Los Angeles Union Station: “The Last of the Great Railway Stations”

The idea of a Union Station in was conceived by the Los Angeles city leaders in 1909. The proposed transportation hub was not without its opponents. Railroad owners believed L.A. was a terminus – people traveled to the city without needing to go anywhere else. The site for the depot also caused racial tensions to rise as it called for the destruction of the original Chinatown. After countless arguments and civil litigation between all parties involved, construction broke ground in 1933.

Corner Apablasa Street and Alameda Street, ca. 1933.
Gelatin silver print.
The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

John Parkinson, an architect who helped design Los Angeles City Hall along with other high-rises and buildings in the financial district, was given the commission to design the future landmark. John passed away in December 1935, leaving his son, Donald to continue leading the overall direction.  According to the Getty Research Institute’s press release, John’s final words regarding Union Station pronounced his hope that it be “a credit to the community and all concerned in its conception and construction.”

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Donald Parkinson and John Parkinson
Alameda Street Elevation, Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal,
July 16, 1936.
Sheet: 65.1 x 165.4 cm (25 5/8 x 65 1/8 in.)
The Getty Research Institute

When the railroad presidents and politicians finally reached an agreement, they wanted the building to be distinctly Californian.   The architects drew inspiration from California’s long, storied history spanning from its multiethnic roots. The resulting drafts incorporated design cues from the state’s numerous Spanish missions blended with Art Deco and Streamline Modern styles.  This was in stark contrast to Union Stations on the east coast which strictly used neoclassical architecture.

Washington D.C. Union Station designed by Daniel H. Burnham

Although architects and designers from across the globe, two extremely influential designers were Edward Warren Hoak, the chief designer and Herman Sachs, the decorating consultant. Hoak created early sketches of key components such as the clock tower (which has never rung because it was built without chimes) and main ticket concourse, which featured the use of high ceilings and wide hallways to create a spacious, elegant layout. Sachs devised the color palette using shades of yellow, blue, tan and red, which helped set the tone for ceiling motifs and geometric patterns located throughout the entire station.

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Edward Warren Hoak
American, 1901–1978
Tower Section XII, November 9, 1937
Charcoal pencil, architectural vellum
Sheet: 66.5 x 47.2 cm (26 3/16 x 18 9/16 in.)
The Getty Research Institute

Edward Warren Hoak
American, 1901 – 1978
Main Concourse Section XII, March 6, 1938
Black pencil, red pencil, architectural vellum
Sheet: 63.5 x 82.2 cm (25 x 32 3/8 in.)
The Getty Research Institute

Union Station Ticket Concourse, 2013
Photo: John Kiffe, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute,
Los Angeles
© J. Paul Getty Trust

Although the original ticket concourse is now closed to the public, it is available for private events such as banquets and weddings.

One of Union Station’s Halls being prepared for a wedding reception.
Image via weddingchicks.com

During its inaugural year, the station served up to 13,000 people. Although usage may have slightly declined during the rise of air travel and automobiles, it now serves as a hub for 75,000 commuters, tourists and travelers daily.

According to Union Station’s Wikipedia entry, the station was designated as a Los Angeles Historic–Cultural Monument No. 101 in August 1972 and placed on the National Register of Historical Places  in 1980. This cements its legacy as a cultural landmark of the city.

Currently, Union Station is the midst of a huge redevelopment. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) purchased the station from the railroad companies. They have since added retail and dining businesses to the station and are developing plans for high-speed rail access.

This past May, Los Angeles Union Station celebrated its 75th anniversary with an exhibit celebrating the history and evolution of the southland’s iconic train station. The new exhibition, “No Further West: The Story of Los Angeles Union Station” will be featured at the Los Angeles Central Library on 5th Street.  The exhibit will be on display until August 10. To get more information click here to visit the Los Angeles Public Library website.

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Doorway Ornament, details, section XIV, January 25, 1938
Graphite and charcoal pencil on architectural vellum
The Getty Research Institute

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