Monday, May 23, 2016

10 fun facts about Washington DC's Union Station

Washington D.C.’s Union Station is a pretty busy place. Serving as a home to Amtrak, Virginia Railway Express (VRE), Maryland Rail Commuter Service (MARC), Metro's Red Line and ground transportation services, many travelers come through its walls on a daily basis.

Union Station exterior
Union Station front exterior

Union Station is definitely not your standard transportation hub – it houses a shopping mall and a food court too. And it’s a popular tourist site. It is said approximately 100,000 people pass through the station every day with 20,000 coming through the Main Hall.

10 fun facts about Union Station

1. Union Station opened its doors on Oct. 27, 1907. The first train to service the station was The Baltimore and Ohio Pittsburgh Express - it arrived at 6:50 a.m. At this time, the station was still undergoing construction and was completed in 1908.
2. Daniel H. Burnham was chosen to design Union Station. The care and attention given to its design is evident when you see the detail. Burnham was the principal architect of the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair; he chose Beaux-Arts style for the new transportation hub.

Union Station as it appeared in 2008

3. It cost over $25 million to build Union Station originally.
4. The Main Hall of Union Station is 120 feet by 119 feet. Its 96 foot ceiling is made of plaster and 22-karat gold leaf decorates its ceiling. There are 36 figures of Roman legionnaires surrounding the ledge of the Main Hall’s balcony. According to officials, the figures were originally nude, but it was feared this would be offensive so shields were placed to cover body parts. 

Not the clearest photo, but these are the shields that were placed to hide the statues' original nude appearance

5. There are several carved figures located in the station’s main entrance. These represent fire, electricity, agriculture and mechanics. Each figure weighs 25 tons.
6. The beautiful woodwork found throughout the station is made of solid mahogany. The antique train gates in the concourse are originals.
The National Park Service says during WWII up to 200,000 people passed through Union Station’s doors each day.

8. Union Station has undergone some major restorations over the past century. Congress enacted the Union Station Redevelopment Act of 1981 to bring Union Station up to date. Work started in 1986 and in 1988 the $160 - $180 million restoration was completed – at the time this was the largest restoration project in the United States. Funding came from various sources. As crews worked, they found antiques in some of Union Station's air shafts. Being these hadn't been opened since 1907, it is believed they were stored there all along (I'm still digging for info on this, but it seems it is a mystery why the antiques were there in the first place).
On Aug. 23, 2011, Mineral, Virginia was the epicenter of a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. The impact was felt across the East Coast and several buildings in Washington, D.C. were damaged; Union Station was one of them. Restoration has been ongoing ever since to repair the damage and to secure the facility.

Photo taken in 2012 during one phase of repair after the 2011 earthquake

9. Burnham’s use of white granite set the standard for building Washington’s monuments and many of its buildings – white granite is still very prominent throughout the District today.
10. Despite its beautiful build, over the decades rail use declined and there was once talk of demolishing Union Station. Ultimately, and lucky for us, in 1965 it was decided repurposing the station was a better course of action.

bell outside Union Station
A replica of the Liberty Bell sits outside the main entrance of Union Station

Its first repurpose was to be a visitor’s center, which was opened during the 1976 bicentennial on July 4, but this venture didn’t succeed as a tourist attraction, and it was closed in 1978. Over time, rats moved in, mushrooms grew from the floor and the building began to fall apart. Fortunately, during the 1980s things turned around and today visitors can visit the beautiful structure as it blends the past with the conveniences of the present. Today, retail space is said to be over 210,000 square feet, including 50,000 square feet to house restaurants. Office space constitutes 100,000 square feet and public space, including passenger and baggage space, is 200,000 square feet.
Bonus fun facts: Did you know that Union Station once had a presidential suite where presidents, kings and queens spent time? Also, Union Station once had its own mortuary.
It’s incredible to think just mere decades ago this beautiful piece of architecture was almost bulldozed. Fortunately, after the 1980s “save” of Union Station and the damage caused by the 2011 earthquake, the structure is still standing.
Union Station is located at 50 Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington, D.C.


  1. I love Union Station and have taken the train to DC from Connecticut. Enjoyed reading all the fun facts and who can imagine a mortuary in Union Station, not me!!

    1. That one surprised me too when I learned of it. Thanks for reading and commenting!