We obviously don’t really have any true underground rapid transit metro subway here in South Africa (unless you count the 15 km long underground stretch of the Gautrain network as one), meaning then that my first interaction with the Washington Metro and its now six lines, 91 stations, and 188 km of route, really did bring out a good and proper smile from me. What can I say, I enjoy experiencing transport engineering.
Engineering aside, an added bonus is definitely that many of the older Metro stations, designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, are an absolute visual delight to behold, a perfect example of late 20th century modern architecture with aspects of Brutalist design (thanks to the heavy use of exposed concrete and repetitive design motifs) mixed in with Washington’s de facto neoclassical architectural style through the stations’ imposing overarching coffered ceiling vaults. (Additionally, in an effort to lighten up these rather grey and stoic spaces, the metro stations themselves all tend to feature different art on the mezzanine levels above the fare machines, generally visible as you move to exit any station). It must be said that the stations have a pretty good signage system, seem to run pretty much on schedule, and pleasingly proved super easy to use – even for someone as navigationally challenged as myself!
One of the jewels of the system is the massive Washington Union Station, a major train station, transportation hub, and leisure destination all rolled into one. Opened in 1907, the incredibly busy Union Station is an intermodal facility, home to Amtrak and its rail network as well as servicing the MARC and VRE commuter rail services, the Washington Metro (which is how I ended up there), the DC Streetcar, intercity bus lines, and the local Metrobus busses. It is worth noting that it was only in 1988 that a headhouse wing was added and the original station renovated for use as a shopping mall, thus giving the station its current and very distinctive form. So, given its prime location as an intersection of so many travel options it is no wonder then that Union Station ranks as one of the United States’ busiest rail facilities and shopping destinations – with over 40 million visitors per year!
Due to Union Station’s proximity to the United States Capitol (just five blocks away), architects Daniel H. Burnham and Pierce Anderson worked hard to make this station a massive grandiose architectural triumph, incorporating an incredible array of neoclassical and Beaux-Arts style influenced elements to bring their vision to life – from the triumphal arch entrance, the 26 interior centurions looking down upon you, the six colossal exterior statues by Louis St. Gaudens (modeled on the Dacian prisoners of the Arch of Constantine), to the great vaulted spaces such as those of the Baths of Diocletian, as well as of course the inclusion of expensive materials such as marble, gold leaf, and white granite in the finishing.
Fronted by the Columbus Circle plaza and its impressive fountain, the Washington Union Station with all its architecture, commerce, and people truly is a spectacle to behold – even if done while sitting down and munching on something as mundane as a food court Johnny Rockets burger. Sigh, stupid South African Rand to the US Dollar exchange rate!
Side Note: There are so many historically rich places to see in the heart of Washington DC that I really was forced to pick and choose which I could experience given my limited time there. So despite being right next door to Union Station and within literal touching distance, I sadly just didn’t have the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. Worth noting if you are somewhat of a philatelist and ever find yourself in the area.