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A century later, Union Station symbolizes city’s renewal

Post by Cheryl Tucker on April 30, 2011 at 11:58 am |
April 29, 2011 5:58 pm

Union Station, now a federal courthouse, opened on May 1, 1911. (Staff file photo)

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

For years, the deteriorating Union Station was the all-too-visible symbol of downtown Tacoma’s decline.

Today, a century after it first opened at the height of the rail era, Union Station symbolizes something else entirely: downtown’s renaissance.

The iconic building’s metamorphosis from an abandoned rail station into a bustling federal courthouse in 1992 triggered a cascade of development nearby, including the Washington State History Museum, The University of Washington Tacoma, the Museum of Glass and the new Tacoma Art Museum.

Anyone who was here in the 1980s can testify to the depressing atmosphere of downtown Tacoma back then, especially the warehouse district on Pacific Avenue. Old buildings were being torn down in hopes of urban renewal, and the shuttered Union Station was on the hit list. Historic preservation wasn’t on many people’s radar screens back then, but the Save Our Station citizens group was trying to change that.

After all, this was no ordinary rail depot. The handsome beaux arts building’s architects were the St. Paul, Minn., firm of Reed and Stem, which went on to design the landmark Grand Central Terminal that opened in New York City two years after Union Station.

Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding, Harry Houdini, Babe Ruth and native son Bing Crosby were among the notables who passed through its doors. In 1974, Union Station was listed in the National Register of Historic Places – but that was no guarantee that it would be preserved.

A 1985 News Tribune letter to the editor by Seymour L. Johnson was the game-changer. He suggested  that Union Station was a good candidate for a federal courthouse. Congressman Norm Dicks agreed – and got the ball rolling. After years of negotiation among stakeholders, coming up with the $50 million-plus in funding and the actual restoration work, Union Station was reborn as the U.S. Courthouse at Union Station, its copper dome once again a shining beacon for Tacoma.

Although trains no longer arrive and depart from the Union Station building, it’s still a hub of activity. During the work week, it’s where federal judges preside. But after hours and on weekends, the rotunda area – with its Dale Chihuly art, marble walls and terrazzo floors – is a popular venue for parties, weddings and other events.

Someone who hadn’t been to Tacoma since the early 1980s would be startled to see the difference today in the area around Union Station. It bustles with students going to classes at the UWT, tourists visiting the history museum, art lovers going to the museums, diners going to upscale restaurants, and light rail passengers getting on or off at the stop in front of Union Station.

Thanks to the many people – public officials and private citizens – who worked so hard to save Union Station from the dustbin of history and a letter writer who had the inspired idea of turning it into a federal courthouse. Tacoma is richer for its preservation.

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