Guide to the Washington D.C. Union Station

Guide to the Washington D.C. Union Station With Explanations of its Classical Roots Washington D.C. Union Station In 1901, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad agreed to build a station together, in Washington D.C. This meant that Washington had the chance to consolidate the railroad tracks running through the city, clearing out the National Mall, and build a new and imposing station, suitable for the federal city. It was finished in 1908, designed by the Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, who had famously been one of the designers of the Worlds Columbian Exposition in 1893, as well as the McMillan Plan for the National

Mall, which replaced the Victorian landscaping with a Neoclassical plan. The entire project was part of the American Renaissance, a period stretching from about the American Centennial (1876) to Americas entry into WWI (1917), with a focus on the United States as manifesting Greek democracy and Roman law; naturally this had a major impact on public building projects. The movement was concurrent with expansion in the West; the first Transcontinental Railroad was finished in 1860. So by the time that the Union Station was built in Washington, the connection of public buildings to the public buildings built by the Romans, and the connection of transportation, especially railroads, to American expansion manifest destiny had been strongly established. The illustration is American Progress, by John

Gast, 1872, showing nicely the movement West note the railroads all watched over by a Neoclassical icon of Progress, bringing a telegraph wire and a school book for communication and education. That the country is in the middle of the Sioux Wars is missing from this view, and indeed from most articulations of Manifest Destiny. Burnham combined two Roman public buildings, the Arch of Constantine and the Baths of Diocletian. Here you can see the triple arch entryway to the station, echoing the three arches of the Triumphal Arch to the right. The columns of the entryway are Ionic, enjoined. Above the arches are six statues, modelled after the Dacian prisoners on the Arch of Constantine. The Arch of Constantine was built in 315

CE, to commemorate the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, and was the largest Roman triumphal arch. It incorporated earlier works, and was an important piece of Constantines program of building public monuments as a benefactor of Rome (he had not yet started building Constantinople). The columns on this arch are Corinthian; the reliefs and sculptures are both new and inherited from earlier emperors. The six statues above the arches are called The Progress of Railroading. Created by Louis St. Gaudens, they represent Greek and Roman figures revisioned as American demigods Prometheus (Fire), Thales (Electricity), Themis (Freedom and Justice), Apollo (Imagination and Inspiration), Ceres (Agriculture), and Archimedes (Mechanics). They were late in arriving, finally being installed in 1912. They add imposing solemnity to the giant entrance to the hub of transportation.

The statues of Dacians which stand above the arches in Constantines Triumphal Arch are recycled, dating from Trajan, whose victory over the Dacians was a key victory in Romes expansion, and netted a great deal of plunder. The two triumphal arches have in common not just the overall structure, but the notion of triumphal expansion, and the celebration and appropriation of earlier styles, structures, and philosophies. That the statues by St. Gaudens stand in the places of the Dacians implies that they are not just helpers, but subjugated figures. The Grand Concourse of the Union Station was modeled on the Roman Baths of Diocletian. End pavilions are linked by long arcades (echoing the Court of Heroes that Burnham had designed for the Worlds Columbian Exposition), covered by a barrel vaulted ceiling. Like the Roman baths, the public space serves many purposes: waiting for transportation, eating at restaurants, shopping. It included also a Presidential Suite for the use of the President while traveling, later converted to a U.S.O. canteen.

The Baths of Diocletian (298-306), the larges of the imperial Roman baths, were commissioned by Maximian in honor of his co-Emperor Dicocletian. They were built along a long axis, with halls arranged symmetrically. Simple classical vaulted ceilings and arches gave the impression of open space; the plan included a gymnasium, libraries, and three public baths. Both structures represent a gathering place to bring comfort to the citizens, but also to impress upon them the power and deep resources of the government. Here, we see the Iconic mode of the entrance, continued in the interior, with its massive columns at the porticos. To a great extent, the Washington Union Station follow Vitruviuss Principles of Architecture: there is Order, in its symmetry and the balance of the parts with the whole; there is Eurythmy in its proportions, as the length and breadth and height of the building fit each other well; there is Symmetry in the agreements

amongst all the various pieces of the work; there is Propriety, in that the work has certainly been authoritatively constructed on approved principles. But it does not altogether succeed at Economy. The building is appropriate to its use, and harmonizes with its surroundings (if one ignores that cable of railway lines streaming out behind it), but the materials used were not always appropriate. The cost overrun was nearly 2 million dollars (nearly 50 million in todays money), due in part at least to the use of expensive marble and gold leaf.

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