Amtrak has done a good job highlighting these stations, but a lot more can be done to enhance their tourism business value, and here we're doing our small bit.
Rafat Ali, Skift
Los Angeles Union Station: Opened in May 1939, Los Angeles Union Station is marked by colorful tiles, shady arcades, fountains and towering palms—the epitome of Southern California glamour. The station that exists today was designed in part by John Parkinson and Donald Parkinson, the famous father and son duo who founded The Parkinson Firm of Los Angeles. Their combination of Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival and Art Deco designs was used to accentuate Los Angeles’ personal history and heritage alongside its newly found modernity.
Los Angeles Union Station: The station itself is a reflection of the grandeur that is Los Angeles. In the waiting room, beautiful enclosed garden patios and courtyards made the wait for a train quite pleasant. Travelers who strolled to their trains along the terra cotta tiled floors with their inlaid marble strips would walk beside the extravagant interior walls that were designed with both travertine marble and early models of acoustical tiles.
Cincinnati Union Terminal: The Cincinnati Union Terminal, one of America’s great Art Deco rail stations, was originally completed in 1933. Its principal architects were Alfred T. Fellheimer and Steward Wagner, with architects Paul Phillippe Cret and Roland Wank brought in as design consultants. However, Cret was largely responsible for the building’s signature style, and is often credited as the building’s architect. Its ten-story, half-domed limestone and glass main entrance hall was the only half dome in the Western Hemisphere and the largest in existence when it was constructed.
Cincinnati Union Terminal: German artist Winold Reiss designed and created two 22-foot high by 110-foot long color mosaic murals depicting the history of Cincinnati for the entry rotunda interior, two murals for the baggage lobby, two murals for the departing and arriving train boards, 14 smaller murals for the train concourse representing local industries and a large world map mural located at the rear of the concourse. Reiss spent nearly two years completing these murals.
Union Station, Washington, D.C.: In 1901, the U. S. Senate Park Commission invited master American architect and planner Daniel Burnham to orchestrate a sweeping City Beautiful plan for Washington, D.C and make it in a setting that was both practical and grandly befitting a world capital. Completed in 1908, this Beaux Arts national historical landmark inspires with its neoclassical architecture even though its bones are modern concrete and steel. The front of the station, on Columbus Circle, presents travelers with a soaring vaulted entryway and heroic statuary on its 600-foot length.
Union Station, Washington, D.C.: The 96-foot high coffered Main Hall ceiling shines with gold leaf, reflecting light onto the expanse of its marble floor through spacious skylights and windows. The former Main Concourse, now the heart of the station, lifts its barrel-vaulted glass and coffered plaster ceiling 45 feet above the main floor and stretches 760 feet long. It was once said to be the largest single room in the world.
Union Station, Kansas City: The Kansas City Terminal Railway, a company formed by the twelve railroads serving the city, built the Beaux Arts limestone and granite Kansas City Union Station that we see today. Excavation began in 1911; and on October 30, 1914, Kansas City Union Station opened as the third-largest train station in the country. Kansas City Union Station was built to reflect the city’s status as a central hub of both passenger and freight rail.
Union Station, Kansas City: The magnificent station building encompasses 850,000 square feet of space, and originally had 900 rooms and 10 levels. The main Grand Hall was intended for ticketing and the North Waiting Hall, extending perpendicularly from the main hall and over the railway tracks, for passenger waiting. The ceiling in the Grand Hall is 95 feet high and there are three chandeliers in it, each weighing 3,500 lbs. The six-foot-high Grand Hall clock hangs at its center, the nexus of the Grand and North Halls. The North Waiting Hall, with its 65-foot ceiling, can contain an assemblage of 10,000 people.
Union Station, Chicago: Chicago Union Station, begun in 1913 and completed in 1925, is the only example in the United States of a “double-stub” station, where the 24 tracks approach from two directions and most do not continue under or through the station. The exterior of the station is clad in Bedford limestone and was quarried in Indiana. Together with the approach and storage tracks, the entire station facility takes up nearly 10 city blocks.
