By Kevin Collison
Union Station, whose $234 million restoration a quarter century ago was a metropolitan labor of love, has been named one of the 37 most beautiful train stations in the world by Architectural Digest, a respected international publication.
“I think that’s incredible,” said Steve Rose, who co-chaired the successful bi-state sales tax campaign in 1996.
“When I think back to when we first toured Union Station, its ceilings were black, ice had ruined a lot of the building and some people wanted to bulldoze it. That’s quite a designation and I’m proud of it.”
The station designed by renowned Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt opened in 1914 to great public acclaim and had its heyday during the mid-20th Century, particularly World War II, before beginning its decline along with the entire U.S. passenger train industry.
Union Station reached its low point in 1983 when the once magnificent lobby was closed and Amtrak erected a plastic bubble within it to serve as a waiting room to protect passengers from the leaky ceiling and falling plaster.
Then in 1996, a $1.4 million campaign co-chaired by Rose from Kansas and attorney Jack Craft from Missouri persuaded voters on both sides of the metro border to support its restoration.
It passed with 60 percent of the vote in Johnson County and 70 percent in Jackson. It also was approved in Clay and Platte counties. The bi-state sales tax raised $118 million with private donations and some federal help providing the rest.
“Union Station has proved to be all we’d hoped for with the campaign,” Craft said. “It really met all the expectations we’d hoped for.”
Andy Scott, former executive director of the Union Station Assistance Corporation, the entity that managed the restoration, said the building was fenced up, deteriorating and caught in a lawsuit over a failed previous redevelopment plan when he began.
“To hear about the Architectural Digest designation is such a wonderful thing,” he said.
“It’s like a dream come true to live up to what Jarvis Hunt created, it gives me chills. We tried to live up the quality, standards and beauty of the living room and front door he created for Kansas City.
“We were all part of a great team that loved something, a civic space that was crumbling and falling down.”
Rose also observed the renovation of Union Station sparked more reinvestment around it.
“The Union Station restoration was key to the revitalization of Midtown and the Crossroads,” he said. “Those areas came alive because Union Station came alive. It had a huge economic impact in that part of town.”
Union Station was one of nine stations in the U.S. making the Architectural Digest list. The others included two in New York City, Grand Central and the World Trade Center; and the stations in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle and Cincinnati.
The Architectural Digest article noted Union Station replaced an earlier station in the West Bottoms that was destroyed by a flood.
“Rail executives quickly decided to build a new train station, but on higher ground this time,” the citation stated.
“The result? Union Station, the brainchild of Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt, who took on the project in 1906. Eight years later, the new station opened to the public and was met with instant admiration.”
Since its resurrection in 1999, Union Station has become the most visual icon of Kansas City.
It regularly shows up on shots of the city during nationally televised sports events, it was the center of celebration for the Royals’ World Series and Chief’s Super Bowl wins, and hosts the annual concert and fireworks celebration Memorial Day weekend.
It also wowed the visiting delegation from the World Cup soccer competition that ultimately awarded games to Kansas City in 2026 and is expected to be the focal point of the NFL Draft event next year.
“It was the first place the World Cup people visited and they were blown away,” said George Guastello, president and CEO of Union Station.
“For people from Europe, these train stations are something special.”
After struggling during its early years, Union Station is now on solid financial ground hosting major exhibitions including the recent Auschwitz exhibit that attracted almost 400,000 visitors.
Millions more dollars, all privately raised, have continued to be reinvested in the building to keep it sparkling and well maintained. Union Station just completed a $200,000 project to provide new lighting on the building.
Guastello said the recognition by Architectural Digest was fitting.
“It’s like the Vogue for the industry,” he said. “We’ve been recognized in The New York Times, but this is special.
“It’s about art and people buy Architectural Digest for their home. We consider ourselves to be Kansas City’s home.”
Michael Tritt, Union Station chief marketing officer, also noted that Union Station’s identity as the “visual voice” of Kansas City distinguishes it from other train stations making the Architectural Digest list.
“There are a handful of historic stations in the U.S. listed and all are iconic,” he said.
“None have that drawing power when you look at a singular photo of a city and Union Station holds that spirit.”
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