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Reviving the grand old stations.


One day in the late1960s, B. Allen Casey, Jr., a Chattanooga hotel and restaurant owner, was looking for a location for his new Hilton hotel. As he glanced through the newspaper one day, an item caught his eye: It was going to cost the Southern Railway $100,000 to demolish its old Terminal Station at Chattanooga.

"It was such a beautifulbuilding," Casey says. "The Grand Dome was just right for a restaurant, and the whole complex was just right for an unusual hotel."

Casey called the railroad. Hisoffer: "Give me the building, and I'll pay you the appraised value of the land. I'll save you $100,000."

Casey and his fellow investors endedup with 24 acres of ground and an award-winning building. The 1909 vintage station, built from plans that won the design contest at the ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, in 1900, featured the Grand Dome, which soared 85 feet above the 68-by-82-foot waiting room.

The dome is now fully restored; thewaiting room is an elegant 1,300-seat restaurant. Elsewhere in the building are more restaurants, a variety of shops, and the world's largest HO-gauge model railroad.

Outside, where the tracks used tobe, three new buildings house the 300-room Hilton and a formal garden. A few tracks remain, some lined with railroad passenger cars converted into luxury-hotel suites. On one track an antique trolley car shuttles visitors around the complex.

Chattanooga Choo Choo helpedspark a renewal of its part of downtown Chattanooga. It attracts more than 1.5 million visitors a year, who are said to spend more than $10 million.

"We just happen to be in the rightplace at the right time," Casey says. "The building was available; preservation was just coming into vogue; we had tremendous community support. And a large part of our success came from our name recognition: the Chattanooga Choo Choo."

Drama in Duluth

The Chattanooga Choo Choo developmentmarked a new beginning for America's defunct but once grand railroad stations--an era of reconstruction, for while Casey was developing his complex in Chattanooga, another project had been undertaken in Duluth. The focus there was culture, not commerce. An affiliation of museum and performing-arts groups had been working since the mid-1960s to find a common home. In 1970 the group signed an option for Duluth's Union Depot.

The Norman-style building, patternedafter a chateau in the Loire Valley, had been completed in 1892. It served seven railroads and 50 trains a day at its peak, but passenger service ceased in 1969.

Renovation and construction,financed by private donations and government grants, started in 1973. Development has continued ever since: A performng-arts wing was finished in 1977, and a model of a 1910 Duluth street scene opened in 1982.

Today, the depot is homefor three museums, an art institute, and four performing-arts groups. Visitors can enjoy ballet, drama, musical comedy, and symphony music; they can view displays on immigrants, Indians, and early life in Minnesota. They can visit an ice-cream parlor, see old-time movies, ride a trolley car, window-shop in 1910-era stores--and buy art objects, books, and gifts.

Pittsburgh's Pains of Glass

While the Choo Choo entertainedits first visitors and the Duluth group launched its first fund drive, Pittsburgh's Arthur P. Ziegler was pondering the most ambitious terminal project yet, at the 41-acre, seven-building Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad complex on the banks of the Monongahela River, just across from the Golden Triangle.

In the 1960s, Ziegler and James D.Van Trump founded the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, which restored historic homes and commercial buildings. But their goal was far more than preservation for the sake of preservation. "You have to be practical to survive in Pittsburgh," Ziegler says. "It's a business town."

The P&LE complex was "to demonstrateto a city that believed only in clearance and rebuilding that you could renew old buildings on an economic basis," Ziegler adds.

Ziegler first approachedthe railroad in 1974. Two years of negotiations resulted in an agreement for joint usage: The railroad would continue to use the upper floors of the terminal building, but the foundation would develop the elegant grand concourse and the rest of the site. Initial financing was assured with a $5.2 million grant from the Allegheny Foundation, a trust of Pittsburgh's influential Scaife family.

The Grand Concourse inthe 1901 Beaux-Arts terminal building became the project's showpiece. Its 60-foot-long, vaulted stained-glass ceiling, 45 feet above the floor, provided a stunning setting for elegant dining. A restaurateur, C.A. Meur, spent $2.2 million converting the space. Workers used 400 cans of oven cleaner to remove grime from the stained glass.

Development continued,step by step. In 1979, the 1897 freight house became a complex of picturesque shops under the old truss-work roof; in 1982, the adjacent 1923 warehouse became a modern office complex with a central atrium. A new Sheraton hotel and a new parking garage rose on the grounds.

Around the project are historicaldisplays of railroad equipment, antique automobiles, and a Bessemer converter. Excursion trains occasionally leave from the last of the station's tracks; excursion boats depart regularly from the docks at the riverside.

Most of the visitors are local people,Ziegler says: "We have a very stable retail base. Shoes, dresses, coats, ties. . .It's a place where people like to come to eat and shop."

