Happy Birthday, L.A. Union Station

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, May 2, 2019

Los Angeles Union Station's iconic clock tower and main entrance have changed little since this 1940s photo, although the trees have grown significantly Frank Clodfelter
In the classic neo-noir movie Chinatown, the two main protagonists, femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and private eye J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), confront each other in a scene that sets up the film’s dark reckoning. A desperate Mulwray, eager to get out of town, tells Gittes to meet her at the home of her butler, Khan. 

“He lives at 1712 Alameda . . . do you know where that is?” she asks.

Gittes’ face freezes as the camera moves in. “Sure, it’s in Chinatown.” From that moment descends the movie’s shocking climax. 

I always smile a little when I hear that exchange, from a movie I’ve probably seen 100 times. Set in 1938, the film includes a Los Angeles neighborhood that would soon become swept up in epochal changes in the city itself. A year later, its sprawling Chinatown would be forced to move to make way for another L.A. icon, the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, or as it’s more commonly known, Los Angeles Union Station

This weekend, Union Station will celebrate its 80th anniversary. The terminal opened May 3, 1939, amid much fanfare, as passenger trains of Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and Southern Pacific all came together at one location, replacing the Santa Fe’s old La Grande station and SP’s and UP’s Central Station.

Union Station’s current owners, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, are planning a variety of events beginning with a ceremony at 12:30 p.m. Friday featuring bands playing either jazz or tunes from the 1920s–1950s. The party continues at 11 a.m. Saturday with more live music, arts and crafts, and a children’s area sponsored by Griffith Park’s Travel Town museum. They’ll finish up with more music in the grand ticket concourse at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, continuing until 10 p.m.

The travelers in this 1939 photo of Union Station's main waiting room would recognize the space today. Classic Trains coll.
Also on hand: docents to explain the building’s architectural features. Presumably those experts will be able to talk about the station’s history, which gets us back to Chinatown.

Union Station was born in turmoil. It owes its existence to a contentious 1926 ballot measure intended to rescue the city from transportation chaos. Voters barely approved one aspect of the proposal, approximately $11 million — quite a financial commitment in those days — to build a new downtown station. 

Planners eventually settled on the current site, then the intersection of Alameda and Macy (now Cesar E. Chavez) Streets. Trouble was, this was the location of the city’s sprawling Chinatown, a neighborhood considered dangerous. How much of that was true is debatable, but times being what they were, the city elected to evict the Chinese en masse — their homes and their businesses. Gradually its residents resettled in today’s version of Chinatown, a thriving sector a few blocks north of Union Station.

Meanwhile, back at Macy and Alameda, what did the people of Los Angeles get for the $11 million? Well, a lot. In fact, they were presented with a metropolitan train station of unusual beauty and grace.

It starts with the building itself, designed by John Parkinson and Donald B. Parkinson, prominent L.A. father-son architects also responsible for City Hall, a place you’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows (notably at the beginning of the old cop drama Dragnet.) To these untutored eyes the complex looks mostly Mission Revival in style, but it also includes Art Deco and Streamline Moderne influences. At any rate, its cream-colored stucco walls and red tile roof positively glow in evening and morning light. 

The pleasant courtyard adjacent to the waiting room enables passengers to savor the Southern California weather. C. T. Steeb
Within its walls, the delights continue. Inside the main doors a visitor beholds two vast spaces, one straight ahead that leads to the tracks, one to the left called the ticket concourse, lined by ornate ticket booths. Unfortunately, the latter is usually roped off for special events and frequent use by movie, TV, and commercial producers. The main concourse, however, is a thrilling space, its 62-foot-high ceiling coming to a peak far above a main passageway flanked by waiting benches.

What are especially appealing about Union Station are the attendant spaces, including the gorgeous gardens alongside the building to the north and south. The northern garden is a soothing place to wait for a train. If the weather is pleasant — and when isn’t it? — I can’t imagine why someone would pass the time inside when they can sit out on a bench in the shade of the jacarandas.

The station also has its share of amenities such as newsstands and eateries, including the recently restored space of the Fred Harvey Restaurant, at the southwest corner of the station. Mary Colter, architectural doyenne of the Santa Fe Railway, designed this riotously beautiful Art Deco space, which opened the same year as the station. You can enjoy it today as a patron of the Imperial Western Beer Company

One person who knows the power of this place is Elrond Lawrence, newly installed as the executive director of the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation. Lawrence is a communications professional with countless bylines and photo credits in railroad publications, including Classic Trains and Trains. His lavish book Route 66 Railway, weaving together the legacy of the highway and the Santa Fe, was published by the Foundation in 2008.

Southern Pacific's Coaster and Santa Fe's Super Chief await their departure times one evening in late 1949 or early 1950. Robert Hale
“In a city that seems hungry to replace its architectural history with the latest sleek monstrosity, Union Station has defied the odds and stands tall as a link to the City of Angels’ mythic railroad past,” says Lawrence. “From the elegant clock tower and courtyards to the grand waiting room, every tour we’ve hosted never fails to leave people in awe.”

In this space last week, I asserted that Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station is America’s finest railroad station. Of all the people who might think my claim is off base — and I heard from a few — I’d say the ones who love LAUS have the best case. Like 30th Street, Union Station is doing what it’s always done, and still in the grand manner. I love the fact that the station doesn’t look much different than as depicted in the surrounding photos, made decades ago. 

Architectural historian Carroll L. V. Meeks, who took a somewhat dim view of 30th Street Station, was kinder to Los Angeles. In his book The Railroad Station (Yale, 1951), he said LAUS “embodied the canons of the picturesque,” referring to the regionalist style of so many railroad stations across the West. 

“It was done in a freer version of the Santa Fe’s ubiquitous mission style,” he wrote, “with a bow to the modern in the simplicity of its forms.” 

That simplicity is a big part of the appeal of LAUS. It’s a grand complex that never overpowers the simple joy of being there. If I were anywhere near L.A. this weekend, I’d take in some of the festivities at 800 N. Alameda Street. Then, later in the evening, I’d walk a few blocks north for some dim sum somewhere in Chinatown. Both places represent the very essence of historic L.A. It’s comforting to know that both — unlike my favorite movie — have reached happy endings.

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