Station glows in the pre-dawn light in Los Angeles
on November 5, 2013. Opened in 1939, it is one of
the last of the great train stations and stands as
an architectural icon of Los Angeles and the west.
ANGELES — Many movies have been shot at Los Angeles
Union Station. But none can match the one you start
filming in your head the moment you arrive from Alameda
fade in on the feet of a trendy young commuter, ear buds
in place, rushing along the well-buffed tiled floor. The
camera tilts up to reveal a homeless man dozing in one of
the station’s original leather-and-mahogany armchairs.
You see a high, heavy chandelier, a grand arch, beams,
a star in its own right, this building — a strange,
graceful L.A. marriage of Spanish Colonial and Streamline
Moderne styles — born in 1939, the last of the great
American train stations. After a dismal slog through the
late 20th century, Union Station is busier than ever, with
about 10 times the traffic it had in its prosperous early
years. Chances are it will soon be busier.
you do your traveling by car and plane, you haven’t seen
the station in years, haven’t harnessed your inner
Hitchcock, haven’t wondered where to hand off the
mysterious suitcase, where the adulterers get down to
business, where to stage the murder.
the right, where the pay phones once were, you’ll find
the Traxx bar, ripe for eavesdropping.
across the arcade, you have the station’s original
restaurant, a Harvey House designed by Southwestern
architect Mary Colter. It’s been closed (except for film
shoots and special events) for decades.
the left, you can lean on a movable counter left over from
either a "Night Court" TV shoot or a "Blade
Runner" movie shoot, depending on whom you ask. And
from there you see the station’s enormous and idle
ticket concourse, suitable for occupation by the Phantom
of the Coast Starlight.
Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster and I prowled the
station for several days recently to finish our yearlong
series on iconic locations, "Postcards From the
West." (You can see the first half-dozen at
latimes.com/postcards.) I was standing near the old ticket
concourse, trying to recall plot points of "Union
Station" (1950, starring William Holden) and
"Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid" (1982, starring
Steve Martin), when unscripted reality interrupted.
wife’s had surgery!" an enraged Amtrak customer
yelled at a security guard. "What is this, a museum
or a ... transportation center? You guys are pathetic!
There’s no help!"
security guard stayed cool; the man stormed off; the human
ebb and flow resumed.
grit, sepia light, flawed humanity — and that’s before
you even get to Wetzel’s Pretzels. That food stand turns
up, along with a sweet-smelling Subway, Starbucks, See’s
Candies, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and the convenience
shop Famima, in the jumbled departure area just beyond the
waiting room and before the long passage to the train
is far more commercial life than the terminal saw from the
1960s to the ‘90s. Daily traffic is up to 60,000 to
75,000 commuters and travelers, depending on who’s
estimating. But as Metropolitan Transportation Authority
officials acknowledge, the departure area could use better
signage. (Amtrak and Metrolink do have motorized carts to
carry travelers who have a disability, but station signs
don’t make that clear or explain how to summon one.)
you walk down the long passage past the train platforms
and under the tracks, you reach the station’s east
portal, built in the 1990s. Your reward for roaming waits
above: a striking, 80-foot-wide multicultural mural of
L.A. faces by Richard Wyatt, with an olive-skinned girl in
a green blouse at center.
me, she’s Our Lady of the Trains. Above her, the sun
shines through a geometrically patterned skylight dome
that would fit right in atop a mosque in Qatar. Without
leaving the station, you’ve just traveled from one end
of the 20th century to the other.
the station itself, things get tricky for a traveler, and
many are put off by its proximity to the 101 Freeway, the
county jail and the many panhandlers near Olvera Street.
But the resurgence of downtown Los Angeles has brought new
options beyond the usual Olvera Street shuffle. Walk
several blocks from the station — or take a one-stop
subway ride — and you can browse vintage vinyl and
contemporary art in Chinatown, drink a $12 Asian Zombie
under a string of lights in Little Tokyo or picnic on the
grass of well-tended Grand Park, just across the street
from City Hall.
the Metropolitan Transportation Authority bought Union
Station in 2011, plans are afoot for more changes. Ken
Pratt, Union Station’s director of property management,
said he has been courting prospective bar and restaurant
tenants for the Harvey House. In as little as 18 months,
Pratt said, "some inventive, eclectic, well-heeled
restaurateur is going to come in here and do something
the MTA this year added a red-coated passenger assistance
staff to answer questions. The MTA has also closed the
station to non-passengers between 1 and 4 a.m. to give
janitors more room and to discourage homeless people from
treating the station as base camp. In some not-so-historic
second-story space above Amtrak’s ticket sales window,
the rail line has quietly opened the private Metropolitan
Lounge for its business-class and sleeping-compartment
public spaces, there will be more movie nights and more
live music, Pratt said, perhaps some artisan food services
at the east portal in the next year, perhaps another
restaurant in the now-idle space where Union Bagel once
the longer term, MTA executives are developing a master
plan that would preserve the historical structure but add
retail space, reroute the flow of bus traffic, allow for
the arrival of a bullet-train connection to San Francisco
by 2029 (if that costly, controversial project is
completed) and improve transitions between the station and
say the MTA may even buy and knock down the privately
owned Mozaic apartment buildings, an undistinguished
complex next door that was built in 2006.
would be fine with that," said Adrian Scott Fine, Los
Angeles Conservancy advocacy director. As for the MTA’s
larger ambitions? "The devil will be in the
these changes could be years away, and plenty of ambitious
Union Station plans have been floated and abandoned over
the decades. Instead of holding your breath, savor the
place as it is, grab one of those comfortable chairs,
watch the passenger parade and polish your second act.
instance, that "Night Court" / "Blade
Runner" counter in the vestibule? Definitely big
enough to hold a corpse.
TRACK OVER 7 DECADES
Union Station, the "last of the great train
stations," has been moving people and freight for
more than seven decades.
1939: Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal opens, linking
the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroad
systems, which used to operate separate stations. To make
room for the new station, much of the city’s original
Chinatown was leveled. The station’s design, by the
father-son architect team of John and Donald Parkinson,
mixes Streamline Moderne and Spanish Colonial styles with
Moorish accents. The station’s first timetable lists 33
arrivals and 33 departures daily.
Civilian traffic reaches an estimated 6,000 people a day.
During World War II, traffic is far greater as troops are
As automobile and air travel increases, the station
becomes known as "the last of the great train
stations" in the U.S.
After decades of relying on trains, the Postal Service
shifts to using planes and buses. Passenger traffic
The station’s slowest year, with just 15 trains in and
15 out a day.
Congress creates Amtrak to take over passenger service
from rail companies. At Union Station, passenger traffic
Catellus, a development company formed from real estate
holdings of the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads,
begins restoration of the station. Also, Metrolink begins
regional commuter rail service with Union Station as its
hub, carrying 5,000 passengers on its first day.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation
Authority opens the first 4.4 miles of the Metro Red Line,
which will eventually connect Union Station to downtown
Los Angeles, Hollywood and North Hollywood.
Gateway Transit Center, renamed Patsaouras Transit Plaza,
opens at Union Station as a hub for bus service. Catellus
sells station-adjacent property to several buyers,
including the MTA, which builds a 26-story headquarters.
Inside the station, owner-chef Tara Thomas’ Traxx
MTA opens a Metro Gold Line light-rail stop, connecting
the station with Pasadena.
Catellus merges with industrial developer Prologis.
The MTA buys Union Station and its 38-acre property for
$75 million, making the landmark property public for the
Weekday traffic is about 10 times what it was in the
1940s: 60,000 people by some estimates, 75,000 by others.
About 60 movies, TV shows and ads a year are filmed