Do you know the story of Union Station in Los Angeles? Over the weekend, I went to the Central Library to view the exhibition, No Further West: The Story of Los Angeles Union Station, organized by the Getty Research Institute (GRI). I was eager to see it because Union Station is one of my favorite places in Los Angeles. The station combines Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, Mission Revival and Streamline Moderne styles. The architecture team included John and Donald Parkinson who also designed Los Angeles’ City Hall and a few other city landmarks. Since it opened in 1939, Union Station has served the region well and is now the centerpiece of the region’s evolving transportation network. The story of Union Station is fascinating. The exhibition does a wonderful job detailing the history of the station, contemplating its future, and answering many of my questions as a fan of trains in general. For example, I have noticed that there are actually a few “union stations” in the U.S. and wondered why they were named as such. Well, I found the answer to my question quickly as one of the first items in the exhibit is the definition of a union station: “a railway station where tracks and facilities are shared by two or more separate railway companies, allowing passengers to connect conveniently between them.” According to Metro, over 60,000 travelers and commuters access Union Station’s transit providers, which include Metro bus and rail lines, Metrolink commuter rail, Amtrak long-distance rail, and numerous municipal carriers and specialty shuttles with connections to downtown Los Angeles.
Drawings, Sketches, Photographs
If you have been following my writing, you know that I love drawings, sketches, and photographs (see my articles on Urban Sketching and Images). Much to my delight, No Further West features architectural drawings, photographs, and sketches from GRI’s Union Station archive. They include: finely rendered conceptual drawings; detailed drawings of Union Station’s unique architectural elements and furniture; sketches of the station’s exterior and interior; and landscape drawings. I was especially impressed by chief designer Edward Warren Hoak’s drawings of the main concourse and the tower, which were done using pencils on architectural vellum. I also appreciated the meticulous line drawings of Herman Sachs, the decorating consultant. The exhibition also offers historic photographs from the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library and the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens as well as works from the Automobile Club of Southern California‘s historic archives. To see selected images of the exhibition, click here.
If I was not at the exhibition, I would not have known that Union Station had such a controversial past. Specifically, I learned that the station was the contentious subject of drawn out civic and legal battles that went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court! Its location, adjacent to the historic Plaza, or central square of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, resulted in the destruction of the city’s original Chinatown, while also fueling early historic preservation efforts. Its groundbreaking in 1933 only took place after the break-through of decades of red tape, political back-and-forth, and the commissioning of prominent architects John Parkinson and his son, Donald Parkinson. Also noteworthy is that John Parkinson died in 1935 before the station’s design was finalized. Donald Parkinson continued to oversee the firm and guide the design of the station, which was not finalized until 1936.
Present and Future
Unlike many of America’s union stations, which became obsolete with the rise of air and automobile travel, L.A.’s Union Station still functions today as it was intended and is bustling with activity daily. The station’s original design and construction of the station have changed very little, but it has continued to evolve to meet the transportation needs of the region. The station also has a very exciting future, as evidenced by the final section of the exhibition: The Master Plan: Union Station 2050.
The Master Plan is intended to develop Metro’s vision and plan to guide future development at the station, including transit operations and new private and/or public real estate development. It was clear from the colorful and futuristic displays that Metro has a number of important goals for the project, including: celebrating the site’s history; improving the passenger experience; making Union Station a destination itself; preparing for high speed rail (HSR); and increasing connectivity between the station and surrounding neighborhoods. The improvements that would be needed to enable Union Station to accommodate future HSR trains are significant. Also, as I shared previously (see my article Amtraking), it is still unclear when (or even whether) HSR will become a reality in Los Angeles and the rest of California.
Los Angeles Union Station (2014) is the book that accompanies the exhibition. It contains all of the wonderful drawings, sketches, and photographs on display, as well as discussions on how contentious politics informed architectural design and the many ways in which Union Station was at the heart of the rise of Los Angeles. According to Getty Publications, it is the first scholarly publication to set the station, an architectural and civic landmark, in historical context. I highly recommend getting a copy of the book if you are passionate about Union Station and/or Los Angeles history in general.
Overall, I really enjoyed the No Further West exhibition. If you are interested in Union Station and its fascinating history, be sure to check it out soon. The show is on display until August 10, 2014. The Central Library is the perfect venue for it given that the library is also an architectural gem and historic landmark in Los Angeles.
Side note: If you are a Metro rider, you may want to get a commemorative Union Station TAP card. There are three different designs: a historic shot of the Union Station waiting room from 1939 (courtesy of the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation); a shot of the signature bell tower framed by palm trees; and a close-up of the uniquely beautiful tile work that can be seen throughout the station. The new TAP cards were introduced as part of the celebration of Union Station’s 75th Anniversary.
Images from the exhibition are from The J. Paul Getty Trust via www.lapl.org/about-lapl/press-room/union-station
Photos of No Further West exhibition banner and Union Station by author