Past, Present and Future at St. Louis Union Station

How a St. Louis icon keeps reinventing itself

By Jackie Tucker

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The first train pulled into Union Station on September 2, 1894 at 1:45pm, ushering in a new and exciting time for St. Louis. The city known for being the gateway to the West suddenly became a gateway to all of America. Over the next several years, Union Station would become one of the largest and busiest passenger rail terminals in the world.

Past

The station saw some of its highest traffic during the World’s Fair of 1904 and World War II. Travelers moved in droves through the station, where a regular day’s capacity of more than 100,000 people was normal, and the midway became the most popular spot to see and be seen. People like President Harry Truman, Joe DiMaggio, Joan Crawford and St. Louis baseball teams the Browns and the Cardinals all made appearances at Union Station.

The gorgeous Grand Hall was the main waiting room. Its 65-foot barrel vaulted ceiling featured an elegant two-ton wrought-iron chandelier with 350 light bulbs. Inspired by the walled city of Carcassone in southern France, architect Theodore C. Link designed an elegant and modern version of a feudal passageway. And the midway was the real place to see. The platform, surrounded by a highly admired steel and glass wall decorated with ornamental wrought iron gates, held an exciting view of the trains coming and going. When America entered WWII, both the chandelier and the midway wall were sacrificed to the war efforts.

missouri history museum Thousands gathered at Union Station for its dedication Sept. 1, 1895.
Thousands gathered at Union Station for its dedication Sept. 1, 1895.

Just off the Grand Hall was a 75-room hotel, which served railroad personnel and businessmen or travelers passing through town. Rooms were sparsely furnished with a bed, nightstand and water pitcher and bowl to wash up. Guests shared a communal bathroom on the first floor. It was a quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of the station.

The final passenger train departed on October 31, 1978 at 11:38pm, closing the first chapter in the station’s history. While St. Louis Union Station lay dormant for a time, St. Louis itself continued to grow, bringing Busch Stadium, the Scottrade Center and City Museum right around the corner.

Rather than let the grand architecture of Union Station go to waste, the building found new life. In August 1985, Union Station was reopened as a mixed-use complex featuring retail shops, event spaces and restaurants where tourists and locals alike could come and spend the day enjoying downtown St. Louis.

Present

Today, Union Station is a balance of nostalgia and renovation. The stylish and sophisticated Grand Hall features elegant historic touches like the original terrazzo floor, green glazed terracotta bricks, stained glass windows and wooden carpentry detailing. Among the carefully restored details, you’ll stare in awe at the Allegorical Window, a hand-crafted design of stained glass. Three women are depicted in Tiffany glass representing the expanse of train travel in the 1890s from New York to San Francisco with St. Louis in the middle, linking it all together. You can almost hear the trains coming into the platform, loved ones waving goodbye as soldiers head off to war and joyous hellos when they were welcomed home again.

Grand Hall Light ShowBut look up to see modern times—an innovative and breathtaking high-def laser show set to music projects across the Grand Hall’s entire 65-foot vaulted ceiling, every day at 5pm, for an exciting mix of old-meets-new (check for blackout dates). Take in the light show from the Grand Hall’s fabulous lobby and full lounge bar, where you can enjoy a cocktail or linger over a delicious meal with friends.

Stay close to the action and book a room at the in-station St. Louis Union Station Hotel, an AAA Four Diamond hotel that continues to honor the past with modern amenities.

Those original hotel rooms have changed a lot. Today, you will find fully renovated, beautifully modern and historically rich accommodations in 539 spacious guest rooms and suites. Many of the rooms give a nod to Union Station’s history with artwork and decor depicting railroad themes. And several suites offer views of the historic side of the building that looks out over Market Street with a glimpse of the landmark Meeting of the Waters Fountain.

Looking to a reimagined future

The renovations that have redefined the hotel and surrounding station will continue. Paying homage to the rich history of the city of St. Louis and Union Station, one of the major updates will be the restoration of the massive steel train shed, bringing it back to its original glory of more than 120 years ago.

The Wheel at Union StationVisitors will get a bird’s-eye view of the train shed and the iconic St. Louis skyline when they board the neighboring 200-foot St. Louis Wheel. Open year-round, the Ferris wheel will feature 42 enclosed gondolas, each equipped with seating for eight adults. And if folks are in the mood to splurge, one special “VIP” gondola will even have leather bucket seats, a stereo system and a glass floor.

Union Station’s train attractions, like the popular Holidays at Union Station excursion that families enjoy during the holidays, echo the building’s original purpose of exploring in a new direction.

The existing outdoor space will be reimagined, giving new life to old train cars and steel shipping containers as dining hot spots for burgers, craft beer, wine and sweet treats.

A new pedestrian entrance will be opened at 18th Street and Clark Avenue, including an archway illuminated with festoon lighting along the pathways, guiding visitors through the plaza, which will be available to host festivals and fairs, live music, farmer’s markets and other events. A spectacular 3-D animated light and fire show, synchronized to music, will dazzle visitors at Union Station’s small lake.

St. Louis AquariumAnchoring the entire Union Station development will be the stunning St. Louis Aquarium, set to open in 2018. Located in the former retail space inside the station, the 75,000-square-foot aquarium will house one-of-a-kind aquatic exhibits with thousands of different species and will be an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The aquarium’s highlight will be its shark tank, holding one of the largest collections of sharks in the Midwest. And for those souls brave enough to cross over, the exhibit will include a rope bridge suspended only inches above the shark infested waters.

With so many wonderful things to see and do in St. Louis, the new additions at Union Station capture the essence of history, fun and entertainment that the city offers, with the added bonus of being able to stay in the hotel right on site. Convenient, easily accessible and joining nearby downtown attractions like City Museum and the Gateway Arch grounds, the reimagined Union Station remains an inspiring must-visit destination for locals and visitors alike.

Discover more about the exciting happenings at iconic St. Louis Union Station.