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Los Angeles Union Station bustles with film plots

December 2, 2013

Union 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.

LOS 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 Street.

You 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, stencil work.

It’s 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.

If 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.

To the right, where the pay phones once were, you’ll find the Traxx bar, ripe for eavesdropping.

Just 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.

To 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.

Los 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.

"My 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!"

The security guard stayed cool; the man stormed off; the human ebb and flow resumed.

Grandeur, 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 platforms.

This 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.)

If 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.

To 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.

Beyond 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.

Since 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 marvelous."

Meanwhile, 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 passengers.

In 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 operated.

In 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 the neighborhood.

Executives 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.

"We 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 details."

But 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.

For instance, that "Night Court" / "Blade Runner" counter in the vestibule? Definitely big enough to hold a corpse.

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KEEPING TRACK OVER 7 DECADES

L.A.’s Union Station, the "last of the great train stations," has been moving people and freight for more than seven decades.

May 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.

1940s: Civilian traffic reaches an estimated 6,000 people a day. During World War II, traffic is far greater as troops are mobilized.

1950s: As automobile and air travel increases, the station becomes known as "the last of the great train stations" in the U.S.

1966: After decades of relying on trains, the Postal Service shifts to using planes and buses. Passenger traffic dwindles too.

1967: The station’s slowest year, with just 15 trains in and 15 out a day.

1971: Congress creates Amtrak to take over passenger service from rail companies. At Union Station, passenger traffic remains thin.

1992: 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.

1993: 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.

1995-1998: 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 Restaurant opens.

2003: MTA opens a Metro Gold Line light-rail stop, connecting the station with Pasadena.

2005: Catellus merges with industrial developer Prologis.

2011: The MTA buys Union Station and its 38-acre property for $75 million, making the landmark property public for the first time.

2013: 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 on-site.

(Sources: www.metro.net/about/union-station/history/; www.metro.net/projects/la-union-station/; www.prologis.com; "The Last of the Great Train Stations," by Bill Bradley, Pentrex Media Group, 2000; Jenna Hornstock, MTA deputy executive officer for countywide planning; Kenneth E. Pratt, director of Union Station property management.)

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DO’S AND DON’TS WHEN VISITING UNION STATION

0 miles from Union Station: Union Station (800 N. Alameda St.; www.metro.net/about/union-station) is a hub for Amtrak, Metrolink regional commuter trains and the Metro subway and light-rail system. It’s open 4 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. If you want to dive deep into the architecture and history of the station, join one of the walking tours offered by the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy ((213) 623-2489; www.laconservancy.org). Tours begin at 10 a.m. the third Saturday of every month, last 21/2 hours and cost $10 per adult.

0 miles: Do get a drink at Union Station’s Traxx bar and restaurant (800 N. Alameda St.; (213) 625-1999, www.traxxrestaurant.com). I’ve had mixed results at the restaurant (Yelp’s reviewers give it 3 1/2 stars), but Traxx remains a great place to drink something cool while the world walks by.

0.1 mile: Do have a look at Olvera Street, which is part of the 44-acre El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument ((www.elpueblo.lacity.org). The brick walkways, bougainvillea and fig trees are pleasant, and the Chinese American Museum, Avila Adobe and other small organizations offer interesting history. Vendors sell leather goods, wrestler masks, hats, pinatas, blankets, T-shirts, toy guitars and "Scarface" posters.

0.1 mile: For a snack, do try Olvera Street’s Cielito Lindo (E-23, Olvera St.; (213) 687-4391, www.cielitolindo.org), a taqueria that dates to 1934. For $3 you get two beef taquitos dipped in guacamole sauce. (Then browse Olverita’s shop across the way at W-24.)

0.1 mile: Terminal Annex (900 N. Alameda St.), the station’s hulking next-door neighbor, used to be the city’s main post office. It has a great 1940 Mission Revival exterior, but don’t get too excited about the inside. The lobby is open to the public (except Sundays), but its Works Progress Administration murals are smallish and forgettable, and there’s little else to admire.

0.1 mile: If you need beer and barbecue, do head for Spring Street Smoke House (640 N. Spring St.; (213) 626-0535, www.sssmokehouse.com). All the usual barbecue features are here: blues on the stereo, ribs, sandwiches, beans and a generous beer list. Main dishes generally $10.50-$25.95.

0.2 mile: Do belly up to the counter at Philippe the Original (1001 N. Alameda St.; (213) 628-3781, www.philippes.com). Sawdust on the floor. Mobs at lunchtime. Knickknacks from old L.A. on the walls. You’re supposed to order a French dip sandwich here — because this might be its birthplace — but I liked my French onion soup more.

0.3 mile: Do have a quick peek at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes (501 N. Main St.; (213) 542-6200, www.lapca.org), a free, well-appointed, museum-esque space that tells local history from a Mexican American point of view with multimedia displays. Open noon-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays. Closed Tuesdays.

0.3 mile: Do browse the goods at Cave Man Vintage Music (650 N. Spring St.; (213) 625-9999, www.caveman-vintage.com). Vintage guitars, amps and vinyl, with a cool sign painted on the window. Has been in the neighborhood two years.

0.5 mile: Do think about a snack at Chinatown’s Homegirl Cafe (130 W. Bruno St.; (323) 526-1254, Ext. 359, www.homegirlcafe.org), three blocks north of Union Station and across the street from the Gold Line’s Chinatown station. Breakfasts and lunches are up to $12. Closed Sundays. It’s a nonprofit effort that trains at-risk young women and men for restaurant work. Bright, pleasant dining room and an arresting batch of black-and-white portraits near the door that look a bit like mug shots. The cafe is part of Homeboy Industries.

