In the early 20th century, rail not only provided the most common form of inter-city travel, it became part of American culture. Most large cities built at least one grand train station that stood out as a prominent part of the cityscape. Inevitably, as passenger rail travel declined, so did these awe-inspiring terminals. Many were abandoned; some were demolished. But in recent decades, as cities revitalized their downtown areas, some realized these stunning rail stations could be redeveloped for commercial purposes. Here are five cities that turned their old rail terminal into a trendy modern destination.
5. Cincinnati Union Terminal
When it opened in 1933, Cincinnati Union Terminal earned widespread praise for its striking Art Deco design, which features what is still regarded as the largest half-dome in the Western Hemisphere. Unfortunately, the station also opened only a few years before rail travel began a precipitous decline, as more Americans began buying cars and the wealthy started traveling by air. By the late 1950s, the building’s owners began looking for a way to reuse the building. But a science center that opened there in the 1960s failed. Even a notable early 1970s appearance in pop culture — the terminal served as the model for the Hall of Justice on the animated series Super Friends — couldn’t save the building. When the last train departed in October 1972, the station’s fate seemed bleak.
At that point, Cincinnati leaders and residents rallied to save the old structure. Groups raised money to move more than a dozen Great Depression-era murals from the terminal to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport — no small feat, as some of them weighed up to 11 tons. The city purchased the terminal in 1975, and spearheaded the development of a shopping mall that opened in 1980. While that effort fizzled, it gave many local residents their first glimpse of the building’s spectacular interior. Cincinnatians, led by Mayor Jerry Springer (yes, that Jerry Springer) became determined to find a permanent use for the facility. By the end of the 1980s, the old terminal had been transformed into the Cincinnati Museum Center. Today, it houses the Museum of Natural History & Science, Cincinnati History Museum, the Duke Energy Children’s Museum, and an IMAX Theater.
4. Indianapolis Union Station
This became the first railroad union station — where two or more railroad lines connect — in the world when it opened in 1853. Appropriately for the city’s large German immigrant population, the Romanesque Revival structure resembles a large red castle. Vandals and the homeless had take over most of the building by the late 1970s, but a private developer invested in a redevelopment project in the mid-1980s that included restaurants, shops, nightclubs and a train-themed hotel (a couple of dozen rooms were housed in Pullman train cars). It certainly helped the facility’s prospects that the renovation came as part of a downtown revitalization project that included the construction of the adjacent Hoosier Dome. A few years later, a new mall built nearby siphoned off the station’s retail business, but the Crowne Plaza Hotel has since expanded, with more than 55,000 square feet of meeting space and a grand ballroom for many of the city’s most prominent events.
3. Kansas City Union Station
Kansas City has long been a major transportation hub in the Midwest, the perfect site for this impressive Beaux-Arts style terminal that opened in 1914. Abandoned in the 1980s, the massive station — which originally featured an astounding 900 rooms — narrowly escaped several proposals for demolition. It took a joint effort by government and business leaders from Kansas and Missouri to step in and fund the renovation of the building, which reopened in 1999. Today, Union Station is home to a planetarium, an award-winning interactive science center (Science City), and a theater district. The Grand Hall, with its 95-foot ceiling and other grandiose features, is a popular destination for business conventions, weddings and other big events.
2. Denver Union Station
While the first Denver Union Station opened in 1881, a large fire destroyed part of it in 1894. By 1914, the station’s owners decided it was too old-fashioned and decided to renovate the facility, creating the structure that served as one of the busiest terminals in the U.S. for the first half of the 20th century. While the station never officially shut down, it was grossly underused for several decades. In this case, the revitalization of a once run-down neighborhood, LoDo, helped fuel the station’s resurrection. Today, the facility is home to almost a dozen upscale restaurants and pubs, along with boutique lodging at the Crawford Hotel at Denver Union Station. In an ironic twist common to the other old terminals in this story, Denver Union Station is once again serving as a railway station and transit hub.
1. St. Louis Union Station
St. Louis has always been a prominent transportation hub, given its location in the central U.S. When St. Louis Union Station opened in 1894, the Romanesque Revival structure was the largest train terminal in the world, and it quickly became the world’s busiest. But by the 1950s, the train traffic had slowed to a crawl; the train station closed in 1978. It sat abandoned for seven years, so desolate it even served as the site for a scene in the 1981 dystopic film Escape from New York.
In 1985, a massive renovation added a large hotel, a shopping mall and several restaurants. At the time, it was billed as the largest adaptive reuse project in U.S. history. Today, the property features the luxurious 539-room St. Louis Union Station Hotel — a Hilton DoubleTree property — offices, shops, restaurants and a plaza for special events. Local promoters proudly proclaim it, “The Grandest Station in the Nation.” Purchased by Lodging Hospitality Management in 2012, the company is investing $30 million in a renovation. The core of the project: the station’s stunning Grand Hall, featuring soaring arches, a 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows. It reopened in May 2014.
One More: Michigan Central Station (Detroit)
Opened in 1913, the 18-story Michigan Central Station is still the tallest train station ever built. The grand structure served as a fitting symbol of a city on the rise, and has since come to symbolize the infamous decline of the Motor City. Even in its current state of decay, the station is prominently featured in many city guidebooks and is a popular tourist destination and favorite spot for photographers. Many believe it is just a matter of time before the station is renovated into a commercial facility.