This month marks a special date for railroad enthusiasts — the 75th anniversary of Los Angeles Union Station's opening. On May 3, 1939, “the last of the great railway stations” (better known simply as Union Station to Angelenos) opened for business — cementing Los Angeles' status as a cosmopolitan destination on the West Coast.
Designed by the British-born father and son architecture duo of John and Donald B. Parkinson (who also designed both City Hall and the Coliseum), the station is one of many Union Stations across the United States. However, it is unique in its use of mixed styles: Dutch Colonial revival, Mission Revival, and Art Deco elements can be found throughout the iconic structure. A unique blend — not unlike the City of Angels itself.
Despite its inarguable grandeur, however, the story of Union Station isn’t without controversy.
In the early 1900s, the city was in need of a rail station on a grand scale, to not only consolidate many other smaller, antiquated stations, but also to make a statement for the city itself. Long viewed as San Francisco's sleepy, backwater stepsister to the south, Los Angeles collectively knew that the time had come to step out of the shadows.
Many grand projects were planned to establish L.A.’s preeminence (including real estate schemes and the dredging of the Port of Los Angeles), and among them, Union Station probably encountered the most resistance.
For starters, the proposed site of the station was not on a vast swath of empty land. Instead, in order for the grand station to do its job and consolidate the many disparate rail lines feeding into the growing city, it needed to be centralized — smack dab in the middle of downtown L.A. Unfortunately, at the time, that real estate was already occupied — by Chinatown.
Understandably, the prospect of razing an entire historic neighborhood raised the ire of preservation-minded Angelenos who protested vehemently, dragging the debate out for years. The problem was (competition with San Francisco aside), Los Angeles was growing at an epic rate, and by the 1920’s, the city desperately needed its transportation pressures relieved.
The matter finally came to a head during a historic 1926 city ballot measure. On the ballot were two choices to finally resolve the dispute — a) remove a large chunk of Chinatown to build Union Station, or b) build a new, citywide network of elevated rail lines. As you guessed, Union Station won the vote, but by the barest of margins — 51 to 48 percent.
Much to the regret of 48 percent of Angelenos, construction on Union Station finally began in 1933. Completed in 1939 to great fanfare, the station still serves over 1.7 million passengers annually on Amtrak lines alone.
In hindsight, the 1926 ballot measure was truly fateful — impacting transportation in the City of Angels for years to come. Had the elevated train won out, the concept of L.A. traffic jams and smog would most likely not exist… but we wouldn't have “the last great rail station” to celebrate.
For more on Los Angeles’ Union Station and its 75th Anniversary, check out this link.And, for amazing, restored footage of Los Angeles Union Station's 1939 opening day, check out this video.
(Image credit: "Los Angeles Union Station (11 of 31)" by Shawn Henning / CC BY-SA 2.0)