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November 2007

In Our Own Backyard
All Aboard to Union Station

by Michele Bush Kimball, Ph.D.

Their eyes gazed up, up, up across the white granite walls; up, up, up to the statutes of Roman legionnaires standing watch on a ledge around the room; up, up, up even higher to the barrel vaulted ceiling, gilded and coffered, 96 feet above them.

A hush came over my two little ones upon entering the Main Hall of Union Station, and that's a feat for two who are not often awed and very rarely quiet.

When their eyes were satisfied with what was above, they shifted their attention to what was below, the glistening marble floors in shades of brown and burgundy. The decor is majestic, so much so that Joey, 4, had to just sit on a bench to look around and take it all in.

Meanwhile, Gracie, 3, took advantage of the space by practicing her dance steps on the smooth floor. As she spun, she caught sight, again, of the 36 legionnaires on the ledge of the balcony. "Soldiers, right there, up there," she exclaimed with excitement to all of the travelers within earshot.

Lisa McClure, marketing director for Union Station, said kids are often in awe of their surroundings in the station. Not only is the station itself exciting to see, but there are often activities and exhibits especially for kids.

For example, this month Union Station will begin celebrating the holidays by erecting its Holiday Model Train. The train set is one of the largest in the metropolitan area; it fills an area 24-feet wide and 46-feet long. Union Station is working with the Embassy of Norway to present the exhibit, which will show the train traveling through the mountains and fjords of Norway.

A family friendly tip from McClure for seeing the train? Take the kids to Pizzeria Uno on the mezzanine level for lunch, because part of the restaurant has a railing that overlooks the West Hall, which will house the exhibit.

Union Station will continue its holiday celebrations with a Toys for Tots donation drive, an official tree lighting ceremony for its 30-foot Christmas tree and holiday performances throughout the season.

On any given day, there is something to see at the station. First and foremost for Joey were the trains. McClure led us to two prime viewing spots. The first was just out the door behind the U.S. Post Office on the street level of the building. There is a little vestibule with glass windows looking out onto tracks 8 and 9. Out of the path of rushing travelers, the kids could take their time to inspect the trains as they prepared to be boarded.

The second viewing spot was in the parking garage on level one, near row D. The spot can also be accessed from the mezzanine level of the train station; go through the doors toward the parking garage, and go up one level. When you see a bank of escalators, walk around behind them. There are floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook rows of tracks. As we stood there, Joey and Gracie with their heads leaning on the glass, an electric train glided in on the track. We watched it come toward us in the distance, and as it came to the station, it traveled right under us. This spot offers a perfect bird's-eye view of the train arrivals. "That's where Thomas goes," said Joey, an avid fan of Thomas the Tank Engine, as he watched the train go by.

McClure said that on weekdays, between the arrivals of Metro trains and Amtrak trains, it is possible to see a train every 15 minutes. "But I know sometimes 15 minutes can seem like a long time for a child," she said with a laugh.

McClure said another vantage point to watch the hustle and bustle of travel and shopping at Union Station is to stand on the mezzanine level and look down on travelers as they buy tickets or line up to go to their gates. During the holidays, the mezzanine railings are wrapped in green and white lights.

Union Station, in all of its grandeur, opened in 1907. Its white granite and timeless look set the tone for the next 40 years of architecture in Washington, D.C., including the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Supreme Court Building and the National Gallery of Art.

The architecture of Union Station as a whole is in the Beaux-Arts style, and the classical arches throughout the station are symbolic of the building as a gateway. In fact, as a gateway to Washington, D.C., the station has no other rival. It receives more than 32 million visitors per year, making it one of the city's most visited destinations.

Another secret from McClure is that the high arched ceiling in the West Carriage Porch, the outdoor section of the train station that is next door to the U.S. Postal Museum, is not really stacked blocks of granite. The walls on the side are white granite, but the ceiling itself is white-washed with lines drawn in with a number two pencil. A detail like that was enough to make me stop and stare to see if I could figure out the difference. Joey was more interested in a pigeon hopping around near us, but I thought it was worth a few moments of examination.

The stunning architecture and the inner workings as a train station are not the only things to see at Union Station. The building covers so much area that if the Washington Monument were resting sideways, it could be housed within the station's concourse. All of that space is packed with shopping and dining venues for every age. For example, the East Hall holds a gallery of several kiosks filled with goods from artists and artisans. There are handcrafted works from Appalachia to Zimbabwe, literally. Throughout the halls on all levels are more than 100 other specialty shops.

There are seven full-service restaurants in the station. The two-tiered, circular Center Caf´┐Ż sits in the middle of the Main Hall, making it a prime location for people-watching or viewing the impressive architecture and decor. There is also a stocked food court on the lower level of the station, so no one will go hungry.

Joey and Gracie's awed expressions on their first impressions of Union Station did not wane during the entire visit. Everywhere we turned were shops to visit and food to consider. The backdrop of the beauty of the station itself would have been enough to keep us busy, but adding in the excitement of trains was enough for Joey and Gracie to decide it was a new favorite destination.

In what might be considered a place mainly for traveling adults, Union Station certainly has room for kids. The highlight of the visit for me? The perfect perch behind the escalators to watch the trains arrive. The highlight for Joey and Gracie? There's a Haagen-Dazs ice cream counter in the food court.

And that is the point of visiting the station, according to McClure.

"Since we are on Capitol Hill, we tend to have more adults than children," McClure said, "but we like to think we have a lot of fun things for the kids."

Michele Bush Kimball is a freelance writer and a stay-at-home mom.

Interesting facts:

More than 32 million people visit Union Station each year, for an average of 90,000 people a day.

The building opened at 6:50 a.m. on October 27, 1907, though it was not yet completed.

Union Station is considered one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture.

During the time it was being built, it was the largest train station in the world and covered more area than any other building in the United States.

Original construction of Union Station cost $25 million.

All of the original woodwork was solid mahogany.

Holiday celebrations at Union Station: Events are free and open to the public.

Model Train: November 20 through January 6. Union Station's Holiday Model Train travels through the countryside of Norway.

Toys for Tots Donations: November 20 through December 19.

Official Tree Lighting Ceremony: November 29 at 6 p.m. The 30-foot tree is a gift from the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the people of Norway. It will be lit with 8,000 lights.

Holiday performances: Throughout December there will be various holiday performances in front of the Christmas tree.

Hours of operation: The station is always open, but the stores are not. Store hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.

If you take the Metro, you will find the Union Station stop on the red line.
If you drive, the street address is 50 Massachusetts Avenue, NE.

Parking: There is a parking garage, and validation is available.

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