Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Los Angeles Union Station

Los Angeles Union Station
Booking Hall, Union Station, in 2020. Venue for the Academy Awards in 2021.

Los Angeles Union Station is to LA what Grand Central Station is to New York. It’s our major rail terminus, designed and built to reflect the history and feel of the city back at us as we pass through. It opened in May 1939 with much fanfare, ironically just as the US was falling out of love with train travel, its head turned by those twin symbols of the twentieth century, the automobile and the plane. For many years Union Station was allowed to gently decline into genteel poverty, like Miss Havisham in a west coast version of Great Expectations, largely forgotten by the city around her. Now however, with the rebirth of metro and suburban rail in Los Angeles in the last thirty years, Union Station is back! As the station becomes busier there are new plans afoot to extend its rail lines over the freeway, which runs to one side of the station, and build a major new concourse below the platforms, to allow for the millions of new passengers expected to use it. So in honor of her 82nd anniversary and with the Oscars Ceremony due to take place there April 25, I wanted to take a look back at the history of this much loved Los Angeles icon and look forward to what the future might hold for her.

La Grande Station, Los Angeles, c1920

At the turn of the last century there were two main train stations in downtown Los Angeles, the fabulous Moorish styled La Grande Station and the Arcade Depot (which was replaced by Central Station in 1914). Both of these stations were in the heart of what’s now downtown (in those days downtown more or less was Los Angeles) and served the city suburbs, surrounding towns and interstate trains. However as L.A. rapidly grew (the population doubled between 1890 and 1900, from 50,000 to 100,000 people and tripled between 1900 and 1910 to over 300,000 inhabitants) it was felt by the city leaders that one big terminus would be better. They decided that this station should be a symbol of Los Angeles’ progress and new status as an important and wealthy west coast city that was snapping at the heels of San Francisco.

Central Station, Los Angeles, 1924.

Naturally the course of progress in a city such as LA never runs straight or smooth and this relatively simple proposal immediately became bogged down in a bitter turf war between the various different stakeholders. And then became caught up in a wider battle about the very nature of Los Angeles’ public-transit system and how to plan and build it. 

Needless to say it was a battle that could only be settled in court and so it went all the way to the very top, the United States Supreme Court. Twice. Eventually the road, or should that be railroad, ahead was cleared and the city won the right to develop a new station against the wishes of the railroad companies. But that still left the question of what kind of suburban rail network would be best for Los Angeles. 

In 1926 there was a ballot measure, asking Angelenos if they wanted a Union Station or an elevated railway system (similar to the one in Chicago). The Los Angeles Times came out against the elevated railroad, writing that the proposal would lead to “miles of hideous, clattering, dusty, dirty, dangerous, street-darkening overhead trestles.” Voter turnout was 60%, one of the largest in the city’s history, and it was 61% to 39% in favor of the cheaper option of Union Station! Now the city could finally begin the construction of its long awaited terminus. Or not. Because they still had to decide where to build it!

Originally the plan had been to build the station in the old Los Angeles Plaza, in front of Olvera Street. It was here that the city had been founded in 1781, as a tiny outpost in the vast Spanish Empire, and as such it was the birthplace of LA. So why build the station there? Well, in 1876, when the transcontinental railroad reached Los Angeles, the city began its period of explosive growth. Most of the new settlers were Anglo in origin and as the city grew its center of gravity moved south to what’s now the Historic Core of downtown, leaving the dusty Pueblo to LA’s Mexican and Chinese immigrants. Indeed the area east of the Pueblo, where the station is now, was the city’s original Chinatown. North of the Pueblo was Little Italy and the area around the Pueblo was called “Sonoratown”, after the state in Mexico (which happened to be, ironically, where the founders of Los Angeles were from). 

Once again a spanner was about to be thrown into the Union Station works. The concept of historical preservation didn’t really exist in the 1920’s, but a lady called Christine Sterling, was strolling down Olvera Street in 1926 when she saw a demolition notice on the door of the Avila Adobe. Outraged that the city was about to knock down the oldest building in Los Angeles, she single-handedly started a campaign to save the Plaza area. One person to support her campaign was Harry Chandler, who happened to be the owner of the Los Angeles Times and arguably L.A.’s most influential citizen. He donated $5,000 for the preservation of the Plaza, but his more important contribution was to put the Times behind her campaign. 

Los Angeles’ old Chinatown, c1933.