Union Station, Chicago: The Great Hall has a 300-foot-long barrel-vaulted skylight that soars 115 feet above the floor. The skylight was blacked-out during World War II in order to make the station less of a target for enemy aircraft, since the station served nearly 100,000 daily passengers and more than 300 daily arrivals and departures. Two figural statues tower over the Great Hall on its east wall, one representing day (holding a rooster) and the other representing night (holding an owl), a recognition of the 24-hour nature of passenger railroading.
Union Station, Utica NY: The historic Utica station was opened for the New York Central (NYC) Railroad on May 24, 1914, and became a Union Station in late 1915 when the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad and the New York, Ontario & Western Railroad moved their services to this riverside terminal.
Union Station, Utica NY: Its designers, architects Allen H. Stem and Alfred Fellheimer of New York City, brought to this project experience from building other notable stations such as New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, Detroit Michigan’s Central Station and the Art Deco Cincinnati Union Terminal. They created a classically-inspired Beaux Arts terminal station. Situated in downtown Utica on the flats south of the Mohawk River. Three stories high, this monumental building is symmetrically rectangular in plan, with thirteen bays across the façade and fifteen across the side elevations. The walls of the first story are faced with large granite blocks, while the second and third are faced with grey brick. Details such as the capitals and tops of the pilasters are executed in limestone. A prominent cornice casts a deep shadow at the roof line and a brick parapet encircles the building. A large clock is centered at the roofline over the entrance.
30th Street Station, Philadelphia: Philadelphia’s famous 30th Street Station was built between 1929 and 1933…Designed by Alfred Shaw of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, the enormous, eight-story steel frame building is an example of some of the railroad industry’s most monumental construction and is architecturally interesting for its use, adaptation and transformation of the Neoclassical style into a more modern, streamlined Art Deco style.
30th Street Station, Philadelphia: The main concourse measures 290 by 135 feet with a 95-foot-high coffered ceiling and beautiful Art Deco chandeliers. It is lined by gilded and ornamented columns that contrast with the more austere, classical look of the façade as well as by five-story-high cathedral-like windows. The floor, made of Tennessee marble, completes the sense of opulence of this impressive room.
Santa Fe Depot, San Diego: Union Station, also known as the “Santa Fe Depot,” has served residents and visitors to San Diego for almost 100 years. Located in the heart of downtown near the cruise ship piers and other bayside attractions, the station anchors the larger Santa Fe Place, named after the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF) that conceived and built the station from 1914–1915.
Santa Fe Depot, San Diego: Inside the main waiting room, measuring 170 feet long by 55 feet wide, the gabled ceiling of natural redwood beams is supported by a series of large two-story arches from which hang bronze chandeliers. The most recognizable feature of the waiting room is the eight-and-a-half foot tall wainscot executed in glazed faience tile manufactured by the California China Products Company of National City.
Union Station, Denver: Union Station was built in 1881 at a cost of $525,000 and was destroyed by fire in 1894. It was rebuilt in the Beaux Arts architectural style and in 1914 a larger central waiting room made of Colorado granite was added as rail traffic continued to increase.
Union Station, Denver: The plaster arches that line the walls of the room have 2,300 carved Columbine flowers.
New Haven Union Station: Opened to the public in 1920, it was designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert. Gilbert’s station is a steel framed structure clad in masonry, and the overall design is a pared down version of Renaissance Revival architecture. Decoration is minimal in order to highlight the harmonious proportions and interior volumes.
New Haven Union Station: Arrayed along the perimeter are the ticket offices and concessions, leaving the bulk of the floor area open. A line of wooden benches occupies the center of the space, and each banquette is topped by a model train display. Depicting various New Haven locomotives, cars, and color schemes, they delight travelers of all ages.
Union Station, Worcester MA: The new Union Station, designed by Philadelphia architects Watson and Huckel, was considered the most beautiful building in Massachusetts when completed. It has been compared to Union Station in Washington, D.C. for the grandeur of its interior spaces.
