March 6, 2014

Restoring a National Treasure: Union Station Returns to Gilded Grandeur

If you have traveled through Union Station recently, you might have noticed the massive scaffolding constructed in a portion of the Main Hall and seen various folks with hardhats scurrying up and down its considerable frame. The restoration of the ceiling, undertaken by Union Station Redevelopment Corporation and supported in part by a grant from American Express Company, has hit its stride and as the first completed section is revealed.

Let me take you through the process of restoring this National Treasure.

Washington D.C.’s Union Station is a 1907 architectural icon and an engineering marvel which is used by almost 100,000 travelers every day. The station is a gateway to our nation’s capital, a vital part of the District’s urban fabric, and a National Treasure. That’s why the National Trust and its allies are advocating to ensure that this historic place is carefully preserved and protected while growing to serve modern transportation needs.

Union Station’s magnificent Main Hall, the former waiting room, is one of the most exceptional, publicly accessible interior spaces in the nation. Perhaps its most outstanding feature is the station’s 96-foot-tall barrel vault ceiling. It’s hard not to stop and stare at the ceiling when entering the beautifully proportioned waiting room. Of course, this is the experience shared by tens of thousands of commuters every day. After all, architectural beauty should be a part of everyone’s daily life.

Unfortunately, an earthquake in August 2011 damaged this and many other historic buildings. After the natural disaster, the century-old plaster ceiling, which had last been restored in 1980s, was left cracked and in dire need of repair. Thankfully, the steward of the station, Union Station Redevelopment Corporation (USRC), is fully restoring the historic ceiling -- a laborious project that will repair, re-engineer, repaint, and re-gild the entire ceiling. USRC is undertaking this project one ceiling bay at a time, allowing the station to continue to operate while preserving the historic space for another generation.

Earlier this year, the first restored bay in the Main Hall was revealed as the scaffolding required to complete all this work was moved over to the second bay. Now we can see the meticulous work done by the plaster and gilding craftspeople and get a better sense of the grandeur originally intended for the space.

Part of this work was completed through a $350,000 grant to Union Station from American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help re-guild the ceiling’s several hundred plaster coffers. This grant adds to the $2 million in preservation grants that American Express contributed to the Capitol region in 2013 through the Partners in Preservation Program. As the Presenting Partner of the National Treasures program, this grant to Union Station is part of $2 million that American Express has pledged to help promote and enable the preservation of these endangered cultural and historic places.

Just last week, the National Trust, Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, and American Express hosted a special behind-the-scenes tour of the restoration project for members of the media. Representatives from online, broadcast, and print outlets donned hardhats and orange vests to climb more than 90 feet of scaffolding and observe the experts at work. Following a tour by USRC and National Trust staff, they were able to touch the plaster and gold ceiling many feet above the floor where hundreds walk each day.

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