The finest urban passenger station

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, January 19, 2012

It’s not in New York City or Chicago. Whatever grandeur they possessed was lost in the teardowns of half a century ago. Washington, D.C., is nice, but not a friendly place. Kansas City is a personal favorite for the memories it holds, but it’s woefully underused now and therefore barren. Seattle feels like a basement. Kudos to Baltimore Penn Station and Boston South Station for their blend of tradition and modernity. Los Angeles is a fine runner-up. But can’t we agree that Portland, Ore., Union Station sets the standard for all the others?

The structure was built by Northern Pacific Terminal Company for $300,000 and opened on Valentine’s Day 127 years ago. The exterior walls are a mixture of brick and what appears to be concrete stucco. But the architecturally distinctive element is the clock tower that soars 150 feet above the street. “Go By Train” beckons a neon sign on two sides and “Union Station” on the other sides. The signs were added after World War II and turned off after the start of Amtrak. But railfan groups raised money to restore the lights in the mid-1980s.

Inside, a 30-foot ceiling looks down on the smallish (but adequate) waiting room. The benches are of the classic design and look as if they are rubbed with linseed oil nightly. The waiting room and adjacent Metropolitan Lounge for first-class passengers open directly to trackside; there are no tunnels, ramps, or stairs to trudge along.

The crowning touch is a first-class restaurant, Wilfs, which occupies the station’s south end. The bartender today was impressed that I knew his home town, Lander, Wyo., was the western end of the Chicago & North Western for many years. He says that when the southbound Coast Starlight is on time, passengers often come inside for a quick lunch and cocktail. True, because one such person in the past has been me.

So that’s my nominee for best urban passenger station. Not too big, not too small for what’s demanded of it, but just right. It’s older than just about every other city passenger station in the U.S. without feeling old. Convenient to the city it serves and right next to the tracks. In other words, practically perfect in every way. — Fred W. Frailey

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