Monday, October 1, 2007

Tuxedo Junction (what's your function?)

Perhaps I should just drop the Glenn Miller references on this blog, but I think it adds a bit of spice. I suppose with a name like Track Twenty-Nine, it was only a matter of time before I spoke to the terrible state of our nation's national rail system. I think I'll save that discussion for still later. But I can't help but think of how places like Baltimore's Penn Station (shown at left) must be "feelin' low, rockin' slow." Gone are the days of her namesake railroad; gone are the days when traveling by rail meant travelling in the lap of luxury. There's a certain aspect of loneliness behind that baux arts facade these days. Does the building mourn her lost sisters; orphaned by mergers and bankruptcies, killed by 'progress' and renewal?

In one sense, Penn Station came out of the post-war era in relatively good condition. Each day thousands of passengers still pass through her ornate halls, and countless trains still set off from beneath her aged canopies, yet there's a certain sense of sadness that permeates the lobby. This sadness seems to stem from what many believe is the beginning of the end. But has railroading in this country really reached the autumn, or dare I say, the winter of its life?

Just around the corner, Mount Royal Station, gem of the Baltimore and Ohio, still feels the rumble of trains as they pass through her airy trainshed, she still hears the clang of the streetcar as it passes behind her, but she no longer greets commuters and travellers each day. The sun still casts his orange glow on her tall clocktower, but it's little consolation to those old enough to remember her glory days. Still, it is better to be orphaned by the fallen flag of her father than to have been maimed in the name of a new America.

Mount Royal Station

A distant cousin stands many miles away from here. She is no longer recognizable as the beauty queen she once was. Her place on New York's 31st Street was as magnificent as any of America's Railroading terminals during the golden age of trains. Of course, real estate prices being what they are in Manhattan, the crown jewel of the Pennsylvania Railroad was torn down to make way for office construction. Trains still come and go here. Maimed beyond all recognition, millions of passengers still cross her platforms every year.

Perhaps saddest of all, though, are those cities who destroyed completely their stations. I find it hard to imagine a Chicago without its Union Station or a Boston without South Station; yet it was not hard for many mayors to envision their cities without the majesty and grandeur which they saw as representing the past. In a world where progress was every politician's middle name, these ornate palaces of urban design had to go. Atlanta is a city created by the railroads. Even its name is derived from the city's railroading past. Little can be seen today of that history. Although almost all passenger service into the Southeastern United States passed through the city, today nothing remains today of the city's two once-great terminals. No longer is there a "junction where the town folks meet" even though one can walk down Mitchell Street to this day and spot the remnants of Atlanta's hotel district. Steps away, one could have accessed one of the city's most ornate buildings. Designed by the firm that designed the fabulous Fox Theatre, Terminal Station stood as a monument to the grandeur of the Southern Railway. A few blocks away, Union Station served as a smaller monument to Atlanta's prominence as a railroad hub. It was, of course, not a true union station; it only served 4 of Atlanta's 7 railroads.

It is disheartening to see a city of Atlanta's size and importance to railroading with such a small amount of history remaining. Chattanooga managed to save the beautiful terminal station due, in large part, to the Glenn Miller song from which this blog's title is derived. In a similar vein, the train the City of New Orleans was resurrected from the dead because of the popularity of a Woody Guthrie hit of the same name. Of course, one would hope that America wouldn't have razed these fine buildings without reason. That is not, unfortunately, the case in Atlanta however.
Both the Terminal and Union Station were torn down in the early 1970s. The Terminal became the site of the new Federal Center, or as I like to call it, the Richard B. Russell Federal Cube. The non-descript building is, perhaps, one of the most forgettable structures in Atlanta. Of course, we needed cheap land on which to put all of those overworked federal employees, and since they aren't making any more of it, the Terminal went the way of Chicago's Grand Central Station.

Union Station wasn't so lucky. No one even bothered to build anything in place of the structure. Of course, we do have to have somewhere to park downtown; especially without the commuter service which used to feed into the stations.

Anyway, I hope that America has learned its lesson in regards to historic preservation. The gleaming future might have lots of potential for our society, but that is no excuse to destroy monuments to the past. For one, you never know when they might come in handy. I wonder how many of the millions of visitors to Washington's most beautiful point of entry realize how close Union Station came to being torn down. All I can say is that I'm thankful that preservationists managed to save this piece of history. Thanks to their efforts, its still a part of the present, and its one of Washington's most valuable landmarks (in terms of practicality).

Washington Union Station

Pictures of Atlanta's Union Station:
Pictures of Atlanta's Terminal Station:

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