17 May 2013

Saint Louis Union Station, Saint Louis, MO

A relic of retail

This is the ultimate in old school shops.


I initially discovered Saint Louis Union Station on a brisk Autumn afternoon in 2004. I was riding the city's MetroLink Light Rail away from downtown and what would be my final visit to the ailing Saint Louis Centre. I was on my way to Central West End to document a supposedly haunted location (this was just a week or two before Halloween, my favorite holiday) and I had a little time to kill. So I disembarked at the Union Station stop, hoping to get a few shots of a classic old train station. What I found was so much more.

Interior views of the Grand Hall.

Under the modified train shed, I found a Landry's Seafood Restaurant, a Hyatt Hotel and even a small pond. I wasn't surprised to find these few additions to help in attracting visitors to the no longer functioning train station. But just past the lagoon was a two level array of escalators, mezzanines and shops. The Saint Louis Union Station had been converted into a retail facility and, unlike its downtown peer, this development was quite familiar with success.

Saint Louis Union Station Mallmanac, ca. 2004. View the full PDF version here.

I loved how the modern was juxtaposed with the classic. There was a respectable selection of retailers and eateries, as well as healthy foot traffic considering that I was there on a weekday afternoon. Although covered by the train shed's roof for the most part, the facility was for all intents and purposes open-air and not climate controlled. I was more than a little impressed by what I was seeing, but I hadn't even reached the focal point of the complex- the Grand Hall.

What used to be the passenger lounge when old-timey trains made regular stops at the station to pick up three piece suit clad businessmen in bowler hats was now serving as the restored lobby of the Hyatt. The ornate arched ceiling, the Romanesque architecture and the Indiana limestone kept me gazing upward in a state of awe with my mouth agape. It was like I was instantly transported to another time and place; like I had just experienced a temporal shift and would be on the lookout for Captain Jack had I not had an evening departure to catch out of Lambert.

The retail portion under the old train shed.

Saint Louis's Union Station debuted in 1894. At one time, it served the passenger lines of 22 different railroads and was the world's largest and busiest train station. But as rail became an outdated mode of transportation, service was steadily reduced until 1978 when its last tenant, Amtrak, moved all of its operations out of the oversized facility. In 1985, the site was repurposed with the addition of the 539 room hotel and the retail portion. Finally, rail service returned in 1993 with the commencement of service via the Saint Louis MetroLink.

Union Station's layout just before the onset of the 2010 renovation and expansion.

Today, Union Station is one of the most visited attractions in the metropolis. That's a pretty impressive feat when also located in the city is one of the most iconic and recognized monuments in the world. And say what you will about Saint Louis, but I love that damned town. Sure, it's got its problems, and there are a lot of them. But while other locales were in a rush to demolish their obsolete rail stations in the name of urban renewal, that was never even a consideration in the Gateway City. So, unlike New York's Penn Station and the Birmingham Terminal Station in Alabama, everyone will be able to look up in awe at Saint Louis Union Station for decades to come. And to buy t-shirts and kitschy arch themed shot glasses.

Saint Louis Union Station's official website

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