|“Hit ‘Em Up” Harry Truman proudly promoted Union Station’s flourishing knick-knacks trade.|
George H. Pegram designed the train shed. It is built of structural steel with engineering features expressed directly and left exposed. The shed originally covered an area of 424,000 square feet enclosing the terminal ends of 31 tracks. (Architects and Officers of the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis, St. Louis Union Station Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis, St. Louis Union Station-A. Monograph, 1895, p. 49.) It presently covers 11.45 acres, of 498,762 square feet. The umbrella ceiling rests on six rows of support. The ceiling is broadly ribbed crosswise with alternating depressed and elevated sections permitting entrance of light and fresh air while screening out precipitation.
|“Son, this is the Union Station trainshed. In my day, over two hundred mini-vans could park in here. All at once!”|
|Hey Mr. Stillman — care to co-sponsor this effort? Pretty please?|
I can’t begin to guess what money is being made by using the trainshed as a parking lot. Outside of Blues home games and the occasional concert/sporting event/circus, it seems to be pretty empty. And I won’t pretend to know the financial stability of the Hard Rock Cafe either. Though floating out there in a lifeless lot outside of a struggling (and for sale) “urban mall” certainly isn’t a good recipe for success. But changing this space into an active area makes a whole lot more sense than the current use.
You just saw how neat an ice rink would look. In the summer, this same space could be a beer garden or an outdoor restaurant. Neighboring Emmis Communications and its local stations (KSHE, the Point, K-Hits, 97.1) could host large-scale concerts on this lot. Maybe a few decommissioned classic trains are parked on the remaining western-edge rails. Or, as we’ve been discussing on the NextSTL forums recently…you could go gaudy (but in a good way!) with a 200-ish ft. Ferris or observation wheel, foundations solidly anchored within the shed and rising up through the roof.
Imagine you and your friends boarding your walk-in capsule next to or through a re-imagined HRC space. The wheel starts its rotation, providing you aerial views of renewed activity in the shed before rising through a perfectly-measured slit in the trainshed roof. Here, you’re welcomed by sights of the lively (and beautiful!) downtown, the Arch, City Museum’s roof, scenes to the west, north and south, etc. After a prolonged stay at the wheel’s apex, you drop back down through the roof, over the pond where kids are racing RC boats or feeding koi and step out of the capsule to grab a drink or dinner.
This idea — while certainly worth an eye roll or two — has some merit, I believe. By placing the wheel behind (or through!) the Hard Rock Cafe site, the wheel (positioned to face east-west like above) would create an enticing scene from the highway and for the millions of adults and children exiting out of Busch Stadium and onto Clark Street every season. If even 10% of those in attendance are encouraged to taxi, walk or Metrolink over there, Union Station will be more relevant than it has been in either of the last three decades.
The fact that the trainshed is protected in the National Historic Register is a problem, but if there were a way to allow for the removal of a small section, a wheel with a diameter of about 200 ft. could be slotted in without removing much of the historic curved metal roof. After that, a few more braces dropped down on either side of the wheel slot brings the whole plan together, structurally.
|The yellow space represents a cut of about 200 ft. x 70 ft. through three roof strips|
Above, you can see that a 200 ft. cut through the historic trainshed roof would not require a substantial amount of structural removal. Just three 70ft. x 25ft. pieces of the solid roof strips (which of course would stay on site and repurposed as a part of a new band shell).
As I said at the start, Union Station won’t see a full return to purpose (if not glory) until trains begin entering its grounds once again. I don’t foresee a near future where Amtrak passenger rail changes its tunes on back-out/in stations here in St. Louis, but there is an opportunity to use existing infrastructure — both at the station and across the St. Louis region — to bring the station back to its passenger rail purpose.
While looking for information on Union Station, I stumbled upon this 1985 National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the beautiful Union Station Post Office Annex (329 S. 18th Street). The annex will certainly need to play a role in the future of the trainshed…either as offices, maybe a live theatre space (!) or some other still-to-be-determined use. Of real interest to me though was what I saw on page 12 of the nomination form — a picture of the track exchange system leading up to and under the Union Station trainshed.
Despite being so industrial in nature, it really has a sort of elegance to it, doesn’t it? Sure, maybe the days of 50,000 daily transcontinental passengers pulling into our station are done, but there is, at least a greater St. Louis area where 3,000,000+ residents exist as potential riders. By striking agreements with current rail lines and, in some cases, laying dedicated passenger lines directly alongside, I could definitely see St. Louis reopening Union Station as a local heavy-rail commuter center. I’ve been looking at at Chicago’s Metra system as an example of how this could be done.
Metra primarily serves the out-city and suburban towns surrounding Chicago north, south and west. The trains are unspectacular yet serviceable. A single two-level car seats 60 or so people. The station stops vary in quality but most are nothing amazing. Each route arrives or departs every 1.5 to 2 hours, removing any need for concern about backing out of station or moving/switching engines. It is a convenient (and cheap) way to get from point A to points E, F, or G. And that’s kind of the point. Metra exists as a reliable no-frills alternative to traffic delays and parking fees.
In St. Louis, this heavy-rail model could advance the presence and usage of public transportation not only in Missouri, but in Illinois, where cities and towns as far away as Alton, Edwardsville, Highland, Waterloo or Chester could be connected to the Downtown over the McKinley or MacArthur Bridges. Back at Union Station, I envision the track exchange model shown in the Post Office Annex document being reintroduced almost as is with the exception that trains would pull in under the trainshed. Not under the trainshed roof, but underground. From here, riders would step off on their platform, climb a flight of stairs (or ride an escalator) and arrive within Union Station itself.
And I would hope this would spur the no-brainer move of relocating the Union Station Metrolink stop, you know, actually inside of Union Station rather than a block east and south.
I can’t believe we are currently seeing the best Union Station has to offer. It will never be the center of the transportation world as it (and St. Louis) once was. But it should have a far better future than what is represented by the current collection of novelty shops, sports memorabilia stores and tourist traps.
I think it all starts with the trainshed, really. It’s a historic structure connected to a beautiful building…and it now exists as a semi-covered parking lot. If you can activate this area and get people spending time in it as they once did, the whole of Union Station could receive a similar rejuvenation. It’s time that all ideas are on the table for creative use — be that through a local commuter line, creative activities and events, or even an admittedly corny Ferris wheel beckoning new visitors.