I stood in the central plaza of Los Angeles Union Station and marvelled at the building, an eclectic mix of Art Deco and other architectural styles. I love railway stations. It’s partly the romance of travel, not just the destination but the journey itself. But it’s also the buildings, monuments to the golden age of rail travel. The architects of the great railway stations must have shared the dreams of travellers, designing splendid palaces that rivalled the grandest buildings of their age.
Architecture of Los Angeles Union Station
Opened in 1939, Los Angeles Union Station was the last great American railway station. It combined a whole range of architectural styles and cost $11m to build (a very large amount of money in the 1930s). Most of the interior was created in Art Deco and other contemporary fashions. However there are also nostalgic references to the past splendours of California. The exterior was fashioned in the Spanish Mission Revival style, and the inlaid tile flooring recalls a traditional Navajo pattern.
Some of the station’s original features are long gone. The elegant cocktail lounge is no more, and the original ticket office is now a private function area. But you can walk through the main plaza to the new booking area, admiring the high marble walls, tiled floors and other decorative features as you go. You can sit in the Art Deco seats in the waiting room and wander around the enclosed formal gardens. If you have the time, you can even have your shoes cleaned at the old fashioned shoeshine.
A Golden Age of Rail Travel
The 1930s were the golden era of rail travel. So much so that the opening of Los Angeles Union Station occasioned a three day extravaganza that attracted almost half a million people. Air travel was not yet common and visitors, including film stars and other celebrities, would arrive by train. The station was their gateway to the city, making the restaurant, the cocktail bar and the gardens as important as the trains themselves. Even when rail travel declined, the romance of the station remained. It later starred as the backdrop to many films, most memorably The Way We Were.
For myself, I could imagine the former grandeur of the station as I walked through the marble halls. I looked at the departures board: I had previously taken the Pacific Surfliner route to Oceanside but now I considered the evocatively named Antelope Valley and Inland Empire lines. The magic of travel to unknown places was still there. I was even more excited when I discovered that you can travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans in an old fashioned sleeper train. It has long been an ambition of mine to take a long distance train trip across the US. Perhaps one day…
This post is now available as an app for mobile devices – click here to download on your iPhone or iPad for offline reading and travel directions to Los Angeles Union Station.