Transcripts

Union Station Restoration Uncovers Hidden History

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Our next story takes us out of the house and into a place that many commuters and travelers know quite well -- or they may think they know quite well, anyway. Turns out that if you pause and take a closer look at Union Station, you'll find all sorts of hidden history and architectural gems. Lindsey Sperber took a tour of some of these lesser known corners of D.C.'s iconic train terminal, and brings us this story.

MS. LINDSEY SPERBER

00:00:25
I'm standing in a cold room with dim light, in a part of Union Station few people ever visit. With me are Beverly Swain-Stanley and Tom Whitaker, of the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation. We're about to descend into a perfectly cut square in the floor.

MR. TOM WHITAKER

00:00:41
So you get your hands on it first before you move your feet over. That way…

SPERBER

00:00:44
Okay.

SPERBER

00:00:45
We carefully brace our hands on a ladder and climb down to reach the mezzanine level of Union Station's main hall.

WHITAKER

00:00:52
We're standing behind the six legionnaire statues made of plaster.

SPERBER

00:00:57
Forty-six sculptures of Roman legionnaires, or soldiers, line the main hall, standing eight feet tall and each with a unique design. They look down from the station arches on the commuters rushing about below. Collectively they represent the 46 states that made up the United States in 1906, when the station was built.

WHITAKER

00:01:15
We think there's about six or eight different types and they just interchanged the parts and pieces and they're all symmetrical, too. If you look at -- across the station, at one end of the station they'll have two identical ones matched up, as you go away from the center.

SPERBER

00:01:29
The legionnaires are among some of the station's original artifacts, dating back to its opening more than 100 years ago. After checking them out for a bit, we climb back up the ladder and head down to the main floor, to a room historically reserved for the most powerful person in Washington.

MS. BEVERLY SWAIN-STANLEY

00:01:47
This is the Presidential Suite.

SPERBER

00:01:48
From 1908 to 1950, Union Station's Presidential Suite allowed the nation's commander-in-chief to wait for his train in a privately secure location.

SWAIN-STANLEY

00:01:58
And obviously, as you can see, very nicely decorated, very special lights and lamps, you see the presidential seal here at one end of the room, you know, beautifully carpeted, brocaded decorations.

SPERBER

00:02:11
For several decades, the Presidential Suite served as a restaurant, and there's speculation it will re-open soon to the public. We exit the Presidential Suite to check out some elements of Union Station that aren't exactly hidden, but which many visitors miss as they rush to catch their trains.

SWAIN-STANLEY

00:02:28
There are 28 different ceiling structures in Union Station. When you walk from room to room look up because you'll see almost every time a different structure. The ceilings are decorative, you know, whether there's gold leaf or, you know, some other design in the ceilings.

SPERBER

00:02:46
And while you're gazing upward, you might notice scaffolding and a large black net 90 feet above you. They are part of a two-year construction project designed to restore Union Station to its original magnificence.

SWAIN-STANLEY

00:02:59
We're doing restoration that's visible, as well as restoration that isn't visible to people who are in the station. One of the things that we are attempting to do now is replace all of the gold in the ceiling and to use the same high quality of gold which was used originally. And we expect the gold to last 75 to 100 years.

SPERBER

00:03:18
Union Station is the busiest stop in the Metro system, as well as a bustling hub for inter-city train service, so this restoration isn't an easy process.

SWAIN-STANLEY

00:03:28
It's a very busy place and that's challenging because we're trying to do a restoration, at the same time we are trying to continue to serve the many people who pass through the station each day for many purposes.

SPERBER

00:03:37
Getting the station ready for the next generation includes developing a chronology of all the different changes that have taken place over the past 108 years. Swain-Stanley says she's collected more than 8,000 documents as a part of that process.

SWAIN-STANLEY

00:03:52
As we're doing a historic preservation plan for the station, it's very exciting. We're finding a lot of new information about the history of the station, which makes it even more fascinating than it was before.

SPERBER

00:04:02
They've also come across some interesting artifacts from the earlier eras in the station's history.

SWAIN-STANLEY

00:04:07
We're finding out interesting things behind the scenes. So we have found, you know, old paint cans and other artifacts like that -- jars -- as we're doing the work behind the main ceiling. And so what we are doing is collecting those and putting a very small museum-like display in the East Hall.

SPERBER

00:04:26
That display is not behind closed doors, and Swain-Stanley says the restoration team will be adding to it. They also plan to launch an app next month about the restoration and the artifacts they've uncovered, so that this and future generations can enjoy the full history and beauty of Union Station. I'm Lindsey Sperber.

SHEIR

00:04:49
Want to see those Roman Legionnaires up close and personal? Or take a virtual stroll through the Presidential Suite? We have a video from Lindsey's tour on our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:05:07
In a minute, the inside scoop on everyday life in the White House.

MR. ALAN DEVALERIO

00:05:12
So there I was, you know, sitting in the East Room of the White House listening to two of the great entertainers of their era and getting paid for it on top of it.

SHEIR

00:05:19
It's coming your way on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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