The City of Los Angeles is renowned for its abundance of early 20th-century architecture. The constellation of landmarks spans movie palaces and theaters of a bygone era found along Broadway; Beaux Arts buildings like PacMutual and the Millennium Biltmore Hotel by Pershing Square; and storied art deco structures such as the Los Angeles Central Library and the CalEdison building near Bunker Hill.
These examples of history preserved extend throughout the city and have become destinations in their own right. But in the city of stars, one star is shining brighter than her architectural peers—and for good reason.
Opened in 1939 to link the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, and Union Pacific railroad systems, Union Station, celebrated for its Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival, and art deco façade, is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. No longer solely a transit hub serving an estimated 100,000 passengers daily, it’s become a destination for year-round arts and cultural programming.
“We have put together a very robust program here at the station,” says Ken Pratt, deputy executive officer of Union Station Operations & Management. “It’s an announcement to the public, ‘Come to Union Station. Enjoy it. Come to know it and be introduced to Metro and mass transit.’”
The revitalization of Union Station, now in its 80th year of operation, was spurred in part by its 2011 purchase by Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The station had been underutilized for many years prior to Metro’s ownership, and the transportation agency saw an opportunity to transform the experience for passengers, utilizing the arts as a lynchpin.
“We’re not just doing art for art’s sake,” explains Maya Emsden, deputy executive officer for Art & Design at Metro. “It really is about drawing people to this space in innovative ways.”
Chief among the revolving displays of artwork at Union Station is the Photo Lightbox Series, whose thematic array of art illuminates the passageway between the east and west ends of the station. “We present a variety of programming in terms of formats,” says Heidi Zeller, who curates Metro Arts Presents. “It can be a slideshow, a music and dance experience, film screenings.”
Best of all, arts and cultural programs are free to the general public and take place monthly. “Experiences are what people are craving,” says Zeller, who notes the rising interest in downtown L.A., and how people want to experience art in unusual places—beyond the placid environment of a museum.
Passing through the Gold Line portal, which links East Los Angeles to Azusa, passengers can gaze upon the 55-foot-long glass mosaic depicting the Santa Monica sunset to the west and the San Bernardino Mountains to the east.
At Union Station East, an 80-foot-long mural rises overhead portraying the faces of L.A.’s earliest Native American inhabitants and settlers, to those of its present citizenry. Tiles on the floor below the mural serve as an homage to the founding of the city—El Pueblo de la Reyna de Los Angeles (the town of the Queen of the Angels)—in 1781.
And with a cache of dining options found throughout Union Station—including relative newcomer Imperial Western Brewing Co., which occupies the former Fred Harvey House—there is no shortage of quality food and drink available.
Union Station, the transit ambassador of Los Angeles, is a destination unto itself, and a crown jewel among the region’s cultural and architectural riches.
Images: Courtesy Los Angeles Union Station