Ultimately the decision was made to move the site of the station from the Pueblo several hundred feet east to the heart of L.A.’s old Chinatown. City Hall liked the idea of building the station there anyway, since it meant the neighborhood, which it considered a crime-ridden slum (it wasn’t), could be razed as an act of urban renewal. Nonetheless Christine Sterling’s vision of a revitalized Pueblo, which harked back to Colonial Spanish and Mexican times, did come to pass and if you visit the area now you can still see it more or less exactly as when it reopened in 1930. Chinatown was moved to the old Little Italy (most of the Italian immigrants having by this time departed) where it was reconstituted (again under the auspices of Christine Sterling) as “new” Chinatown.

For the design of its grand new station the city went to its premier architects, the father and son duo of John and Donald Parkinson. Given a brief to help promote Los Angeles’ as a tourist destination, they decided that the station should reference the city’s Spanish history, especially since it was adjacent to the Pueblo. Therefore the design used healthy doses of Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial, a style that many movie stars were using for their houses. This was melded with Streamline Moderne, a development of Art Deco, which was in fashion at the time and was all about movement and modernity and therefore, it was felt, eminently suited to a station. 

Los Angeles Union Station
Union Station under construction, 1938.

Construction only finally began in 1933, thirty years after the station was first proposed, and by the time it opened in 1939 John Parkinson had died, but the station is a more than fitting legacy for his architectural genius. Every detail was considered and finessed. The gardens on either side of the station were designed to evoke a tropical Eden, with palm trees and bird of paradise flowers shading its benches (much of L.A.’s appeal in those days was thought to rest on it being seen as an exotic, tropical locale). Inside there was a cavernous ticket concourse with acoustic tiles, so that the train announcements wouldn’t echo and be hard to make out, which would naturally lead passengers into the waiting room and on to the trains. Only the best materials were used, travertine marble for the wainscoting on the walls, brass for the enormous chandeliers (which weigh as much as a car). It was by far the largest station west of the Rockies and the last station of the golden age of American rail to be built. The grand opening was celebrated with a three-day extravaganza attended by nearly half a million people. 

Until its recent rebirth its heyday was considered to be the early 1940’s when it had a very important role as the terminus for U.S. servicemen and women coming here to ship out to the war theatre in the Pacific, as well as being a great backdrop for movie stars returning from war service or vacations. One thing for which we can all be grateful for though is that, unlike Pennsylvania Station in New York or Euston Station in London, it wasn’t demolished. That’s probably due to there being no economic imperative to develop the land on which it stood. The reason for that is that in the 1950’s the 101 (Hollywood) freeway slashed its way through downtown, separating Union Station from the main business district and leaving it somewhat isolated. Ironically (and Union Station’s story is full of irony as you can see) the reason for putting the La Grande Station and Arcade Depot where they were was because the original station for the Southern Pacific transcontinental railroad was close to where Union Station is now and too far away from the main activity in downtown. Somehow that fact was forgotten only a few years later, meaning that Union Station is not really in the heart of the city, but on the edge of downtown.

Union Station today.

Now rail is having its moment once again and trains and people are returning to Union Station. In 2011 Los Angeles Metro bought the station, bringing it back under public ownership. The neighborhood surrounding it is being redesigned to knit it back into the fabric of the city. Gardens in front, to replace the ubiquitous parking lots which cut the station off from the street, a redesigned pedestrianized route leading from the station to the Pueblo and extending the railway tracks over the 101 freeway. The reason for this last modification is that at the moment all the tracks (apart from the ones for the Metro Gold Line) end at the station, meaning it takes much longer to get trains moving again and so limiting the station’s capacity. By making Union Station a through station, as opposed to a terminus, its capacity can be vastly increased, which is crucially important in an era when we’re trying to get Angelenos out of their cars and onto eco-friendly modes of transportation. Still there seems something symbolic about the fact that trains will no longer end their journey at Union Station and that, having been cut off from the city by the freeway, it’s now the turn of the train to be prioritized, literally, over the car. 

Los Angeles Union Station
Los Angeles Union Station, from Avila Adobe.

This week Los Angeles Union Station will host the annual Oscars, for the first (and likely only) time. I can’t think of a better venue, with its intoxicating mix of old-school glamor, LA and California history, and beautiful lines (and great acoustics). The station has been used many times as a location, in movies as varied as Union Station, Blade Runner, Catch Me If You Can and The Dark Knight Rises. Why not create a special category for it? Most adaptable movie location.

Learn about Union Station, and have lunch there, on our LA: Food + History + Design Tour, every Sunday.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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