Transitioning the Trainshed — A New Vision for Union Station

Union Station, this city’s beautiful rail-hub-turned-tourist-mall, is fast approaching its 120th birthday — September 1st, 2014. And five years after that, its 125th year. Its quasquicentennial! So in the spirit of our city’s obsession with anniversaries, I’ve been thinking of ways to build toward this milestone and give our gorgeous old Union Station a deserving revival.
The lavish Union Station Grand Hall and its vast midway once provided amenities to more than 50,000 regular passengers a day boarding, de-boarding or passing through on the routes of 22 different rail transportation companies. Excited (but weary) travelers, just off the train, searched the walkways for loved ones. Businessmen had their shoes shined, read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or stole a nap as they awaited their next connecting line. Many, many more exited the station out onto Market Street, getting their first experience with a bustling city of industry and activity. And a Missouri Senator triumphantly showed the world a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune:
“Hit ‘Em Up” Harry Truman proudly promoted Union Station’s flourishing knick-knacks trade.
Then, as things seemed to have a way of going in St. Louis, it all went away. Passenger rail suffered a critical hit in the 1950s as personal transportation was hailed as the new American Dream. Governments — both local and national — made every effort to cow-tow to the burgeoning automobile industry, quickly creating a wide, impersonal highway/interstate system from coast to coast. St. Louis was no different. A national hub which handled over 100,000 daily passengers at its height quickly became obsolete. By the 1970s, only a handful of daily passenger routes scuttled into (and quickly out of) St. Louis, Missouri. The station was shuttered.
– – – – 
While the future of the Station itself is a crucial piece, my focus will be almost entirely on the massive 11.5 acre train shed at the Station’s rear. It is, to me, the main visual draw of Union Station. Whether you’re passing on 64/40 or approaching via Metrolink, this beautiful 600ft. x 800ft. behemoth spreads out across the entire block, just asking to be put back in to regular use. Of course, Union Station won’t be “back” on solid footing until the interior gets new life and trains start to pull in once again with some regularity, but you have to start somewhere, right?

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.

Even just reading its description, it sounds like a beautiful structure and a marvel of engineering, doesn’t it? Imagine standing beneath this “umbrella ceiling” in the Station’s hey-day — trains chugging out and easing in, crowds gathered on various platforms, saying their goodbyes and juggling their luggage. Constantly something interesting to look at or something important to do. 
Now think of Union Station trainshed today. Quick! All there is today is a sea of hourly-rate parking and a kitschy franchise restaurant from a by-gone era (the mid-1990s). Disgusting, really. There is a sort of poetic injustice in it though: as the passenger train was passed over for the personal automobile, this mighty hub for rail travel now exists as a lot for the cars and trucks which helped hasten its downfall.
There are some positives here. Landry’s and the adjacent koi pond are wonderful. And, while standing under the trainshed, the entrance to Union Station’s midway is a beautiful thing to behold. So why stop there? In lieu of more interesting components such as these, the designers for the 1985 redesign elected to pave over the floor of the shed. I am calling for the complete removal of this parking lot and a return to purpose for the Union Station trainshed.
Even though it’s 55 degrees outside, it is still winter, so imagine if the current-day this…
“Son, this is the Union Station trainshed. In my day, over two hundred mini-vans could park in here. All at once!”
…looked like this:
Hey Mr. Stillman — care to co-sponsor this effort? Pretty please?
I don’t know about you, dear reader(s), but I have a sudden urge to go ice skating. I’d gladly give up the current parking lot in favor of adaptable space like this. [P.S. Break out the egg nog, folks — there’s a poorly-done Christmasy-themed rendering here].

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.

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10 comments

  1. Hi there! great stuff here, I'm glad that I drop by your page and found this very interesting. Thanks for sharing about Hoping to read something like this in the future! Keep it up! You’ll find magic in such sparkling Chicago attractions as Navy Pier – the Midwest’s top tourist destination – and its boardwalk, 150-foot Ferris wheel, boat and segway tours, and countless dining or shopping options. Millennium Park offers dazzling music, art, landscape design and architecture – including the mammoth stainless-steel Cloud Gate sculpture – plus ice skating in the winter, splashing around in the interactive Crown Fountain during summer, and alfresco dining from spring to fall. Travel to the city of Chicago by train. with Amtrak Vacations and see what you've been missing.

