To understand the importance of the train station in the United States of America as a building type, one must familiarise with the country’s Railroad Era and its significance in American history. The invention of the locomotive due to the Industrial Revolution was a stepping stone to a capitalist and mobile society and served initially for intercontinental expansion. At the outbreak of the respective wars, it was a means of transporting goods and soldiers. 

As a symbol of America’s relentless pursuit of speed, innovation, technology, and the changing political landscape, the Railroad’s arrival was encapsulated in an ideal structure. As the importance of the Railroad increased, so did its associated architecture. Each city began seeking to represent and stage its respective entrance, embodied by the arrival at a station. 

The following listing aims to sketch a detailed picture of station types in America. Depending on geographical location, the time of construction and symbolic meaning to its respective owner varied immensely. 

1. Union Station DC, 1907

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Exteriour Perspective with Entrance Boulevard_©National Photo Company
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Interiour Perspective of Main Waiting Room_©Reddit

With the Spanish-American War just won, the Beautification project of the capital city was the basis for an architectural project representing the new United States. Washington DC and its planned train station received particular attention since through it, and within it, passenger traffic was supposed to occur, as well as the reception of the President and political representatives of the whole world. 

Thus, Union Station was a precedent in America’s architectural history insofar as several railroad companies and political actors collaborated. Previously, it had been the custom for each railroad company to build a station for its trains. This was no longer desirable because, in this case, the city aspired to a single main entrance. 

Union Station exemplified what became possible with the help of the industrial revolution. It was only through the use of innovative machinery that both the land acquisition and groundwork were made possible, as well as the supporting steel structure of the building. 

The combination of chosen masonry, the natural light through the glass roof, the decoration of the rooms, and especially the curved suspended ceiling show the Greek and Roman influence in the interior and exterior style. The building demonstrates an appreciation of the innovative civilisations of the past, which the United States now considers itself to be. 

2. St. Louis Union Station, 1894

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Aerial view of Union Station, 1820 Market Street_©Mohistory
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Interiour Perspective of Main Waiting Room, 1933_©Sievers Studio

Like the capital’s central station, the St. Louis station is unique because of its geographic location. The Railroad Era enabled the development of the continent’s potential and thus initiated western expansion. Due to its central location, St. Louis linked northern and western parts of the country with the east and south, which were to be developed.

The architecture of the building proves to be a practical and functional design. Depending on its function as an open hall for the arriving steam locomotive or as a representative and monumental reception hall, the most practical elaboration method is chosen for the stop end station. The architect plans a foundation of wooden planks, the outer walls are made of limestone, and the roof is envisioned as a steam-permeable open steel framework. 

Due to the rising competition of aircraft and automobiles, the station was eventually closed. It now serves as a hotel and shopping centre.

3. Philadelphia Reading Terminal, 1893

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Philadelphia & Reading’s “Reading Terminal”, 1890s _©American Rails

In contrast to the examples just mentioned, the city of Philadelphia exemplarily shows the respective railroad companies’ economic ambitions through its train stations’ architecture. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was a one-person company whose architecture should serve to beat the competition. Another notable feature was the geographical location, as the company built the station in an already established, densely developed city. 

Combining several functions on different levels, a public market was created on the ground floor; the first floor served as a station hall, and the upper floors were intended as the headquarters for the Railroad Company.

This building exemplifies how a single company’s ambitions contributed to the innovative development of the country’s architecture. Reading Railroad created the then most significant space in terms of its span without intermediate support with its investment – only possible through the roof’s steel structure and the transfer of the loads in steel foundations. This structural innovation pioneered the era of the skyscraper.

4. 30th Street Station, 1934

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Aerial view of 30th Street Station, 1960s_©American Rails

Reading’s rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad, built a structure to usher in the new era of electric trains. As a pioneer, the PRR achieved a unique economic as well as architectural position. In the architectural sense, as a monumental building adorned with gold and marble, as well as reflecting the company’s innovative character through its control systems, the building shows itself as a symbol of power. 

Due to the introduction of electric trains, it became possible to design closed stations, which replaced the era of steam locomotives.

5. Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, 1939

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Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal with its ingenious implementation of parking spaces_©Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal opened a new chapter in the Architectural History of American Train Stations. The structure emerged in a time and a city already dominated by the ever-increasing emergence of the automobile. The station’s construction only served the romantic idea of the intercontinental linking of towns and the representative entrance portals. 

From a purely architectural perspective, there was no sense in erecting “Great Station Buildings”. Thus, the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal was built as a large but not monumental structure. Its construction stands out as forward-looking and adaptive, as it was designed to withstand the test of time. By being divided into separate structural units it achieved the structural possibility to withstand earthquakes. 

Adapting to the new era, the city seeks to unite the city’s three dominant railroad companies through this structure, thus eliminating tracks on the street for cars. Due to the emerging economic depression, it took five years to complete the design.

6. New York Pennsylvania Station, 1910-1963

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Aerial view of Pennsylvania Station, 1910s_©Library of Congress

Typical of the Railroad Era was the dualism between a station as a public space and private individuals’ ownership of the land. This correlation led to a dependency of the building’s lifespan on its profit and benefit. These dependencies’ inevitable result occurred to the New York Pennsylvania Station, which was demolished in 1963. 

The Railroad Era’s stagnation meant that the Pennsylvania Railroad Company did not know what to do with such a vast building. As in many historical evolutions, it takes a negative example to spur positive change. As a result of Penn Station’s demolition, a series of preservation laws were initiated because the public wanted to have a say in such decisions. Thanks to this precedent, many other stations of the era have been preserved today.   

It is evident how each of the main stations in the selected cities reflects American history and how the Industrial Revolution brought new technological innovations that resulted in expansion and prosperity. Furthermore, the discrepancy between public spaces and private property, which is still relevant today, becomes apparent, as does the importance of preserving history. Only in this way can we learn from its successes and failures.

References

Author

Architecture is a people-oriented service in whose life cycle there is potential for improvement. That is why Philomena Vida, both during her studies at the Technical University in Munich and as a practising junior architect, engages in self-research, especially in sustainability, anthropology and sociology in architecture.

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