After 40 Years, Springfield's Union Station Set To Open Again
Congressman Richard Neal has spent almost thirty years in Washington, D.C.. He’s seen train stations from Los Angeles and St. Louis to Albany and Baltimore. But he still remembers the thrill of his first ever ride out of Union Station in Springfield, Massachusetts.
It was 1960. Neal’s youth baseball team had won the Western Massachusetts championship and was on the way to Yankee Stadium in New York.
“I have a recollection of what it was like, but I can’t describe the amount of activity. The mail handlers sorted mail, the baggage handlers sorted baggage. Those that were waiting for the next train simply mounted the tracks and walked up these long staircases to the train,” Neal says. “The activity was so exciting. There were shops, there was a restaurant, and simply going to Union Station was worth it.”
So when in 1978 Neal announced his first bid for elected office—a seat on the Springfield City Council—the station’s terminal was a natural choice for a venue, though for a very different reason. By then, the station’s main terminal building—opened in 1926—had been shuttered, and Neal vowed to do what he could to reopen it.
Neal admits it’s taken longer than anticipated; car travel, urban renewal, and long-term economic trends have been mighty forces to contend with. But after five years on the City Council, another five as mayor, and then 14 terms representing Massachusetts' first congressional district, Neal will be on hand to open the terminal once again this summer.
“The personal gratification I feel about this 40-year journey is really extraordinary,” Neal says. “There were considerable doubts along the way, but the citizenry of Pioneer Valley, they really allowed me to participate in an ‘it will never happen’ moment.”
Similar to renovations of Union Stations in Washington, D.C. or Denver, the terminal in Springfield will not only serve as a rail and bus hub for the region, but will also include retail, restaurant, and office space. The $95 million renovation was made possible largely through federal and state transportation grants as well as stimulus money.
Closed since the 1970s, the building was in total disrepair when the architects from HDR, Inc. arrived. Water leaks, along with the freezing and thawing from heatless Massachusetts winters, had badly damaged the interior.
The interior had been almost completely gutted and the once-impressive brick facade was decaying. To save anything, the architects had to strip the main terminal nearly clean. But the architectural features that couldn’t be preserved were at least recorded, all the way down to the plaster moldings. With the help of a historic architect, HDR worked to retain as much of the original style as possible.
“What we saw was a very tired building and a blighted section of the urban fabric within Springfield that was really begging for a response,” says HDR’s Joe Mamayek. “What we were trying to do was save as much of the interior architecture as possible. We found out when we got in there and investigated that most of it had been damaged over time. … And so we worked with [John Milner Associates] to rebuild in kind to match that architecture with the glory of the past.”
HDR was, however, able to salvage and refurbish the hall’s old terrazzo floors, light fixtures, and clock. To those they’ve added an original barber chair and baggage cart, displays from the station’s lively past.
“We were able to save some of the artifacts that were left behind,” Mamayek says. “And we were able to integrate them almost as museum pieces, again giving homage to the past and giving context for the new passengers.”
According to Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s Chief Development Officer, the timing is just right for the station to succeed again. Businesses and residents are beginning to return to the downtown area, and younger people are increasingly seeking travel alternatives to cars and traffic. Trains continued to run when the main terminal closed, though in numbers far diminished from the nearly 130 that passed through during its heyday. But Connecticut is making rail improvements and planning to run as many as 12 trains to Springfield in the future.
Additionally, the terminal will service both inter- and intra city bus lines, and planners are hoping that the station’s restaurants, shops, and offices will attract enough traffic to cover its operating costs.
There’s also the community’s emotional attachment to the station. Springfield’s identity is tied in no small way to its long and storied industrial past (the city’s armory was the primary manufacturer of weaponry for Washington’s Continental Army), for which the rails were integral in the 19th and 20th centuries. The station also served as the point of departure for generations of servicemen and women going to war.
“A few months ago, Congressman Neal entertained a group from the [Soldiers' Home in nearby Holyoke] who came down to see the station,” Kennedy says. “And they were telling their personal stories about leaving [from Union Station]. Whether they were going to World War II or they were going to Vietnam, they talked about the things they saw coming and going.”
Now, the city is hoping that the terminal can aid its downtown’s revival when it reopens with a series of events starting June 24.
According to Neal, “It’s been a very long, very rewarding journey.”