Union Station's Main Hall after its granite walls were cleaned.

photo by: Robert Benson Photography

Preservation Magazine, Winter 2023

Washington Union Station Gets a "Quiet" Polish

Washington Union Station has served as a major transit hub in the nation’s capital since it opened in 1907. With thousands of people traversing its Daniel Burnham–designed halls almost every day for more than a century, it’s only natural that surfaces got a little dirty. That’s why, in 2021, the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation (USRC) began to clean some of the original masonry and finishes in the Main Hall (shown) and West Hall for the first time in decades. With funding aid from the city’s Transportation Alternatives Program, USRC hired conservators from Cheshire, Connecticut–based John Canning & Co., which had restored dozens of historic statues in the Main Hall in 2019.

Between December of 2021 and October of 2022, project manager David Gough and lead conservator Rachel Gilberti oversaw the cleaning of the halls’ Bethel White granite walls and columns. After experimenting with different methodologies, Gilberti settled on soaking the surfaces with a water-based solution to restore them to their original color. Additional tasks included giving a shine to metal doors and bronze plaques, repainting several surfaces, and replacing a chunk of missing granite at the base of a column. The entirety of the $1.2 million project took place amid the hustle and bustle of an active train station.

USRC project manager Sarah Mayersohn considers Canning’s results “quiet”—that is, people who aren’t familiar with the station may not notice a change, but anyone who knows the halls well will be struck by the difference after the cleaning. The conservators also kept an eye on the future. The team left a few inconspicuous spots uncleaned so the next generation of preservationists could “understand what we started with,” says Gough.

Find Funding: National Trust Grant Programs

The Main Hall of Union Station after its granite walls were cleaned.

Over the past decade, the National Trust has provided the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation with five different grants for preservation work. Learn more about what funding might be available for your project.

Tim O'Donnell is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

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