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A Los Angeles Primer: Union Station

Who could cross the country by rail today without dreaming of a distant, more glamorous, wholly lost, and perhaps even partially imaginary era of American train travel? Who, indeed, could set foot in Los Angeles’ Union Station without doing the same? The building itself, built in 1939, is a palm-surrounded hybrid of Dutch Colonial Revival, Spanish Mission Colonial Revival, and Streamline Moderne, designed by John Parkinson, the English expat architect responsible also for City Hall, Bullock’s Wilshire, and the Memorial Coliseum. As the last of the country’s major railway terminals, it first made for a monument, and soon a memorial, to the heyday of passenger trains in the United States. Well-kept up even now, and seemingly always undergoing some type of restorative maintenance, Union Station at moments evokes the road not taken, one leading to, say, New York in an afternoon, rather than in 63 hours. (Not counting the inevitable delays.)

Just as the once-exhilarating promise of a long-distance train journey has become an occasion for preemptive despondency, so does Union Station feel at once grand and forlorn. Its original bold aesthetic vision, right down to its original weighty furniture, has survived, pulling through even its decades of near-desertion in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. This has made it a showpiece of high historical value, and a favorite touring spot for not just rail fans but enthusiasts of Los Angeles’ past. These qualities impress me, even as they fill me with impatience. How often, I regularly find myself asking, must a city so young ask us to appreciate a place because it shows off a flash of genius from a long-dead architect — who passed, in fact, almost five years before the building itself opened — or because colorful things happened there before, or may have?

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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