Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS), better known as its original name, Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (or LAUPT), is perhaps the best-recognized railroad station of the western U.S. When built LAUPT (as it was then known) hosted some of the West’s most prominent passenger trains. Unfortunately, the terminal was built during the waning days of rail travel in this country as the public began to find other means to serve their transportation needs. As passenger trains began to fall from grace significantly in the 1950s the station’s importance dwindled but its fate has been far better than several others of its kind across the country. Despite its late construction the station has been in continual use since it opened and is ready to handle the resurgence of passenger rail in the 21st century.
Los Angeles Union Station is the last of our great railroad stations designed in California’s traditional mission-style architecture and completed at a cost of $11 million in 1939, having been financed by the Union Pacific, Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific railroads. The history of what would become the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal dates back to 1926 when city gave residents the option of voting for a new train station or build an "L", also known as an elevated railroad. Interestingly, the railroads serving the city (each at the time using their own passenger terminals) had little say initially in the union station idea. In any event, residents narrowly passed the measure to construct a new terminal and despite some controversy the new station greatly improved traffic flow by allowing both trains and passengers to meet at one location.
Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal was designed by John Parkinson and Donald Parkinson, a father and son
architect team, and the station's overall finished appearance fit in
very well with the region in which it was located. While the building's
design carried an overall mission theme it also employed elements of
the Dutch Colonial Revival and Streamline Moderne styles. For instance,
inside the station one could find terra cotta tiles and Travertine
marble used to create beautiful floor designs while interior garden patios gave the terminal a unique feel that most terminals simply did not have. Considering the late era in which it was constructed, LAUPT was a masterfully designed building that equaled those classics such as Grand Central Terminal, King Street Station, and others which came before it.
When Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal opened in 1939 it had long since missed the "Golden Age" of passenger rail travel in this country, which peaked between the start of the 20th century and the 1920s. When the Great Depression hit in 1929 passenger trains saw a significant decline that would not truly recover until the start of World War II in late 1941. As such, when the war state two years after the terminal was opened it was regularly seeing over 7,000 folks daily through the facility (traveling aboard intercity trains) throughout the conflict. The station also saw its three builders’ most prominent passenger trains with names like the Santa Fe's Super Chief and El Capitan, Southern Pacific's Sunset Limited and Daylight, and the Union Pacific's City of Los Angeles.
According to architect Paul Hunter in Tom Zoellner's book "Train" the station provided one a grand entrance into Los Angeles and Southern California, "Certainly I know of no other city in which arriving passengers leave the station through an open patio, filled with bright flowers, shady pepper trees, and flanked with tall palms. This scheme undoubtedly originated with publicity men, but they have certainly hit oupon the ideal introduction to Southern California." As rail travel slowly began to die away after the war ended, and through the 1950s, and folks found automobiles to be much more convenient and airlines much faster in traveling the famous trains mostly stopped calling by to LAUPT by 1970 and were gone altogether by 1971 when Amtrak took over operations of the country’s intercity passenger trains.
Thankfully for both architecture’s sake and that of our transportation infrastructure altogether, LAUPT (renamed Los Angeles Union Station, LAUS for short, by its current owner Catellus Development) found new life beginning in the 1990s as it had limped along since Amtrak’s creation serving a few of the carrier’s long-distance trains. In 1992 the station was completely restored after the building and grounds had received little attention for the previous several decades. And, its future continues to look bright. "The most visible change is the Gateway Center, a bus terminal and park & ride facility which provides better connections between buses and trains. The Gateway, which opened in October 1995, also includes shops, restaurants and offices, all located on the Union Station property. In the 21st century, Union Station will also be a major destination in the proposed high-speed rail system for California." (The previous was courtesy of Los Angeles Rail Transit.)
Today, Los Angeles Union Station is owned by the City of Los Angeles after it was purchased in the spring of 2011 after receiving approval of the Metro Board. In 1980 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the city's true landmarks. Amtrak still calls five of its intercity passenger trains to the terminal (Coast Starlight, Pacific Surfliner, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle) while commuter service Metrolink makes six station stops to the terminal via all of its different lines. Additionally, the terminal still uses all of its original 14 staging tracks although the stub-ended design is increasingly becoming a major liability as service to the station continues to increase. As such, plans are in place to convert several of the staging tracks as run-throughs, increasing the station's efficiency. To learn more about the future of Los Angeles Union Station please click here.