0.5 mile: For thrills in a rice bowl, do try Chinatown’s Chego (Far East Plaza Mall, 727 N. Broadway, Suite 117; (323) 380-8680, www.eatchego.com). From Roy Choi, the Asian-fusion man behind L.A.’s Kogi Korean/Mexican taco trucks. Order at the counter (I liked the Sour Cream Hen House, with grilled chicken, sour cream, basil, sesame and broccoli), eat at a picnic table, expect rich flavors and no atmosphere. Main dishes up to $10. Closed Mondays.

0.5 mile: If you’re looking for a global lodging brand that still has a local feel, do look at Little Tokyo’s DoubleTree by Hilton (120 S. Los Angeles St.; (213) 629-1200, www.lat.ms/18JMBOn), formerly the Kyoto Grand and the New Otani. Pleasant garden upstairs. A restaurant renovation on the lobby level was in progress in late October.

0.6 mile: In Little Tokyo, do stop at the Japanese American National Museum (100 N. Central Ave.; (213) 625-0414, www.janm.org) for historical context, then browse the museum’s cleverly stocked gift shop.

0.6 mile: Don’t head for Little Tokyo’s MOCA Geffen Contemporary satellite space (152 N. Central Ave., www.moca.org) for the next few months. Apart from a three-day book fair Feb. 1-3, the museum is closed until a Mike Kelley exhibition in March.

0.6 mile: Do grab a snack, perhaps a green tea doughnut with Lamill coffee, at Cafe Dulce (134 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Building E; (213) 346-9910, www.cafedulce.co/). Sandwiches and salads $4.95-$8.50.

0.6 mile: Do duck into Little Tokyo’s Far Bar (347 E. 1st St.; (213) 617-9990, www.farbarla.com), which hides in plain sight beneath a vintage sign that says "Chop Suey Far East." Many hipsters; popular bar. Global grazing menu (tacos, sushi, Korean short ribs) and a bar menu that includes Asian Zombies for $12. Pleasant patio in back with long wood tables, rough brick walls, lights on strings.

0.7 mile: Do give your teen a few minutes to check out Little Tokyo’s Popkiller (343 E. 2nd St.; (213) 625-1372, www.popkiller.us), one of several trendy T-shirt, streetwear and pop culture shops along 1st and 2nd streets.

0.7 mile: If you’re a culinary adventurer, do try dinner at Chinatown’s Starry Kitchen (Grand Star Jazz Club, 943 N. Broadway; (213) 814-1123, www.starrykitchen.com, www.grandstarjazzclub.com). The pan-Asian comfort food is terrific (especially the crispy tofu balls and Malaysian chicken curry). But leave the kids at home; the dining room is a dimly lighted bar, the soundtrack may include foul-mouthed rap and you may — or may not — find the owner / host charming. Open Wednesdays-Saturdays, dinner only.

0.7 mile: If you’re looking for stylish but subdued lodging in Little Tokyo, do try the Miyako Hotel (328 E. 1st St.; (213) 617-2000, www.miyakoinn.com). Besides 173 rooms, it has a spa on the third floor, a restaurant on the second and Cafe Take 5 off the lobby, with sandwiches and salads up to $7.50. Rooms for two $149-$199. Nice views from rooms on the 1st Street side.

0.8 mile: Do check out home decor items and books in Chinatown’s Realm (425 Gin Ling Way; (213) 628-4663, www.realmhome.com), an elegantly adapted old restaurant space. Closed Tuesdays.

0.8 mile: Do keep an eye out for open galleries along Chinatown’s Chung King Road: There are six to 16 of them, depending on how you count. Your odds are best on weekends; some galleries are closed during the week. Most of the work is highly contemporary, not Chinese. Fifth Floor Gallery (502 Chung King Court; (213) 687-8443, www.fifthfloorgallery.com) has more affordable design items. Coagula Curatorial (977 Chung King Road; (424) 226-2485, www.coagulacuratorial.com) has a show of painting on wine bottles by Kim Dingle through Jan. 4.

0.8 mile: For a hearty ham-and-eggs breakfast near the tracks, do head for the horseshoe bar at Nick’s Cafe (1300 N. Spring St.; (323) 222-1450, www.nickscafe.net). It dates to 1948 and stands across Spring Street from Los Angeles State Historic Park. Breakfast and lunch daily, up to $12.50. Eggs Benedict on weekends. Cash only.

1.5 miles: To see a local institution in the unlikeliest of places, check out the San Antonio Winery (737 Lamar St.; (323) 330-8715, www.sanantoniowinery.com). Since 1917, this family operation has been making wine alongside the railroad tracks and the concrete-clad L.A. River. Its Italian restaurant (cafeteria line, white tablecloths, wine barrels lining the walls) gets busy at lunchtime. Entrees up to $23.95. Tours daily.

1.6 miles: To break bread with working artists, do sneak off to Barbara’s at the Brewery (620 Moulton Ave., No. 110; (323) 221-9204, www.barbarasatthebrewery.com) for a casual boho lunch or dinner (entrees up to $15.95, with good selection of wines and beers) amid the hundreds of artist lofts at the Brewery Art Colony ((www.labrewery.com), which opens for "art walk" tours twice a year.

 

 


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