A history of our national landmark
Nestled within the heart of St. Louis, yet largely overlooked by both the city’s residents and Washington University students, lies St. Louis’ Union Station. The railroad station, formerly known as one of the preeminent train stations in the world, now mereley houses a mall and a hotel.
The station was designed by noted architect Theodore Link, and construction on it began in the early 1890s. Work was completed in 1894, and at the time of the station’s opening, it was the largest and busiest station in the world, serving over 100,000 passengers a day. During the early 20th century, it established itself as the most important train station in the Midwest, and, as a result, was a pivotal force in shaping American life during that period. Keep in mind that this was before the construction of passenger aircraft or the interstate highway system. Railroads were the primary mode of transport across long distances.
The station itself is constructed in the High Victorian style—specifically the Romanesque Revival style—common of late 19th-century train stations. This is marked by the simple arches found within the station and the abundance of windows. Most notable is the “Allegorical Window,” a masterpiece featuring three women, corresponding to the three great train stations of the late 19th century—New York’s, St. Louis’, and San Francisco’s.
After its completion, the station functioned as the main gateway to the West—a moniker by which St. Louis is known—for many years, processing up to 400 trains a day before and during World War II.
After the war, however, service began to decline and continued to slide until 1961, by which time many of the tracks had been replaced with parking lots. The station gained national prominence again briefly in 1948, when Harry Truman was photographed there with the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” Chicago Tribune headline—incorrectly referring to the results of the presidential election, in which Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey. Throughout this period, however, it became more and more fiscally impractical to continue to operate the station, which had very high overhead due to its large size and elaborate design.
Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, minimal transportation services continued to operate out of the station, until Amtrak pulled out of the station in 1978, citing financial reasons. Amtrak service currently operates out of the Gateway Multimodal Transportation Center.
In 1985, following a $150 million remodeling—the largest conversion project to that date in the United States—the station reopened as a hotel, currently a Marriott, with a mall attached.
In addition to the shopping center, Union Station houses a plaza for concerts, festivals and other miscellaneous events.
Though not the architect’s intention, the shopping mall seems to have meshed well with the design of the station. A mixture of eclectic, almost art nouveau architectural trappings now lie alongside more modern storefronts. The juxtaposition seems to work, however. It is strangely reminiscent of Platform 9 3/4 from the Harry Potter films, full of dark railroad metal. At the same time, the current era leaves its mark on the station, with bright signs and restaurants like the Hard Rock Café.
The St. Louis Union Station is a remnant of past generations, when railroads were the primary form of cross-national transportation. Its historical significance is undeniable though it has greatly changed, and it remains a notable and important location to see. I strongly encourage Wash. U. students to visit and explore the station. The Grand Hall—an arched, highly ornate lounge—is especially worth a visit.
St. Louis Union Station can be reached by light rail or by car. If using public transportation, take the MetroLink east to Union Station and walk one block north. If driving, follow I-64 E and take exit 38C. The station is located at 1820 Market Street.