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Railfan Extra Board - June 2011

A Grand Heritage in Tacoma

Tacoma's Union Station was completed in 1911 and served the city as a passenger terminal until Amtrak's departure in 1984. Forlorn and abandoned, citizens rallied to save the historic structure from destruction. Although converted to a courthouse in 1992, the building still sports signs proclaiming it as "Union Station."

A Grand Heritage in Tacoma

By Alexander B. Craghead /Photos by the Author

Tacoma, Washington is arguably more aware of its heritage than any other city in the Pacific Northwest. Although it has a population of only 198,000, it exudes a greater sense of its civic self than the much larger cities of Seattle, Portland, or Vancouver, British Columbia. A visitor walking through its core will quickly notice how ever-present the city's past is, and yet, at the same time, the city doesn't feel trapped by it either. There is no sense of oppression, of dashed dreams, of futures without hope. A prime example of this unique attitude can be found in one structure: Tacoma Union Station, which turned 100 years old this May.

A Grand Heritage in Tacoma Inside the dome, looking up at the oculus, or central skylight. Hanging from it is a massive chandelier by internationally renowned blown-glass artist Dale Chihuly, who is from Tacoma and continues to call the city home.

Tacoma Union Station is one of the most impressive such structures in the region. It was designed by the architects Charles A. Reed and Allen H. Stem, who would go on to pen such magnificent stations as Detroit's Michigan Central and New York City's Grand Central Terminal. It shunned the stereotypical clock tower and Romanesque architecture for a vast, copper-covered dome atop a Beaux Arts base. Impressive from the outside, the dome became a landmark for the city, and would be a shape that would be reinforced by the later Tacoma Dome stadium.

Equally impressive: the vast interior space inside the dome, a main waiting room with a ceiling soaring ninety feet above the terrazzo floor. Lit by two grand windows to each side and a single large skylight or "oculus" in the dome's summit, the interior recalls the sacred space of Rome's domed Parthenon. Such elegance and grandeur was befitting Tacoma at the time. This was, after all, the official terminus of the country's second transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific.

The station very nearly did not survive until today. Despite the hopes of the Northern Pacific and the boosterism of local businessmen, Tacoma never gained its seat as the premier city of the Northwest. Worse, economic changes took their toll, and the station — reflecting its city — became a bit rough around the edges. By the 1980s, the building was abandoned, its interior standing open to the weather, its plaster detailing water-damaged and falling to bits.

A Grand Heritage in Tacoma The eastern window of the main lobby, showing the Northern Pacific "Monad" logo in the glass. Mounted on the window are a number of glass art pieces by Chihuly.

Yet, just when all seem darkest, the citizens of Tacoma banded together and fought for the station. Thanks to help from many layers of government and many impassioned supporters, the building was restored to its former glory, and converted to a federal courthouse. Why did it matter that much to Tacoma, and why was it so worth saving?

Every city needs a heart. From Times Square in New York to a village green in rural New Hampshire, communities psychologically base themselves around gathering spaces. For Tacoma, this space was the lobby floor under Union Station's dome. Magnificently lit, and arguably the primary portal of arrival and departure for the city until the arrival of Interstate 5 in the 1960s, the domed space was the closest thing this community had to a civic soul. It is no wonder, then, that in restoring the structure, priority was given to making the domed space available for public uses such as festivals and events.

Railfan Extra Board

Union Station is not the only example of good historic preservation in Tacoma. The 1890s city hall, the old Northern Pacific office building, and the former Milwaukee Road freight house that now serves as the southern terminus of the Sounder commuter rail line are all fine examples of such efforts. Yet it is the saving of this domed station structure that stands out as Tacoma's finest moment, and the building thus remains the city's greatest symbol. This June 20-26, the National Railroad Historical Society will hold its annual convention in Tacoma, and if you are planning to attend, I heartily recommend stepping into the grand dome for a moment, and admiring not only some of the greatest station architecture in the West, but also the determination and pride of this city on the sound.

Alexander Craghead is a writer, photographer, watercolorist, and self-described "transportation geek" from Portland, Ore. The author would like to thank Jim Merritt for his assistance with this article.

 
 

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