Turning 75 on May 3, L.A.’s grand station is a living museum of modern design. Here’s what to see first. Co-published with Zócalo Public Square.
As a native Angeleno with a father who is a public-transit enthusiast, I’ve been through 800 North Alameda Street many times, wearing many different hats. As a fan of new L.A. things, I rode the first gold line from South Pasadena to downtown in 2003. As a photography student, I used the station for education and inspiration. As a commuter, I’ve spent my fair share of time on the Metro rail below ground and the Metrolink and Amtrak lines above ground. And this week, as a detective of sorts, I dug into the place’s remarkable history.
Los Angeles’ Union Station opened on May 3, 1939, and turns 75 this year. It’s now the subject of a new exhibition organized by the Getty Research Institute, which has a Union Station archive of architectural drawings and sketches. If you go to the exhibition, which is hosted at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library, you’ll also see treasures from the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens and the Automobile Club of Southern California.
Like L.A. itself, Union Station is a cultural hybrid, sporting a unique blend of Mission Revival, Southwest, Spanish, and Art Deco styles. It took nearly seven years to plan and build—and you can see all that time in the details of the station.
Since our station is still used, much of these details go unnoticed. I’m guilty of dashing through the South Patio without stopping to smell the roses (many are in bloom this time of year!). But perhaps we forget the architectural herald of Union Station because it seems so timeless—it’s simply part of the Los Angeles aesthetic.
Here are 10 details you won’t want to miss next time you’re running to catch your train.
1. Dots of Color
These 5-inch terracotta tiles in the outer courtyards, above the windows with the glazed tile benches, are unlike any others in Union Station. Two-toned and in high relief, these unglazed beauties add dimension and color. Photographs of the original sketches for these designs can be found in the Huntington’s collection.
2. Dotted Line to the Past
The path between the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) building and the South Patio features a diagonal brick line, a division in space representing the border to the former edge of Chinatown. The site of Union Station was selected after much political stress. Admired for its central locale and proximity to the court house, hall of records, post office and customs house, 800 N. Alameda was once the heart of a densely populated multiethnic community. The Huntington has photographs of the address before the demolition of the buildings.
3. Upturned Modern Style
These sleek, angular light fixtures may look like upside-down, stacked traffic cones, but they were ultra-trendy art deco design elements back in the ‘30s. The lights can be found dotting the pathways at the Alameda entrance to the station, as well as the South Patio.
4. Taste of Old California
All the lights in Union Station were custom designed. Ten feet above your head in the station’s arcade hang these gorgeous lanterns. Based on Mission-style fixtures, they were given an updated modern finish but still evoke “Old California.”
5. Ceiling vs. Ceiling
Each room in the station has a unique hand-stenciled pattern on its ornate coffered ceilings.
6. Icons of Travel
This decorative star shape appears and re-appears all over the station. It’s modeled after a compass, and the design pops up all around you, in all kinds of materials.
7. Mystery Sculptures
These curved bronze wall mounts hang daintily beside each of the grand windows in the waiting room. But what are they? For years Union Station staff believed them to be cigar cutters, but actually they house a hidden keyhole to open and close the Venetian blinds.
8. Elegant Curves
Graceful, scroll-like forms adorn the corners of a few special places in the station. Between the waiting room and the ticketing office sit painted orange scrolls at the corners of the arch. Outside on the South Patio, smaller scrolls decorate the lampposts atop the exterior courtyard walls; in the North Patio, larger versions of these scroll details appear as well.
9. Tunnel of Light
The strip lights in the passage tunnel may seem run-of-the-mill today, but they were once the height of art deco fashion. Imagine coming down from the open-air platforms and dashing through this futuristic funnel to the rest of the station. It must have been a rush!
10. Light and Space
Disembarking from a train into the open air may seem ordinary today, but for a weary traveller from another part of the United States, it was an iconic L.A. experience. The typical East Coast station was enclosed, full of toxic air and dirty soot (think Hogwarts Express), worlds away from the open-air platforms of Union Station. What a breath of fresh air—both literally and in its design.
Detail Map. This downloadable 8.5 x 11″ map features Union Station with these 10 details called out.
No Further West: The Story of Los Angeles Union Station is on view at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library, May 2–August 10, 2014.