  2. Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. · · Reply

    Thanks for the comment. Definitely, if we can't get Amtrak to pull into the (actual) Union Station anymore, local heavy-rail and excursion trips are the next best option.Just a semi-regular line to Jackson, like you said, and the nearby vineyards could be pretty successful.The last rumors I heard is that the new owner of Union Station is considering private excursions — which would be amazing.Still, it'd be great to have Amtrak backing in/out to the Station from all cardinal directions again…

  3. I used to do volunteer work on a tourist excursion train in the Jackson, MO. area and how well we drew depended largely on how many people we could get from the St. Louis area. An excursion tourist train operating in the St. Louis metro area would be a sure draw. From what I have heard, there are logistical problems UN and out of stl Union Station concerning Terminal Railroad Association. Still, hope springs eternal that something can be done.

  4. Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. · · Reply

    That does make a lot of sense. Or at least make use of the few remaining tracks in the shed's western edge. Even now, a few early-to-mid century engines and cars parked there would increase the draw of Union Station.

  5. One simple suggestion that just might be more achievable than these; it requires bringing two attractions together. Restore the tracks in the shed and move the Museum of transportation there. If room permits, search out some sleeper cars and make them hotel rooms (through the present hotel).Chattanooga TN has the chattanooga Choo Choo with such an arrangement. We need a draw!

  6. Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. · · Reply

    Dream big, as they say. A solar panel system like that could be used in the Station itself, I expect, but not much more (especially considering its location in a central city with hazier air and less direct sunlight). I also would guess there would be some glare issues along 64-40, but I could be wrong.Another problem (the same one with cutting a hole out for a ferris wheel) is that as an historic structure, something like that might not fly.

  7. A half-million square-feet of shed area? Imagine new-tech solar-power panels heating in winter and electrically-powering the entire complex…Enough power to drive the electric Metro rail trains? P.S.: For ultra-cool "Ferris-wheel" designs that are actually being built, reference the Las Vegas projects now underway.

  8. I really like these ideas (ice skating rink and beer garden seem so obvious!). But in the short term, I would really like to see the shed get some love and care. How about a fresh coat of paint, and some lighting to show off this grand structure. Along the same lines, some neon outlining the "St. Louis Union Station" sign and lighting up the clock tower to add to the skyline at night is a must IMO. Really hope something happens. I recently took the Amtrak from STL to KC and was so sad (yet impressed) when I got to walk through KC's beautiful Union Station- knowing I wouldn't get a similar experience upon my return.

  9. Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. · · Reply

    Thanks for the comments, Anonymous (if that is your real name…). True, the wheel and the passenger line are probably a bit pie-in-the-sky, but it's fun to envision them!But, yes, the ice rink, stage, beer garden, etc. are all very easy to imagine happening and would be much more of a draw for Union Station (which really needs a draw!) than the barren trainshed parking garage it has now. The ice rink in, in particular, would look WAY better than the one in front of Peaobody (but still nowhere near as cool as Steinberg).

  10. I think the ice rink, beer garden, and outdoor event space is the best bet. I think dabbling with modifying such a major historic structure (trainshed) is risky in this region; it would either usher in an adaptive and transformative approach to historic redevelopment in the area or it could spread a wave of ill-conceived proposals that end up weakening the buildings they are meant to protect.As a rail-commuter hub, UStation has a common short-fall, Plentiful office space in walking distance of the station. It is unfortunately sited at the edge of Downtown and doesn't have the same natural benefits as a more central site (unlike our DT ML sites). That's not to say a commuter station isn't a great idea…it just needs to be paired with long-term private investment in redeveloping the adjacent area. THe city could help by fast-tracking plans for a new 22nd interchange that is urban in character and doesn't just shoot cars to the Northside projects.

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