Union Station, Worcester MA: The station featured an elliptical stained glass skylight in the main hall and solid birch benches, as well as marble and terra cotta finishes. Its soaring 175-foot high twin white marble towers and cream colored exterior contributed to its distinctive character. I
Union Station, Portland OR: Portland Union Station was constructed in 1896 and has been in continuous operation since that time. The centerpiece of the Romanesque and Queen Anne architecture is the 150-foot clock tower with its four-sided Seth Thomas clock that makes this landmark easily distinguishable.
Union Station, Portland OR: Between 1927 and 1930, the station’s interior received a major redesign. The main waiting hall was completely opened up by eliminating the cast iron columns and an entire mezzanine level. Italian marble was added to the walls and the floor. Dormers were added to the exterior to permit more natural light to enter the station.
Amtrak Station, Greensboro NC: The Greensboro passenger station, the J. Douglas Gaylon Depot, opened on October 1, 2005. This Southern Railway depot (also used by the Atlantic & Yadkin), opened originally in 1927, had been closed to passengers since May 1979, when the railway donated it to the city.
Amtrak Station, Greensboro NC: Designed by the New York architectural firm of Fellheimer and Wagner, the station has a main waiting room with an impressive mural of the Southern Railway network during the 1920s.
Main Street Station, Richmond VA: The red-brick Main Street station in Richmond’s Shockhoe Bottom district is a National Historic Landmark. Architecturally, the station presents an excellent example of the Beaux Arts style adapted in what has been termed Second Renaissance Revival, dating from the 1880s and fostered by premier 19th century architect Richard Morris Hunt.
Main Street Station, Richmond VA: Seven bays wide on its entry sides and three on the flanking sides, the terminal building is veneered with Pompeian brick and many architectural embellishments in stone and terracotta. A five-bay loggia, with Corinthian capitals on its columns and roses carved into the lower face of the arches, sits above the rusticated stone portico with its own segmented arches.
Baltimore Penn Station: Completed in 1911, and dressed in the triumphant garb of Beaux-Arts classicism favored during the American Renaissance, the $1 million Pennsylvania Station emphasized Baltimore’s importance as a dominant rail hub and major East Coast metropolis.
At the center of the plaza is a 51-foot tall aluminum sculpture by artist Jonathan Borofsky. Named “Male/Female,” the piece depicts two intersecting human forms with a glowing “heart.”
Baltimore Penn Station: Passing through the doors off of the plaza, travelers enter a full height waiting room brightened by diffused light that is filtered through the yellow, green, and clear glass of the skylight’s three shallow, 25 foot diameter domes. The walls of the waiting room are faced with white marble, and pilasters divide the surface into a regular rhythm of bays, each of which is marked by an inset marble panel with soft pink tones.
Amtrak Train Station, Barstow, CA: Better known as the Harvey House Railroad Depot because of its origins as a Harvey House restaurant, the current facility opened on February 22, 1911, replacing an earlier Harvey House depot from 1885 that burned in 1908.
Amtrak Train Station, Barstow, CA: The depot was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
San Juan Capistrano Depot: The facility at San Juan Capistrano is one of Amtrak’s most unique, as it is housed in vintage boxcars.At San Juan Capistrano, the railroad made one of its most overt references to Mission Revival architecture through the use of deep arcades, a corner domed tower, and red Spanish roof tiles.
San Juan Capistrano Depot: The crowning touch is a 40 foot tall corner tower where the two sides of the “L” meet. The tower clearly draws on Mission precedents in its form.
Santa Fe Depot, San Bernardino: Designed by W.A. Mohr at a cost of approximately $800,000, the new station opened to the public on July 15, 1918. This new depot was built using hollow clay blocks within the walls for fire suppression. The simple outer surface of the station was created using stucco and also features a red tile roof. However, it is the four domed towers that truly accentuate the exterior of the station.
Santa Fe Depot, San Bernardino: The interior space includes a center lobby with tiled walls and floors. Handcrafted high beams and column capitals with coffered ceilings decorate the rest of the building. Somewhat unique at the time was the mail tube system built between the different station offices, which replaced the earlier used courier boys. Similarly unique in the station was the intricate telephone system used for dispatching trains.
