Washington’s Union Station, by Daniel Burnham

General / People / Places / January 20, 2021

Alas, Amtrak Joe’s arrival yesterday at the nation’s capital was not by his favored mode of travel: a train slipping into Daniel Burnham’s exquisite Union Station.

Instead, he flew into Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, via private jet – yet another victim of the Late Unpleasantness fomented by the outgoing president.

Many of us know that travel on corporate jets is all well and good, and efficient to boot. But Joe Biden’s been riding the rails from D.C. to Delaware for decades now on a daily basis, to and from his home.

And surely, to arrive or depart every day from the 1908 City Beautiful-inspired train station could be an experience nothing short of awe-inspiring.

It was designed for that. “Make no little plans,” Burnham once wrote. “They have no magic in them to stir men’s blood.”

So today, to honor President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, we’re looking hard at Union Station, as seen through the eyes of intrepid architecture photographer Paul Clemence, one of A+A’s favorites.

For its history, we turned to a website called “Great American Stations”:

“In 1901, the U. S. Senate Park Commission invited master American architect and planner Daniel Burnham to orchestrate a sweeping City Beautiful plan for Washington, D.C., and make it a setting that was both practical and grandly benefitting a world capital.

“Burnham’s work, inspired by that of L’Enfant, would help create the monumental architecture now associated with the National Mall. As part of this work, Burnham designed a Union Station that removed the rail lines from the center of the Mall, which had become a tangle of paths, gardens and buildings, and brought two major railroads, the Pennsylvania and the Baltimore and Ohio, into one terminal.

“Completed in 1908, the station inspires visitors with its exquisitely detailed neoclassical architecture. Although faced with Bethel white granite from Vermont on the exterior and interior, the building’s bones are modern concrete and steel. The front of the station, on Columbus Circle, presents travelers with a soaring vaulted entryway and heroic statuary on its 600-foot length. The 96-foot high Main Hall coffered ceiling shines brilliantly with gold leaf and reflects natural light entering from the large Diocletian windows.

“The former Main Concourse, now the heart of the station, lifts its barrel-vaulted glass and coffered plaster ceiling 45 feet above the main floor and stretches 760 feet long. It was once said to be the largest single room in the world. When the building first opened, it also featured a private, secure waiting room for the president and his visitors, as well as a public dining room whose walls were covered in murals modeled after those recently excavated at the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.”

As a footnote, anyone wondering where architect Harry Weese found inspiration for the coffered ceilings of his 20th-century D.C Metro Line need look no further than the vaulted ceilings of Burnham’s Union Station.

“Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency,” Burnham wrote.

“Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us,” he wrote. “Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – and their sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters – could do no better than heed Burnham’s words today.

For more, go here and here.

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Michael Welton




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