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens—stand watch over travelers, their shields readied for battle (and covering their bare legs; Saint-Gaudens was asked by the commission overseeing construction to modify his statues for modesty’s sake).
The East Hall, a quiet shopping area of jewelry kiosks and boutique stores, features grand architectural tracery as well as a hand-painted ceiling and walls. Retail stores and eateries are found in the Main Concourse, which serves Amtrak and commuter rail passengers.
© Patricia Nevins Kime from Moon Washington DC, 1st Edition