Fort Worth Intermodal Transportation Center: The Amtrak station in Fort Worth is part of a modern facility constructed of brick and trimmed in regional stone. It reflects the influence of past rail stations in its hip-roofed design and decoration.
Fort Worth Intermodal Transportation Center: Designed by the Fort Worth architectural firm of Gideon Toal, its 70-foot four-faced clock tower now presents a striking landmark in that part of the city, which was once a center of commerce for the African-American community in Fort Worth.
Hamlet Passenger Depot, Hamlet NC: The Hamlet depot, the only Victorian Queen Anne style station in North Carolina, was built in 1900 for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad as both a passenger station and division headquarters.
Hamlet Passenger Depot, Hamlet NC: Following a renovation that included moving and rotating the historic structure, the Hamlet depot now serves as a museum and site of a popular annual railroad festival.
Alvarado Transportation Center, Albuquerque, NM: The architectural design of the complex is directly linked to its location in Albuquerque. The ATC’s Mission Revival design was based largely on the Alvarado in order to recreate its look and feel while reminding those who view it of the area’s historical worth.
Alvarado Transportation Center, Albuquerque, NM: It does feature new additions that distinguish it from its predecessors, such as its large clock tower.
Texas and Pacific Railroad Depot, Marshall, TX: The Marshall station was built in 1912 by the Texas & Pacific (T&P) Railroad. The three-story, 7,500 square foot structure is the only survivor; the beautifully restored depot houses an Amtrak stop and the Texas & Pacific Railway Museum.
The exterior has remained essentially the same since its construction. The striking red brick building is outlined in white and features a projecting center bay with a prominent porch, giving the station a homey-feel.
King Street Station, Seattle: Seattle’s King Street Station was constructed in 1906 by the Great Northern Railway, and was was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. King Street Station was purchased by the City of Seattle in 2008 for $10 and, with enough funds finally in place, the restoration was finally completed in 2013
King Street Station is a red brick masonry and steel frame building with terra cotta and cast stone ornamentation, through relatively subdued in comparison to the clock tower.
King Street Station, Seattle: Inside the main entry, at the base of the clock tower, is the entry hall, known as the Compass Room. The name references the navigational star compass rose design laid out in hand-cut marble tiles on the floor at its center. The Compass Room has marble wainscotting, and is lighted by a multi-globe chandelier suspended above the compass rose from an elaborate plaster rosette.
Updated: We have added Seattle’s newly restored King Street Station in the list.
America’s historic train stations are a treasure few of us pause long enough to admire as we rush through them on the way to our destinations. These buildings have witnessed history unfold, and almost all of them bear the marks of their home cities’ up and downs over the last century or more. Many of these stations are listed on local, state, and national historic registers, and in their own ways contribute to the growth of tourism in these cities and regions.
Amtrak has been highlighting the value of these stations since 2006 through its website GreatAmericanStations.com, focusing on preservation and rebuilding of the country’s Amtrak stations, and its value to the local communities. It recently relaunched the site (PDF link), with more tools for citizens to help build movements to preserve their local historic stations, and also highlighting various benefits, including developing tourism. As the site says:
While a train station’s primary purpose is to provide a point from which to depart or arrive, communities that fail to see their station’s full potential are missing a tremendous opportunity. Transforming a station into a place worth visiting, with shops, restaurants, museums and the like, enables towns to take advantage of the variety of people passing through every day by giving them something more – a reason to return. Additionally, if a station is more than a travel hub, locals will see the station as a place to relax and be entertained as well.
Inspired by this, we built a list of what we believe are the 23 grandest Amtrak stations in America, both for the visual appeal and for what they say about the city that stations them. Of course, as with any list, many almost-deserving stations are left out, and a lot of those can be seen on the GAS site.
Here’s our list of top 23, not in any particular order, in the photo gallery above. Also listed below are links to the Amtrak station pages on GreatAmericanStations.com in case you want to dig into more of their history, architecture, design and restoration efforts.