Tale of Two Crossroads

Chattanooga, Duluth, and Pittsburghhad flourishing stations, but two larger and more elaborate stations were languishing: the Romanesque union stations in Indianapolis and in Saint Louis.

Both had been showplaces in citiesthat call themselves "The Crossroads of America"; both were virtually deserted by the late 1960s. Bought in 1974 by local groups with plans for restoration, they had remained nearly empty for the rest of the decade as restoration plans failed to develop. Then the renaissance of both cities' downtowns brought the station plans back to life in the early 1980s.

Action came first in Saint Louis,where the 1894 Union Station had been America's largest. The huge stone head house once boasted a hotel, restaurants, shops, and offices; the gigantic open train shed spanned 31 tracks and covered nearly 11-1/2 acres.

The $135 million redevelopmentproject began in 1983. Inside the head house, artisans restored the station's original splendor. The 76-by-120-foot Grand Hall, graced by a 65-foot-high barrel-vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows, became the lobby of the new Omni International Hotel. The station's original oak-paneled dining room became the hotel's elegant restaurant. And many of the station's original rooms became luxury hotel suites.

A miniature town came to life. Multistoriedbuildings now house shops, restaurants, and more hotel rooms. Gardens, fountains, and a lake add a touch of the outdoors. Sunlight plays on the scene through the glass panels in the roof.

Saint Louis Union Station was reopenedlast summer. Donna Laidlaw of the station's management firm calls it a place where "the entire family can come and spend a day; a festive marketplace with many terraces and gardens to explore, and a changing array of activities."

The brick-and-stone Union Stationin Indianapolis was completed in 1888 on the site of America's first union station. Its centerpiece is a dramatic great room, flanked by balconies, a 20-foot stained-glass "wheel window" at each end and a stained-glass, barrel-vaulted ceiling 70 feet above the floor. The tracks behind the station, originally at ground level, were elevated in 1915; the 13-track shed opened in 1922.

In 1970, Amtrak moved its operationsfrom the main building into the ground-level passenger concourse under the old tracks. The 1888-vintage building was deserted; its roof leaked and its plaster decorations had crumbled. A preservation group bought the building, but not the train shed. Several revival attempts failed, and the building sank into ruin.

Then, in the early 1980s, RobertBorns stepped in. Already he had worked wonders in downtown Indianapolis. In 1981, he announced plans to build 120 condominiums on 12 acres of vacant land that urban renewal had cleared more than a decade before. The condos sold out in 48 hours.

Next, he took over an aged,100,000-square-foot warehouse near the downtown railroad tracks, and the warehouse became a trendy, modern office building called Station Place, with a successful restaurant on the first floor.

Then he cast an eye toward UnionStation, only a block away. "As a developer, I saw this gigantic project there," he says. "It had a magnificent historical structure, in an incredible location.

"The problem was that therewasn't enough room in the station building itself for a good redevelopment project. But then it became possible to get the train shed, too. That made the project nearly three blocks long, with nearly a million square feet. That was the 'critical mass' we needed for success."

Borns got the contract in1982; the $50 million project began in late 1983. Stained-glass windows have been removed, cleaned, and repaired; crumbling plaster-work inside the main building is being painstakingly restored. The grand hall will become the home of three different restaurants flanking a broad walkway down the center of the room.

While developing theproject, Borns and his wife, Sandra, visited similar attractions around the country, gathered ideas, and sought merchants who would blend quality and uniqueness. "People will come to see these grand old buildings, but we want everything about Union Station to be special, from shops and restaurants to entertainment," he says.

Most tracks in the trainshed and the floor supporting them are being removed to open the space from the old passenger concourse to the roof. Skylights are being installed in the shed's old smoke slots, where exhaust from steam engines once rose to the sky. Three-story banks of hotel rooms will fill the inside of the shed, along with fountains, shops, and restaurants.

Some of the original track will remain,lined with 13 old passenger cars, restored to house 26 luxury suites. Plans call for night clubs, cinemas, and restaurants, including a dining room that will span Meridian Street and offer a view of newly renovated Monument Circle.

What does it take to redevelop ahistoric station? Borns says there are three main ingredients for success.

"First, it has to be in a good location. Wehave a wonderful location, downtown, near the convention center and the Hoosier Dome. The station belongs to all the people in the community; everyone can get there easily, and Indianapolis is very 'hot' right now; it's a terrific community. Second, you need a town that wants you to be there, and Indianapolis wanted Union Station to be revived. Many people still have fond memories of the old station. Third, you need political support. You can't do it without the backing of community leaders," Borns concludes.

"This Union Station is one of thegreatest historic-restoration projects in America," Borns adds. "We have gone to great lengths to reconstruct the 19th-century craftsmanship both inside and out. When people walk into the building they will take a step back in time--we're building a time machine."

When the station reopens thisApril, says Borns, there won't be another place like it.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:railroad stations
Author:Biemer, Marty
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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