Union Station’s Great Hall Could be Greater

Center Cafe

Kevin H.

Update the wooden Center Cafe? Why not?

I’ve been thinking about the majestic Great Hall at Union Station lately, especially after reading this City Paper piece about proposed changes to it. The change which is generating the most comment involves modernizing the Center Cafe (pictured at right) and opening access to the basement-level food court below it; a glass structure connecting all three levels via swirly staircases and elevators would facilitate this. The City Paper says the concept is “reminiscent of New York City’s 5th Avenue Apple Store”, but I don’t get that from looking at this rendering. Do you?

A few days after the City Paper published that article (“Preservationists Rally Against Plan for “Pit” in Union Station”), Dan Malouff penned this response on BeyondDC:

At best, this proposal is a solution in search of an imaginary problem. Even if you think it’s harmless, it doesn’t solve anything that needs to be solved. At worst, it could ruin one of Washington’s most magnificent public gathering places.

Why take the risk?

Malouff ignores the Center Cafe’s role in the proposal and focuses on how the Food Court downstairs is already busy– that’s the “imaginary problem” he’s referencing above, and I don’t think his point is unfounded. Whenever I’m at Union Station, I usually avoid the Food Court because it’s all lines and crowds. Malouff is also concerned with fixing a space that in his opinion, isn’t broken– especially since doing so would affect the elegance of the Great Hall. Both BeyondDC and the City Paper mention that something like this had been tried in the 1970s, and it failed.

Not everyone is gloomy about glass. Over at Greater Greater Washingon, Alex Baca thinks that change is good:

The glass structure will visually and physically open the space: It’s slimmer than the existing Center Cafe platform, which should open up sightlines in what’s currently a low-feeling, harsh space. The current Center Cafe doesn’t draw a viewer’s eye toward the vaulted ceiling, but a glass column probably would. It will improve handicap access and promises better signage. And, the glass and light should certainly enhance what’s currently a rather dismal dining experience in the food court.

While I agree with Malouff that we should be cautious about repeating the mistakes of the past, I wonder if this proposal is wiser than we realize. I’ve lived in this city for well over a decade, and during that time I’ve taken dozens of trips on Amtrak. I have never considered eating at the Center Cafe, in part because it’s not very inviting. And wouldn’t glass be easier on the eyes than the current wood structure, bang in the middle of all that “open space”?

Forget the Cafe for a moment– I’m more interested in the twin issues of access and privilege. What if this does make Union Station more usable for people with disabilities? Placing the elevators in plain view is a kind thing to do; I may not want to deal with the food court, but someone else might, and if they are in a wheelchair, why not help facilitate their movement through what is– no matter how pretty it might be– a functioning rail terminal? I don’t know if any of the bloggers discussing Union Station are in or have used a wheelchair, but I spent several months in a rather challenging leg brace, and that experience taught me how crucial good elevators were as I hobbled everywhere. Making one of the city’s great spaces even more accessible to those who have mobility issues could be the one thing to improve an already beautiful city landmark. Union Station is for all of us. If we can update it to emphasize that truth, that would be a wonderful thing.