The Rebirth of Union Station

 In Culture, Feature

The local landmark celebrates its 120th birthday with a $30 million makeover.


THIS IS A YEAR OF BIG ST. LOUIS BIRTHDAYS. The city is celebrating its 250th anniversary, the Terminal Railroad turns 125 years old and its magnificent masterpiece, Union Station, turns 120 and is in the midst of being completely reimagined—and reborn. Lodging Hospitality Management, which purchased the station in October 2012 for $20 million, is now investing another $30 million in renovation projects throughout, including rehabbing the hotel’s 539 lodging rooms, meeting rooms, the Grand Hall, the Midway, the outdoor space around the lake and bringing back excursion trains. It’s a fitting and grand vision for one of St. Louis’ most significant structures. While no opening date has been set, you might say the rebirth is just around the bend.

ROUND TRIP When Union Station opened on Sept. 1, 1894, it was the largest and, arguably, the most beautiful terminal in the United States. Built at the cost of $6.5 million, the Grand Hall—with Romanesque arches, gold leaf, stained glass windows and a 65-foot barrel vaulted ceiling— was its crowning glory. “We’re really trying to restore it to what it was originally,” says LHM President and COO Stephen O’Loughlin. “There’s going to be a cool, ornate bar—possibly an oyster bar like you might see at Grand Central Station.” There will also be a Starbucks and a gift shop, all expected to be completed when Phase 1 of renovations wraps up in May. Included are outdoor renovations, possibly a fountain display on the lake, “like at the Bellagio,” and a dramatic lighting concept in the train shed. Excursion trains will also return, carrying adventure-seekers to Missouri wine country and other activity-specific locales.

MOVIE MAGIC The renovation has also unearthed buried treasure. Original Italian marble terrazzo floors were discovered underneath the carpet and are being restored; workers found an original and very ornate water fountain from the ladies waiting room that will take up residence in the hotel lobby; and a mural by noted artist Louis Grell, originally displayed behind the ticket counter, was found in a storage closet. After restoration, it will reside over the front desk. The venue will also feature some modern pizazz: Two or three times an hour, 3D mapping projections lasting 30-45 seconds will consume the Grand Hall with a variety of movie-magic scenarios, including creating the appearance of the building crumbling, or the ceiling opening up to reveal shooting stars, snow or thunderstorms, with some projections dedicated to local sports and narrated by the likes of Joe Buck and John Goodman.

ON TRACK In addition to setting up Union Station to host small conventions and serve as an event space—Saint Louis Fashion Week just inked a deal to make the venue its home for the next three years—O’Loughlin is in an “exploratory phase” looking for an anchor tenant to position the National Historic Landmark building as a family destination. Under consideration for the second phase of renovations, to be completed by late 2015, are a Legoland, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a Wonderworks family interactive attraction and others. Capitalizing on last year’s Holiday Train, an experiment that attracted more than 10,000 visitors, plans are underway for a major Christmastime promotion featuring a new Holiday Train each week, holiday-themed 3D projections in the Grand Hall, and other events leading up to Christmas Day. “I think there are more opportunities for stuff that caters to families,” O’Loughlin says. “And that is the space we want to occupy.”




Photo credit: Jess Leitch

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