A World-Weary Tour of St Paul's new Union Depot

[Under the massive skylight.]
I’m a natural born cynic. Confronted by a glass containing a moderate amount of water, I immediately imagine a world paved with drinking fountains. Any piece of good news landing at my feet appears to me a missed opportunity for perfection. Given lemons and the inevitable lemonade, I taste only the lack of sweetness, the acid tint. I wonder loudly if it is locally sourced. (Hint: NO! its NOT!).

This is why even a piece of ostensibly good news is, to me, an opportunity for unfurled pessimism. Each ribbon cutting an exercise in the mental yoga of the jaded.

Speaking of which, I was excited to get the chance to tour the Union Depot in downtown St Paul one sunny afternoon. It's a magnificent train station of the type too rare in America, an endangered urban species that barely survived its 20th century parking lot habitat carnage and the great railroad plague. Most of these beautiful old stations have vanished or are crumbling, replaced by beige concrete boxes that make FEMA trailers relatively opulent. You can list on few hands America's remaining beautiful stations. I have seen Philadelphia's 30th Street, Portland's  and Washington's Union. I have wandered through Boston's South at dusk, stumbled into New Haven's, and lost myself in New York’s Grand Central. I hear that Cincinnati has a great old station kept in captivity, only used twice a week for lack of trains. Detroit's is growing trees. Minneapolis's is kept half frozen. New York's Penn can only be found in grainy photographs nailed to the pillars of purgatory.

And for years now, St Paul's beautiful quasi-condemned train station has lurked like a dark oak on the edge of the river, used only to display famous shipwrecks. The station wiles its days harboring a marginal Greek restaurant like a forgotten expatriate genius playing checkers in a foreign tongue. Eating lamb in the midst of this mammoth mothballed building must be like pacing a mossy tomb, ghosts passing condiments.

But now - all hail the congressional earmark - the old Union Depot is being completely remodeled and restored. The historic preservationists have selected one particular historical moment - 1928 (or something) - and they're doing everything within reason to re-create that moment in time, down to the exact ticks of the clocks.

[That this water fountain looks strange is proof of its authenticity.]

[Station Master goes here.]

[This "Central Standard Time" once surrounded a clock, I'd bet.]

[Somehow, the Greek restaurant still has a few years remaining on its lease.]

[The tops of marble pillars.]

The tour was glorious. The building looks beautiful. The large entrance hall now wears its original colors, which happen to be a really unusual combination of light pink, bright yellow, and olive green.  It’s rather like the original colors on the horses of the St Paul Como Park carousel, some forgotten palette greeting us like a man in a strange hat. They've installed marble floors to amplify the echos of your hard shoes. They have a sign that says "boiler room" sitting in an alcove, waiting to be mounted.

And when you walk through the almost doorway into the endless waiting room, you find forgotten ornament bathed in ambient skylight. You see a bas relief mural winding round the entirety of the interior cornice of a massive space, a thin slice of texture telling "the story of Minnesota transportation” from Conestoga wagon to streamlined train. Few tour guides enjoy their jobs as much as ours did as he told the tale of cleaning off every last grain of dirt from the mural, only to realize that without dirt, nobody could make out any carved detail. They had to go back and re-dinge the relief sculptures around the edges to provide at least some contrast between the fore and background.

[Entering the waiting room.]

[Click on this photo to examine the detail.]

[The tour guide points up.]

The Other Side of the Coin

There you have it. A glorious train station. And through some sort of bureaucratic miracle, St Paul has enough money to restore all of it to its pre-automotive zenith. All this is good.

There’s only one catch, to my cynical mind. The problem with restoring a glorious train station in the middle of St Paul in the year 2012 is that, today, there are no trains. Currently, at present, the giant train schedule mounted in the lobby will display exactly one train departure and one train arrival. Having a beautiful train station in the middle of St Paul is like running a VCR repair shop. It doesn't really matter how good you are at your job; your business model has a problem.

Of course there are plenty of great plans for the future. If you talk to the Ramsey Country Rail Authority planner type people, they’ll show you a vision for the Union Depot with a great many colored arrows pointing all kinds of ways. The map includes trains leaving and coming and going to and from Duluth and Madison and Chicago ("high speed rail" translates into 100 miles per hour, by the way) and Rochester and all manner of points West. It’s a nice vision! But in the real world reality of the situation, in the Twin Cities that we actually live in, there is only one train and it's supposed to have been here at 10:30 but it's running ninety minutes late. Taking the train from this station will be like sitting down at Chez Panisse and ordering a hot dog.

