Union Station: The Story of an L.A. Icon

Discover the last of the great train stations

Photo courtesy of Union Station
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In the midst of some of L.A.’s most traveled highways lies what has been dubbed “the last of the great railway stations” in the United States. Where once a hoard of early-century travelers voyaged to Los Angeles for the first time by way of cross country routes like the Southwest Chief railway, Los Angeles Union Station is now the heartbeat of the city, conducting throngs of commuters and travelers alike from the rich past of its opulent décor to the modern hustle and bustle of today.

Crowds celebrate the grand opening of Union Station in May 1939
Crowds celebrate the grand opening of Union Station in May 1939 | Photo courtesy of Water and Power Associates

An exuberant entryway into Los Angeles, Union Station was originally commissioned in the late 1920s as the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT). It was built in a unified effort by leading rail services Union Pacific and Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific to consolidate their depots into one location and alleviate foreseen traffic congestion as the city’s population rapidly escalated and the use of automobiles forged into the mainstream. LAUPT celebrated its grand opening on May 3, 1939. According to “The Great American Stations,” almost half a million attendees attended its multi-day opening reception to inaugurate the new hub for intercity and transcontinental excursions.

The heyday of railroad journeys saw a decline in the 1930s as the advent of automobile and airplane passage stimulated speedier travel. LAUPT’s maiden decade found success alongside the fringes of WWII, when the station became a dynamic pathway for troops, war workers, and supplies. After that, it was a slow trickle of travelers for many years, until a revitalization during the 1990s when it was renamed Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS) by then owner Catellus Development, which spearheaded a thorough restoration.

Union Station doorway and tiles
Photo courtesy of Union Station

Originally designed by father/son architects John and Donald Parkinson, the station blends influences of Art Deco, Spanish Colonial, and Mission Revival design to emphasize the eclectic nature of L.A.'s cultural heritage. Arriving through the main entrance or one of the lush courtyards laden with orange trees, fan palms and espalier magnolias, a majestic scene evokes dreamy locomotive stations across the world - visions of the Orient Express steam through one’s imagination.

Historic Ticket Hall at Union Station
Historic Ticket Hall | Photo courtesy of Union Station

The romance of Union Station lies within the assemblage of its details and the grand architecture it boasts. After entering through the front, one is instantly captured by the immense brass windows and vaulted ceiling that tower above. Now used as an event space, the Historic Ticket Hall recalls yesteryear where eager passengers purchased tickets from one of 30 windows made of American black walnut. And echoes of the past reverberate throughout with hand-painted steel beams that emphasize its grandeur and a bygone era.

Grand Waiting Room at Union Station
Grand Waiting Room | Photo courtesy of Union Station

Illuminated by massive Art Deco chandeliers, the Grand Waiting Room is as dramatic as it is soothing, allowing passengers to watch their departure times flicker while they sigh into one of the 286 Art Deco mahogany chairs made cozy by its plush leather upholstery.

The Patsaouras Transit Plaza that escorts Metro passengers to and fro salutes the city’s history. Its tiled River Bench is a representation of the L.A. River that trickles onto Chinese artifacts excavated from the location’s site. An 80-foot mural by artist Richard Wyatt honors diversity and generations of Los Angeles settlers.

TRAXX at Union Station
TRAXX | Photo courtesy of Union Station

Dining at LAUS can be a quick or tranquil affair. TRAXX, the station’s main restaurant, offers cocktails and fare for guests to reminisce or look forward to their travels, while grab-and-go options elsewhere reflect the hurried pace of a daily commute.

Harvey House at Union Station
Harvey House at Union Station | Photo by Steve Hymon, courtesy of Metro

Currently preparing for its upcoming iteration as a gastropub from acclaimed 213 Hospitality roprietor Cedd Moses, the Harvey House was once a fine dining space to the stars and is now used for special arts and cultural events. Originally imagined by Mary Coulter, a Santa Fe Railway architect who is credited as the inventor of Southwestern design, the space is a delightful stroll through her whimsical taste. Whether tippling at the horseshoe-shaped bar, dazzling under a massive chandelier, passing through the Moorish-style arches, or clacking one’s shoes on the cement tile flooring that emulates a Navajo blanket, The Fred Harvey is a throwback to LAUS’s golden years.

The Ticket Concourse at Union Station is the police station in "Blade Runner" (1982)
The Ticket Concourse at Union Station is the police station in "Blade Runner" (1982) | Photo courtesy of Metro

With such grandeur throughout every inch of the station, Hollywood would be remiss not to take notice. Movies such as Blade Runner, The Dark Knight Rises, and Pearl Harbor have been shot at LAUS, revealing it as a station of timeless character and charm. Sullen singer Fiona Apple even utilized The Fred Harvey space in the video for her song Paper Bag.

In 1972, Los Angeles Union Station was given landmark status as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #101; and in November 1980 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In April 2011, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) acquired the property with an aggressive plan to amp up the city’s public transportation, adding more routes and streamlining them through LAUS’s main portal. As it grows its intercity routes, and as long distance trains see an uptick in passenger use, LAUS embraces its revitalization and the future of locomotive exploration.

Whether coming, going, or staying for a cultural event, Los Angeles Union Station is a reflection of LA’s personality, a mingling of cultures, a vibrant foray of sunlight, and a timeless avenue through a passage of time and destinations. One may always consider a road less traveled, but perhaps when stepping into the last greatest station in the US, the swift train tracks may be the way to go. All aboard!

Union Station
800 N Alameda St, Los Angeles 90012
www.unionstationla.com