Architect: Van Brunt & Howe (St. Louis), 1896
Arguably the most handsome of Portland landmarks,
Union Station's 150-foot clock tower and prominent positioning at the base of the Broadway Bridge also make it one of the city's most visible buildings. The train station holds something in common with similar towers in northern Italy with its stucco, molded red brick, ornamental bracing, gray sandstone trimmings, and overhanging tile roof.
German-born Henry Villard (1835-1890) came to America as a writer. He reported on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, adopted abolition as a cause, and got into the railway business. Villard ended up acquiring the estate of the bankrupt Ben Holladay in 1876, enabling him to build the first transcontinental rail line into Portland. In 1883, Villard and Ulysses S. Grant rode the first train into town, which explains the subsequent naming of Grant Street. (It wasn't Grant's first trip to the area; he had been stationed at Fort Vancouver in the 1850s.)
Villard organized a company to construct a train station for Portland. He had already commissioned the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White to build a hotel (the Portland Hotel) for his new company, and they also got the commission for this job. At twelve city blocks in size, the "Grand Union Depot" would have been the largest train station in the world, but for one small problem: Henry Villard went bankrupt in 1883.
His financial interests were taken over, including his completed plans for the gargantuan train station. The inheritors of Villard's business interests employed the St. Louis firm of Van Brunt and Howe to modify (and subtract from) the existing design. Flooding and money problems made this a long and nasty construction, with the most challenging work being the building's five thousand pilings and its foundation. Handsome touches like the red terra-cotta and stucco panels were nice, but the signature neo-Romanesque tower was almost not constructed because of financial difficulties. Fortunately, Van Brunt and Howe insisted on its inclusion.
Interior remodeling by A. E. Doyle employee Pietro Belluschi occurred in the 1930s, with Italian marble sheathing added to the walls and floor, while interior cast-iron columns were subtracted. Union Station subsequently almost fell victim to Robert Moses' 1943 rehabilitation plans for Old Town. He described the building as an "obsolete facility" and wrote that "railroad stations should be as modern as airports."
Historically, this station has been a star achiever; in 1944, over a hundred trains passed through here daily, with a year's count of nearly five million passengers. Impressed by the station's business volume and beauty, Amtrak added a first-class passenger lounge here, a novelty among West Coast train stations.
The Portland Development Commission purchased the Union Station and its 31-acre site in 1987. Rail lines were consolidated, which opened up room for new housing ("The Yards"). After warding off numerous development offers, the PDC has taken steps toward restoring the building's leaking roof, crumbling sandstone base, interior, entrance, and clock tower. Even so, Union Station needs at least another $20 million in further renovations and rehabbing. Efforts are also underway to possibly bring a public market here (featuring regional, sustainable foods) that could co-exist with train service.Less Text