Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Union Station: LA’s Great Rail Terminus

Los Angeles Union Station
Booking Hall, Los Angeles Union Station, host of the Academy Awards, 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 public transport in Los Angeles over the last thirty years, Union Station is back! As the station becomes busier there are plans afoot to extend its rail lines over the freeway, which runs along 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 85th anniversary this month, and with the luster of hosting the Oscars Ceremony in 2021 yet to fully wear off, 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.

First Stations in Los Angeles

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 and surrounding towns, as well as interstate trains.

However, as LA 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 California city that was snapping at the heels of San Francisco.

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 dispute that could only be settled in court and so it went all the way to the very top, the United States Supreme Court. Twice. Finally the road, or railroad, ahead was cleared and the city won the right to build the station against the wishes of the railroad companies.

Nevertheless, 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 Union Station or an elevated railway system (similar to the one in Chicago). The Los Angeles Times came out strongly against the elevated railroad idea, 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!

Early Proposals for Union Station

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 neighborhood around the plaza was known as Sonoratown, after the state in Mexico (which happened to be the region from which the founders of Los Angeles had come). 

Once again a spanner was about to be thrown into the Union Station works. The concept of historic preservation didn’t 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 its oldest building, she single-handedly started a campaign to save the Plaza neighborhood.

One person to support her campaign was Harry Chandler, who happened to be the owner of the Los Angeles Times and arguably LA’s most influential citizen. He donated $5,000 for the preservation of the Plaza, but his more important contribution was to put his newspaper behind her campaign. 

Ultimately the decision was made to move the site of the station from the Pueblo several hundred feet east to the heart of LA’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”.

In fact, the site of the new station had originally been the land of Jean Louis Vignes’ vineyard in the nineteenth century. The farm buildings were clustered around El Aliso, an ancient sycamore that grew on the property which had been the site of the main Tongva village, Yang-na, in the period before Spanish colonization.

Yang-na was located at the juncture of the Los Angeles coastal plain and the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, and it was a gathering place for Tongva from all over the region. Local leaders would travel from their villages to confer with their peers, under the shade of the tree’s mighty canopy. By the 1820’s though the Tongva way of life had largely ended as they were forced to convert to Catholicism and work the missions lands.

When Vignes arrived in the tiny pueblo of Los Angeles in 1831, bringing with him grape varietals for Bordeaux wine (the place where he grew up in France), he quickly realized the land to the east of the plaza was perfect for growing his vines, as it offered easy access to the Los Angeles River. With LA’s Mediterranean climate the vineyard thrived over the following decades, and became the center of the California wine industry.

Following the successful establishment of Vignes’ vineyard, El Aliso, other French immigrants followed, leading to the development of a thriving Frenchtown to the northwest of where Union Station sits today. They established the first hospital in Los Angeles there, in 1860. Vignes Street, behind the station, and Aliso Street, are both remnants of that era.

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 departed by that time) where it was reconstituted (again under the auspices of Christine Sterling) as ‘New Chinatown’. St Peter’s Italian Catholic Church, on North Broadway, dates back to when the neighborhood was still known as Little Italy.

Frenchtown too, alas, is no more, although Philippe’s French Dip Restaurant is a lovely throwback to that period.

Design and Construction

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 Plaza. 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. 

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 of the new Union Station (so named because it unified all the railroad companies then operating at one terminus) was considered and finessed.

Inside, the cavernous ticket concourse was lined with acoustic tiles so that the train announcements wouldn’t echo and be hard to make out, and it 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).

Outside, 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 LA’s appeal in those days was thought to rest on it being seen as an exotic, tropical locale).

It was by far the largest station west of the Rockies and indeed Union Station is the last great terminus 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 excited Angelenos. 

Only film of Los Angeles Union Station’s Grand Opening in 1939

Golden Age & Decline of Union Station

However, even as Los Angeles Union Station opened it seemed like its time had passed. That same year construction began on the Arroyo Parkway, now the 110 Freeway, which was the first freeway to be built in the U.S. It opened in 1940, and runs along the other side of Chinatown to the station and up to Pasadena. It was a sign of things to come.

Until its recent rebirth the station’s heyday was considered to be the 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 Pacific theatre during World War Two, as well as being a great backdrop for Hollywood stars returning from war service or other trips abroad.

The heyday didn’t last long, as during the 1950’s, the vast streetcar network which criss-crossed Los Angeles was closed down, bit by bit, and more freeways were built. That left Union Station to be seen as something of a white elephant. At its nadir in the 1980’s only eleven trains a day would stop at the station.

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 – probably due to there being no economic or business imperative to develop the land on which it stood.

The reason for the lack of interest is because, in the 1950’s, the 101 (Hollywood) freeway slashed its way through downtown, separating Union Station from the main business and civic districts on the other side and leaving it somewhat isolated.

Ironically (and the 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 DTLA.

Hollywood and Union Station

In April 2021 Union Station hosted the annual Oscars for the first (and likely only) time. Since then the Academy has returned the event to the Dolby Theatre, but I can’t think of a better venue than Union Station, with its intoxicating mix of old-school glamor, Los Angeles and California history, and beautiful lines (and great acoustics of course).

The station has been used many times as a location too, in movies as varied as Blade Runner, Catch Me If You Can and The Dark Knight Rises. Not to mention Union Station, which was filmed as Union Station although it was set in Chicago. The movie features a great early performance by William Holden.

Maybe the Academy should have created a special category for Union Station. Most adaptable movie location? It’s good for action, science fiction, drama and romantic films.

Union Station today

Los Angeles Union Station Today

Now rail is having a 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.

There is considerable interest in redesigning the neighborhood surrounding it, in order to knit the station back into the fabric of the city. Gardens in front, to replace the ubiquitous parking lots which cut the station off from the street, and a pedestrianized route leading from the station to the Pueblo.

With the 2028 Olympics coming to Los Angeles there is a big incentive to improve the station and its surrounding area, let’s see if that helps get these plans off the ground.

There are also plans to extend the railway tracks over the 101 Hollywood Freeway. The reason being that at the moment all the tracks (apart from those of the Metro L-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 to be 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. 

Explore Union Station

Learn about LA’s great terminus, and even have lunch there, on our LA: Food + History + Design Tour, starts at Union Station. The tour operates every Sunday, at midday, and tickets are $85 pp (including food).

We also have a self-guided tour for Union Station and the LA Plaza, which you can find here, if you want to explore the area on your own.

If you have any feedback on Union Station: LA’s Great Rail Terminus please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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