It was 68 years ago this morning that Carole Lombard and Clark Gable caught the nation's capital by surprise, arriving at Union Station to begin a week or so in the east, for both tourism (they would see many of the D.C. sites, and in fact watched in the White House that evening as President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a "fireside chat" over the radio) and personal reasons (they spent several days at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, ostensibly over some old nagging injury of Gable's but also to find a solution to the couple's infertility).
We've reviewed those areas of the trip before (Washington http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/73489.html, Baltimore http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/86196.html), so today we will focus on their arrival spot, Union Station, one of America's great railway palaces.
Until Union Station opened for service in the fall of 1907 (it was completed the following year), Washington had several rail terminals, including a few that traveled on what we now know as the Mall. As one might guess, that severely weakened the capital's aesthetics. So in the first few years of the 20th century, a number of rail lines got together to build a terminal on land northeast of the U.S. Capitol (on grounds where Washington's first professional baseball team had played a few decades earlier).
Union Station, designed in the Beaux-Arts style, became a fittingly majestic entrance to the nation's capital. Here's what it looked like in the early 1920s:
Mindful of the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield while he waited for a train as well as the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, Union Station's designers constructed a presidential suite where the chief executive and other dignitaries could rest in comfort and safety. (It's now the site of a B. Smith restaurant.)
Like most American rail terminals, Union Station was at its most bustling during World War II, when troop movement and restricted automobile travel lifted train transport to unprecedented heights. However, the development of air travel and suburbanization severely diminished train traffic in the 1950s, and as early as 1958 Union Station's owners unsuccessfully tried to give the facility back to the government.
By the 1970s, when intercity passenger rail had largely been ceded to a federally funded agency known as Amtrak, Union Station had seen better days. The actual terminal was moved to the back and plans were made to turn the entrance into a national visitors' center; it opened in 1976 for the bicentennial, but closed two years later. In the early 1980s, the magnificent roof was leaking and chunks of plaster were falling -- would Union Station go the way of another architectural marvel, the original Pennsylvania Station in New York, razed or renovated to the point where it would be unrecognizable?
Thankfully, that didn't happen. Union Station was tastefully transformed into not only a rail terminal, but a shopping and entertainment emporium that opened for business in 1988. (It helped that a Metrorail station, one of the first to be opened when the system began running in 1976, adjoined Union Station, making it a key link for Amtrak and commuter rail passengers.) An immediate hit, Union Station began thriving as it hadn't for decades, and will play a key role in the upcoming Barack Obama inauguration. (Compare the pic below to the bottom photo in the 1920s trio; they appear to be taken at the same place, only 80 or so years apart.)
As Clark and Carole left Union Station that Sunday morning in 1940 to be taken to their hotel, one wonders if they saw the Capitol dome which can be seen from the entrance to Union Station -- and, assuming they had seen "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" that had been released the year before, thought of the reaction of James Stewart's character when he saw that stirring site...