Op-Ed:  Union Station: L.A.'s nearly perfect time machine

After three days of pageants and parades on Alameda Street with half a million spectators, Union Station opened on May 7, 1939. It was a Sunday.

A man jumped from a Pullman car window to claim bragging rights as the first passenger to arrive by train. The first ticket sold cost 28 cents and took Mr. and Mrs. M.B. Sheets to Glendale. The first lost boy was found. The first traveler to miss his train fell asleep in one of the throne-like chairs in the waiting room beneath a painted ceiling with plastered beams made to look like hewn wood and chandeliers weighing a ton and a half.

Union Station was the last of the grand railroad gateways to be built in the U.S. and officially called the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal because it united in one 47-acre complex the tracks and passenger services of the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. Aerial photographs taken 75 years ago show how big a footprint the railroads made. The Cornfield, Bull Ring and Taylor freight yards, warehouses, repair shops and stockyards snaked up the Los Angeles River from the old Plaza downtown to the foot of Elysian Park.

Much of that footprint is gone, a large part of it to the greening of the Los Angeles River. Union Station remains, but not as a relic. Union Station in 2014 is a busy hub for rail and bus transit and a terminal for Amtrak and Metrolink trains. It will be even busier by 2020, when the regional connector linking subway and light-rail lines is finished and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority consolidates bus transfer points at the station. The MTA has bigger plans too: building an entertainment and tourist destination around the station, if the money can be found.

By then, more than 100,000 transit riders, rail passengers, office workers, hotel guests and casual visitors might be passing though Union Station every day. I hope that some of them stop and look around.


Those who pause will see a nearly perfect public space meant to be both monumental and deferential, and designed to reassure as much as to impress. In the station’s concrete daydream of Spanish Colonial Revival, Mission, Moorish and Art Deco styles, the city’s imagined past and hoped-for future overlay seamlessly. Those faux wood beams were given a patina to look as if they had been there a century or more. The station’s streamlined details in aluminum and bronze pointed toward a triumphant, machine-age tomorrow. When Union Station was new, everything about it reflected the longing of Los Angeles to be both modern and nostalgic.

Union Station, like few of the city’s other architectural survivals, is a place where it’s possible for the patient sojourner to slip out of now and into an earlier time like a shadow passing.

John and Donald Parkinson, the station’s supervising architects, understood shadows and how pausing in them invites reverie. The station’s shadows are there by design: to give shelter from the Los Angeles sun in the long arcades and add movement through the day to the static surface of its exterior. Inside, transient light patterns the travertine walls and contrasts with the durable patterns laid in the 75,000 square feet of cement, marble, tile and linoleum flooring, as well as on the faience wainscoting and doorway surrounds and the parquetry of the patios’ brick walkways.

Patterns hybridize at Union Station, partly Hispano-Mooresque, partly Mexican and partly Hollywood (chosen by chief designer Warren Hoak and design consultant Herman Sachs). A zigzagging design in ochre, sienna, brown and yellow jazzes up the arrivals lobby. Pale rosettes on a blue background punctuate the walls of the ticket concourse. There are quartets of parrots on the walls of the closed (for now) Harvey House restaurant. The restaurant’s floor re-creates a Navajo rug in terra cotta, white-and-black linoleum (designed by architect Mary Colter).

Somewhere between aesthetics and religion is the idea that simple forms repeating across a flat surface are a metaphor for an orderly world. The benches, doorways, walks, walls and floors of Union Station are patterned in silent confession of that faith. Invisible in the abstract order of Union Station are the lives of Chinese, Latino and Eastern European immigrants whose homes and businesses had been bulldozed to make the future that Union Station was intended to embody.

The view through Union Station today is complicated. Unticketed visitors aren’t welcome to sit in the supremely comfortable waiting room chairs, although that controversial policy has been mitigated. The homeless who drift across Alameda Street to the station on cold nights aren’t wanted either. One of the most beautiful public spaces in the city risks becoming less public as the MTA seeks to maximize income from private uses of what we all own. The MTA holds 6 million square feet of development entitlements that could turn the station and its grounds into the foyer for banal office towers and blocks of generic condos.

We live in a diverse, multiracial and less-certain city of tomorrow that the poised and confident architecture of Union Station never dreamed of. Among the many things Union Station is today — glamorous symbol of Depression-era optimism, movie character actor and marketable real estate — it’s also a working time machine. For those who enter, Union Station can take them back to see the illusions and realities from which Los Angeles was made and perhaps allow those time travelers to reflect on who we were and what we might yet become.

D.J. Waldie is a cultural historian and author. A version of this essay will appear with appreciations of Union Station by other writers and historians at the Source as part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s commemoration Saturday of the station’s 75th anniversary.