LA’s Greatest Landmarks: Union Station

Ah, the romance of the rails. Union Station in downtown Los Angeles is a gorgeous reminder of a time when travel was slower, more deliberate and perhaps a bit more civilized. Union Station is a great cathedral of modern life, a hushed but bustling place.

Built in 1939 for $11 million (which is about $168 million today) and originally known as LAUPT, or Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, the Spanish Mission style station was actually a bit late in the history of Grand Railroad Terminals. But Los Angeles was booming, having had a large population influx starting in the 20’s. LA needed a major terminal and the LAUPT was built to combine two local railroad terminals and three trainlines: the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe.

Now LAUS, also referred to as LAX (no really!), Union Station sees approximately 1.5 million travelers a year and generates over $55 million in ticket sales.  With Amtrak, bus lines and local train service running through it, Union Station is full of city life. And this being LA, it gets used as a set or backdrop in many a movie and tv show.

Part of the original Station plan was the Harvey House Restaurant. Fred Harvey started opening restaurants at railroad stations after the Civil War. He made a deal to partner with the Santa Fe railroad and “civilized the west.” Harvey Houses were the first to employ women as servers as Mr. Harvey found them more reliable then the wild men out in the west. Harvey House Restaurants served good food at reasonable prices in elegant surroundings. And when you peek in the windows at the former HH, or are lucky enough to be invited to a private party there, you can see how swell of a place it must have been in it’s heyday. (Our own Lucinda Michele wrote about it a while back.)

I highly recommend an afternoon in the area, you can shop and eat at Olvera Street, then have a cocktail (and/or dinner) at Traxx Restaurant and Bar, then head over to Chinatown. (We had a great time at Union Station during Classic Eats #2 in 2009.)

Even more highly recommended is to take the train from Union Station somewhere. (I mean, if you aren’t already a regular commuter…) I was fortunate enough to take the Coast Starlight from LA to Seattle last summer. Seeing LA from an angle I don’t normally get to see was fascinating.

All photos by me and lots of research done with help from Great American Stations and the Harvey House site.

6 Replies to “LA’s Greatest Landmarks: Union Station”

  1. This is one landmark I wholeheartedly agree with. Others in the series may be famous but this one stands out in so many areas. I guess it comes down to the fact I am proud of LA for having this place, and keeping it. Sometimes for events downtown I’ll take the Gold Line and just walking thru the station makes the day a little better.
    Great photos, too!

  2. Great post. Union Station is one of LA’s most fabulous landmarks, and one of the most frequently overlooked.

    Odd Trivia: As New Yorkers will often tell you, Grand Central’s proper name is “Grand Central Terminal“, not “Grand Central Station“, because it’s the end of the line for the tracks that enter it.

    In railroad parlance, if the tracks pass on through, it’s a station; but if they stop there, it’s a terminal.

    The same was true for LA’s “Union Station” – it was a terminal, not a station – until just recently, when the Gold Line Eastside Extension was completed.

    So now, Union Station really is a station instead of a terminal. :-)

    (And it will be even more so when the Run-Through Tracks are completed, which will allow railroad trains entering from the north to continue on through Union Station, cross the freeway, and then rejoin the southbound BNSF mainline along the west bank of the LA River without turning around.)

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