Wichita’s Union Station: reinventing a downtown anchor

Historic pictures and a clock on the first floor of Union Station. Occidental Management hopes to fill it with restaurants, bars and offices. (Feb. 1, 2013)
Historic pictures and a clock on the first floor of Union Station. Occidental Management hopes to fill it with restaurants, bars and offices. (Feb. 1, 2013) File photo

A century ago, a massive railroad terminal was often the heartbeat of a grand city.

“Originally, these stations were a symbol of some of America’s greatest days,” said Steve Corp, executive vice president of the Great Plains Transportation Museum board. “The railroad was the transportation at one time. It was a time when America was just emerging as a world power, and we had a rail system that covered the continent.

“It was an honor to the city to have a Union Station built.”

But through the decades as passenger train service came and went, railroad depots across the nation – including in Wichita – faced a variety of fates. Some fell into disrepair or were demolished. Others have become major downtown anchors.

After sitting vacant since 2007, Wichita’s Union Station is about to get a makeover in what city officials hope will be a major step in redeveloping downtown.

Occidental Management will host a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday at 3 p.m. to mark the beginning of the station’s $54 million renovation and expansion. The project is expected to take up to 2 1/2 years to complete.

Developers plan to renovate the property’s four existing buildings and add 150,000 square feet with the expansion of one building and the addition of two more. The refurbished property at 701 E. Douglas is expected to contain a mix of retail, restaurant and office spaces.

A new station

The first train to roll through Wichita did so on May 16, 1872.

“The settlement of the West wouldn’t have been possible without railroads,” said Leo Oliva, Kansas and Santa Fe Trail historian and author. “There was a lot of competition among cities and towns to make sure railroads came to their town and helped make their image of a successful town complete.”

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Wichita was in need of a railroad station that could serve four passenger rail lines at once.

In 1910, three of the railroads agreed to elevate their tracks from Kellogg past Second Street in order to free up traffic on Douglas. They also agreed to construct an impressive station.

Louis S. Curtiss, a Kansas City architect, was selected to design the station. In his career, he would design more than 200 structures, including the Tarrant County Courthouse in Fort Worth.

Construction in Wichita began in 1913. Curtiss designed Wichita’s Union Station as a complex – almost a city within a city.

It was a place to get a haircut, shoes shined or grab snacks and elegant dinners. Tunnels ran under the tracks supplying the cavernous building with steam heat.

Union Station was where friends and strangers gathered, where mail arrived, where large clocks kept time and where residents first learned of national and international news.

“If you look at other cities and other Union Stations, most of them are not nearly as nice or as extensive as the one built here,” Corp said.

Corp said his first memory of Wichita’s Union Station was as a little boy. He would go there to meet his grandmothers when they would visit from Topeka.

“I was fascinated by the shoeshine guys as they worked on shoes,” said Corp, 69. “They’d snap their cloths in rhythm.

“The building also had big wooden benches in the waiting room, and there was a loudspeaker system that announced the trains. I’d walk with my dad up to the gate and meet my grandmothers as they got off the train.”

It was a treat for a boy to have a soft drink or candy bar from one of the snack bars in the station, he said.

“It was a pretty big event to go to Union Station,” Corp said. “We’d go down there to watch the trains.

“If you go to some other towns and see areas like our Union Station, some are hopeless, run-down buildings that are falling down.”

Wichita’s Union Station featured a Fred Harvey Dining Room – named for the producer of some of America’s first fast food – with a semicircular marble lunch counter and marble-topped tables.

The morning sun shined through blue stained-glass windows. The building boasted marble walls and ceilings and tile floors.

“It was a first-class operation when it was built,” Corp said. “In the 1920s, up to 48 trains a day went through. People came there to get on and off the train. While there, you could do business.

“And, of course, it was built with those big, high ceilings because it was a time when there wasn’t air conditioning, and the high ceilings made it cooler.

“It was an elegant building.”

One of the most historic events planned for Wichita’s Union Station never happened. On Sept. 26, 1919, 100,000 Kansans gathered to hear President Woodrow Wilson speak in Wichita about the League of Nations.

Cars lined up in front of the station to take Wilson to Wichita’s Forum, the forerunner of Century II, but he never left his presidential rail car. He had suffered a stroke in western Kansas.

In 1936, Wichitans welcomed President Franklin Roosevelt as they lined the route from Union Station to Lawrence Stadium, packing sidewalks along the way.

During World War I and World War II, Union Station served as a gateway for soldiers going to and returning from war.

New life

Since the 1980s, cities and towns have looked at ways to re-use the cavernous buildings that once served as community hubs.

Omaha’s Union Station, for example, once had 64 trains and 10,000 passengers pass through daily. Now, the 65,000-square-foot building serves as the Durham Western Heritage Museum, named after a major donor.

Union Station in St. Louis was once one of the world’s largest and busiest passenger rail terminals. Today, the 32-acre site features a hotel, shops, offices, restaurants and festivals.

Not every restored depot thrives as a public gathering place. Kansas City’s Union Station struggled through several re-uses before it became a hub for Science City and cultural events.

“These union stations developed, I think, so that each individual railroad didn’t have to have its own separate station,” said Fred Whitehead, a Kansas City railroad historian and writer. “We have to remember that railroads were really huge in the economy and culture for a long time.

“The airlines have all supplanted all that, but the old buildings remain as monuments to it all.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Union Station timeline

1910: The railroads agree to pay $2.5 million for construction of Union Station and elevated tracks at Kellogg, Douglas, First and Second.

July 29, 1912: Union Station groundbreaking.

March 7, 1914: Building is dedicated. Union Station is designed by Louis S. Curtiss in the Beaux Arts style. It is built to accommodate 20 trains an hour.

March 8, 1914: First ticket is sold to F.W. “Woody” Hockaday, local car and tire dealer and mapmaker.

Sept. 26, 1919: 100,000 Kansans gather downtown near Union Station to hear President Woodrow Wilson speak. But during the night, between Pueblo, Colo., and Wichita, Wilson suffers a partial stroke, and no one from Wichita sees him.

1920: A million train tickets are purchased.

1937: Fred Harvey Dining Room closes.

1962: Remodelers lower the ceiling and replace wooden benches with metal chairs with orange, blue and yellow cushions.

1969: Station closes for the first time for part of the night.

1975: Wichita Urban Renewal Agency purchases the station and adjoining Rock Island Depot.

1975-82: City and federal governments spend $4 million to preserve the station for new uses. The building sits empty.

December 1982: Multimedia Cablevision purchases Union Station.

2004: Union Station is placed on the Kansas and national registers of historic places.

February 2013: Occidental Management buys Union Station. Company plans $54 million redevelopment and expansion.

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