Instead, the union depot will have a lot of buses. There will be Greyhound buses, city buses, and a light rail train stopping outside of its vast and historically accurate car-free plaza. I suppose the hope is that the simple fact of having a beautiful train station will somehow spur the development of a passenger rail system in the Twin Cities, but at the very least one has to admit to a leap in logic. If you build it, will they come? If the trains don't come, what will become of this beautiful place? Will it sit unpeopled as an empty fairground?

Union Depot Connections

There are other questions, too, with the way that Union Depot will join hands with the middle of St Paul. As Jeff has already pointed out, the plaza in front of the Union Depot is half beautiful and half ugly. It seems to me a potentially perfect public space. It sits in a lovely nook of old 6 – 12 story office and warehouse buildings, and spending time on a bench there could feel as good as sitting in San Francisco’s Union Square or New York’s Washington Square. The only issue, according to historical preservationist fiat, that there are no benches. The plaza is completely empty, and feels feels instead like a parking lot.

[The only thing historically inaccurate about this plaza is its complete lack of people.]

The county planner explained that they've put out a bid for someone to come in and run the  commercial and retail aspects of the train station, and that whoever wins the bid (which apparently includes lots of companies who run similar train stations in other parts of the country) will be able to program the plaza space for some sort of social events. The only catch is that they won't be allowed to make "permanent changes" to the space. I’d like to see something similar to what they do in the Hennepin County government center plaza, something like William H. Whyte's favorite kind of  moveable furniture.

Also, they couldn't figure out how to use the massive depot as a way to bridge the downtown and the  riverfront, which seems like a missed opportunity. Who can walk to the river in St Paul without almost killing themselves on Shepard Road? Nobody.

And last but not least, probably the only way to get to the station along Kellogg Boulevard involves walking down the smallest sidewalk in the city, a sidewalk that's almost escalator thin.

So there you have my best attempt at cynicism. Now that I look at it, I see the hopelessness of my stance. I hear my futile bitterness. Faced with my empty pose, my hand keeping up my chin, I can only release a whispered sigh that gathers dust floating through the brick room, coming to rest on the handle of an empty coffee mug waiting to be washed away.      

[To trains.]

[The future train platform, and the only original staircase.]

[An unfinished escalator.]


Immediately after posting this article, the persons in charge of the Greyhound Bus Transportation Company concluded, after all, NOT to run buses out of the Union Depot in St Paul. It's almost as if they read my words and were decisively swayed.


Michael F said...

Nice think-piece! Thanks, Bill. As a side-note, you failed to mention the station considered to be the last of the country's great railway stations: stunning Union Station in Los Angeles (http://www.flickr.com/photos/chanc/3314226792/). This station was given renewed vibrancy and meaning a few years ago when it became hub to all of L.A.'s Metrorail lines, in additoin to its Amtrak and bus services.

Bill Lindeke said...

somehow, you've made me want to visit LA!

Alex said...

Excellent wordalization of our hopes and fears for this magnificent structure. One minor correction however: the unmentionable cost of the renovation was awarded not by congressional earmark, but through the DOT's competitive TIGER granting process. I don't get it either, but I'm glad it's happening. Also for the amazing American train stations tour, I'd suggest Omaha's Union Station, which is now a museum.

Bill Lindeke said...

if by "museum" you mean, "place where there are no trains, at least not trains upon which you can go from here to there," then yes, that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

While it's true that Cincinnati's Union Terminal is only served by Amtrak's Cardinal Line 3 times a week, the magnificent structure has been converted into a museum complex which hosts The Natural History Museum, The Children's Museum, The Cincinnati History Museum, and an Omnimax Theatre. The Museum Center attracts over a million visitors a year, not counting the relatively small number of people using the Amtrak service.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's all part of Ramsey County's plans. They planned to run a whole bunch of train lines to St. Paul... but they didn't have a station. Oops. So they rebuilt Union Depot.

The same people at Ramsey County government who have been driving this project are still there; expect them to redouble their efforts to get the Red Rock and/or Rush Line built. Or the "Gateway Corridor" to Eau Claire. Or the "Northeast Diagonal" or "Robert Street" corridors, even though various studies keep trying to replace those plans with bus service. Or possibly even the Dan Patch, if it can be done with local money or if the state legislature removes the insane Republican prohibition on studying it.

Anyway, it seems to me that the Ramsey County government officials who have been pushing rail service aren't going to stop. The trends are in their favor as more and more people want to take trains.

Joe Richards said...

The architectural details are amazing, I can't wait for it to open and visit (and use, or course!). There are more historical and renovation pictures here

Matt Ides said...

Great analysis Bill. Your blog seems to be the only place that actually states that the train service will be for 1. I applaud the project, but why renovate a train station with no trains.