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Union Station Restoration Uncovers Hidden History

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A legionnaire watches over the construction in Union Station's main hall to replace the ceiling's gold.
WAMU/Sam Howells
A legionnaire watches over the construction in Union Station's main hall to replace the ceiling's gold.

I'm in a cold room with dim light, in a part of Union Station few people ever visit. With me are Beverly Swaim-Staley, CEO and president of the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, and Tom Whitaker, a project director. We descend into a perfectly cut square in the floor.

We carefully brace our hands on a ladder and climb down to reach the mezzanine level of Union Station’s main hall. “We are standing behind the six legionnaire statues made of plaster, and up behind us is the clock," says Whitaker.

Forty-six sculptures of Roman legionnaires, or soldiers, line the main hall, standing 8 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.

“We think there are about six or eight different types and they just interchanged them, parts and pieces and they are all symmetrical if you look across the station, one end of the station they will have two identical ones matched up, as you go away from the center," he explains.

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.

“This is the presidential suite," says Swaim-Staley, introducing the room.

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. “You can obviously see was very nicely decorated with very special lights and lamps, you see the presidential seal here at one end of the room, beautifully carpeted brocaded decorations," she says.

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.

Union Station Redevelopment Corporation CEO Beverly Swaim-Staley recounts the long history of Union Station. (Sam Howells)

“There are 28 different ceiling structures in Union Station, so when you walk from room to room, look up because you will see almost every time a different structure, whether they use skylight or didn't whether they are decorative, whether there are gold leaf or some other design in the ceiling," says Swaim-Staley, pointing upward.

If you catch yourself gazing upward the next time you make your way through the station, you might notice scaffolding and a large black net 90 feet above you. They’re part of a two-year construction project designed to restore Union Station to its original magnificence.

“We are doing restoration that is visible as well as restoration that isn’t visible to people who are in the station," says Swaim-Staley. "One of the things we are attempting to do is to 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.”

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.

“It’s a very busy place and that is challenging because we are trying to do a restoration, at the same time we are trying to continue to serve the many people that pass through the station every day for many purposes," she explains.

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. Swaim-Staley says she has collected more than 8,000 documents as part of that process. “As we are doing a historic preservation plan for the station it is very exciting we are finding a lot of new information about the history of the station which makes it more fascinating than it was before," she says.

Swaim-Staley has come across some interesting artifacts from earlier eras in the station’s history. “We are finding things behind the scenes, we have found old paint cans and other artifacts like that, jars as we are 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," she says.

That display is not behind closed doors, and Swaim-Staley 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.

Music: "Got My Foot in the Door" by Mercer Ellington & His Orchestra from Stepping Into Swing Society

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