February 9, 2011

All Aboard: Class essay

Yesterday and Today
Himself: He’s really feeling good about everything at the moment.

Herself: I won’t be home till late tonight, and I go straight from the pool to the first writing class of the semester tomorrow morning. Here’s the adaptation I wrote of the February 1st piece as a history of the LA Union Station. Writing for me is like chewing gum, patting my stomach, and doing a tap dance all at the same time. Sometimes its grinding my teeth too.

I woke early this chill February morning. My bag is packed for the day, and I am eager to get going. My husband kindly drives me down to the San Diego Santa Fe station in the dark predawn hours. Within minutes I have found my seat in the Business Class car knowing I will see the ocean out my window as the sun rises. I’m heading to up to LA on the train to see a friend. It’s always my favorite way of traveling. While I am there, I will be visiting the restored LA Union Station. It waits shining but not at all resting in the warm sunshine of Los Angeles.

I look up the Wikipedia entry for the Union Station, and it states, “Union Station was partially designed by the father and son team of John Parkinson and Donald B. Parkinson…..assisted by a group of supporting architects, including the famous Jan van der Linden. ….Their firm designed many landmark Los Angeles buildings from the late 19th century onward. Th(is) structure combines Dutch Colonial Revival Style architecture (the suggestion of the Dutch born Jan van der Linden), Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne style…”

In the thirties, the voters approved replacing the heart of the Los Angeles Chinatown with a station that would serve all three existing railroads plus the red line trolleys. The railways fought “for a decade” to stop this decision. The Online Archive of California, (OAC) tells us that, “Reluctant to finance a union station when they already owned and operated separate terminals in the downtown area, the railroads did not start the project until pressured by local business and political leaders and mandated by the California Railroad Commission. The railroads appealed the commission's directive…but were finally forced to begin land acquisition and construction in the early 1930s. This last of the "great" train stations was financed and constructed by the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, and Union Pacific railroads and completed in 1939.”

Today I walk down the long subterranean, under track tunnel into the dramatic waiting room eager to see my friend Bobbie. I marvel how this building that centralized passenger rail travel and light rail in 1939 Los Angeles is still central to Amtrak, Metrorail, and trolley traffic in the Los Angeles of 2011.

Bobbie and I greet in the early morning shadows of the façade, and head high into the hills for a day of talking, shopping, and the kind of sharing that long friendships bring. We both tire mid afternoon, and find ourselves sitting in a pair of the large, leather, deco waiting room chairs.

The main face of the building is much as it was when the architects designed it. But inside, the central ticket area to the left, though beautifully restored and maintained, is unused. The polished marble floors gleam and the high ceilings echo the dreams of the designers. To the right through a high ceilinged colonnade is the last of the Harvey House restaurants designed by Mary Colter. It too sits empty since declining rail traffic wiped out the Harvey House profits in the 1960’s. Today the floors are polished and the tooled leather is maintained as is the shining copper of the bar.

Catellus, the major developer who took over the faded station and 51 acres of the surrounding land in 1992, finished the restoration of the building by 2002. Now the building is heavily used by Amtrak, Metroliners, and new rail access for the trolley lines that link all of LA.

In the fifties, you would stop for lunch at the Harvey House then check the board to see if your train was on time. Bobbie and I grabbed a sandwich at one of the three fast food spots, and just like in the 1950’s we checked to see when my train was to leave. For a short while we sauntered in the gardens on either side of the waiting room and talked of her husband, now getting chemo for stage 4 lung cancer, talked art and food, and parted hugging then waving. In the 1950’s, red caps would follow you down the long tunnels with your bags on carts. They would roll them down the tunnel and up the long ramps to the train sheds and your waiting train. No struggle with your many suitcases. All this for a tip.

I turned and headed down the long subway tunnel. Today there was just me with my backpack walking slowly up the ramp greeting the deep rumble of diesels that overtook the drama of steam. The excitement is still there. That sense of adventure as you are welcomed to your car. The race to find just the right seat on the ocean side of the train remains, as does that moment when you first look out of your window after you settle in.

“All Aboard,” they still call, and slowly the train pulls out of the station back into the real world.


Great American Stations:

Wikipedia: LA Union Station:

RCDF Design Projects: LA Union Station

Catellus LAUS Project

OAC Finding Aid for the LAUS initial construction:

City Data.com: The Last Great Railway Station

Union Station’s Harvey House


  1. Train travel is my favorite too. I keep hoping the gas crunch will engender a train renaissance. Wouldn't that be lovely?

  2. I haven't done a train trip in a long time but you've certainly piqued my interest!!!! Maybe this summer . . .

  3. I love trains, too and I love this essay!

  4. Very informative, well written, and a great subject! I love to travel by rail but havent done much of it, NOT counting the zillion rides on the subway lines when I lived in "the city"
    Now here in SC I hear a distant train and I get that little swril of butterflies--someone is TRAVELING--and I get caught up in the excitement of it all.

  5. I really like the tight writing and the images created in words. The history about removing China town reminded me of the book Shangai Girls by Lisa See. Having read this essay I think you would like reading that, if you have not. It doesn't have much to do with the train station...but, yet, it does.


What a delight to get a note from you. Thanks for leaving one.


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