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Union Station
50 Massachusetts Avenue NE
Washington, DC  20002
Union Station is a historic train station and transportation hub on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC

Union Station is a bustling train station and transportation hub serving the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Located north of the U.S. Capitol building, residents and tourists can catch the Amtrak train to distant cities; a commuter train to points in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia; and the Metrorail through downtown Washington, DC and its suburbs. You can hail a taxi, rent a car, or hop on a intercity bus. And if you’re a tourist, you’ll find charter buses, tour buses, sightseeing tours, bike rentals and trolleys. Whether you’re coming or going, or just hanging around Capitol Hill, you’ll find dozens of shops and restaurants on all three floors of the station. However, before you get to where you’re going, take the time to admire the details of this magnificent example of Beaux-Arts architecture.

Union Station Front Entrance

Triple-arched front entrance of Union Station

History of Union Station

Prior to its construction, two train stations served Washington, DC – one was a block north of the U.S. Capitol building, and the other was located on the grounds of the present day National Gallery of Art -West Building. In 1901, under the McMillan Plan to redesign the City of Washington, DC, the train stations were consolidated into one grand train station and moved to its present location north of the U.S. Capitol. Construction was completed in 1908. Hazardous train tracks leading to the old stations were removed from the National Mall making way for the uncluttered green space that it is today.

Information Sign at Union Station

Information sign giving a brief history of Union Station

Grand Architecture

Renowned architect Daniel Burnham, the mastermind behind the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, designed the station by fusing Roman and Renaissance architectural elements into a Beaux-Arts style masterpiece. Burnham’s mission was to create a space that could both efficiently circulate thousands of travelers and serve as a monumental gateway for visitors to the nation’s capital. Just as the visionary George Washington knew when he was laying out the plan for his namesake city, you can’t project a nation’s power with inferior architecture. At the time it was built, the train station was the first entry point – and therefore the point of first impression – for most travelers to Washington, DC. It had to be grand.

From the outset you will enter the station through Columbus Circle, where five radiating avenues converge into the front of the station. The magnificent, marble Columbus fountain, conceptualized by Burnham and sculpted by Lorado Taft, combines New World and Old World elements with a 15-foot Christopher Columbus statue standing at the front of a prow-like protrusion. Reclining lions flank the sides of a 45-foot central shaft topped with a globe surrounded by eagles. Three American flags with eagles mounted on top represent the three ships in Columbus’s 1492 voyage to America.

Columbus Fountain at Union Station

Columbus Fountain at Union Station sculpted by Lorado Taft in 1912.

Arch of Constantine in Rome Italy

Arch of Constantine in Rome, Italy

Cross over Columbus Circle and pass through a triple-arched gateway that emulates the triumphal entry found in the Arch of Constantine near the Colosseum in Rome. Six columns emerging from the central facade are topped with allegorical statues sculpted by Louis Saint-Gaudens representing “The Progress of Railroading.” Visitors entering and exiting the station are provided covered walkway under a vaulted and arched arcade that extends to either end of the station.

Once inside the Main Hall, your eyes will immediately draw upward to the top of the 96-foot high barrel vaulted ceiling adorned with geometric, gold-leafed coffers that glisten in natural light. As you gaze around the hall with mouth agape, you are assured safe travels by the Roman legionnaire statues, also sculpted by Louis Saint-Gaudens, mounted on columns and in alcoves along its perimeter.

Main Hall at Union Station

The grand Main Hall inside the entrance of Union Station

Walk down to the West Hall where the ceiling steps down to a lower barrel, and peruse the list of shops and restaurants that occupy the space. The East Hall, separated by columns and doors, has a distinctively different design than the West Hall, but its classical elements unify it with the larger design. Fluted columns line the perimeter leading to a high, flat iron and glass ceiling, a natural light source which illuminates the panels painted with garden-like adornments in warm shades of red, orange, yellow and gold and soft greens.

East Hall at Union Station

East Hall at Union Station bathed in natural light through the glass ceiling

Restoration and Expansion

Through the years, Union Station has experienced periods of grandeur, decay and restoration, as changes in modes of travel and historic events shaped its usefulness from decade to decade. The interior layout has seen numerous modifications since its inception to address deterioration and functionality, some good and some terrible. In 1983, Union Station Redevelopment Corporation (USRC) was formed, a non-profit organization whose mission is, in part, to preserve the historic integrity of Union Station. Today, Union Station offers multimodal transportation, a centralized gathering spot for a sight-seeing tours, and a wide range of shopping and dining options for locals and tourists.

In June 2022, plans for a massive expansion project were announced that would keep the historic train station in place and completely modernize the flow of travel by extending the rear of the station both above and below ground. Above ground will be multi-use buildings, such as hotels, condos and office space, as well as green space. If you’ve ever traveled via Union Station, you know the bottleneck Columbus Circle creates, and how difficult it is to cross it on foot with luggage. This $10 billion endeavor is anticipated to be completed by 2040. Here’s a video of the plan.

Visiting Union Station

Union Station is closed to the public from 12 am to 5 am, but open to ticketed passengers. Areas of the station can also be booked for private events. Even if you’re not traveling, stop by to admire the splendid architecture and grab a bite to eat before heading to other well-known tourist sites, such as the U.S. Capitol and the U.S. Capitol Grounds, the U.S. Supreme Court, or the Library of Congress. And don’t forget to check out the lesser-known Smithsonian National Postal Museum just next door. To make travel arrangements, visit the Union Station website and select your form of travel.

[NOTE: I have not visited Union Station since the COVID lockdowns, and I understand many shops and restaurants closed. I will update this post when I have a look for myself.]

Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Smithsonian National Postal Museum across the street from the West Hall arcade exit of Union Station

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US Capitol Building in Washington, DC

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