Los Angeles

No Further West: The Design of Los Angeles Union Station

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There was a time when the heady romance of travel wasn't just felt in a certain destination, but it was also imbibed in the ways we got from point A to point B. In the first half of the twentieth century, railways stretched across Europe and America; ocean liners that competed with each other in elegance, glided across the Atlantic. The Getty's recently opened exhibition recaptures a bit of that Old World elegance.

Recently opened beneath the opulent ceilings and tasseled lamplights of the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library, "No Further West: The Story of Los Angeles Union Station" transports viewers to another place and time, when union stations (where one or more railways would share stations) became signs that a city "has arrived." Washington D.C.'s Union Station, New York City's Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal, and Kansas City, Missouri's Union Station were just a few whose civic buildings intended to project increasing political relevance.

"No Further West's" exhibition space | Photo: Carren Jao

Then viewed as a simple pueblo, Los Angeles wouldn't be content to stand behind. Civic leaders rallied to bring three transcontinental railroads -- the Southern Pacific Railroad, Santa Fe Railway, and Union Pacific Railroad -- all under one roof and furthermore, to create, a union station that would borrow from the famed Beaux-Arts style as well as the California's Mission heritage to design something uniquely Los Angeles. Building a Union Station would also arguably increase the safety of Angelenos by minimizing railroad tracks that met the regular roadways.

It would take nearly 30 years to plan and build the station, but its end product was a seamless mix of Mission Revival, Southwest, Spanish and Art Deco styles that could easily have been a misguided mess.

Los Angeles's Union Station wasn't the work of just one or two architects, but a conglomeration of architects with representatives from each of the railroads, and consulting architects John and Donald Parkinson, who already had several train station projects including those for Caliente, Nevada and Ogden, Utah, under their belt.

"Electric Sign Wall, East Wall, Passage, Section III" April 22, 1939 by Edward Warren Hoak | Photo: Carren Jao

Though the structure can be attributed to the Parkinsons, Edward Warren Hoak conceived many of the station's key design features. An artist and draftsman with an engineering background from California Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania, his freehand drawings and more, meticulous line drawings would become the foundation on which many decisions were made. "No Further West" is peppered with his beautiful work, showing plans for the Union Station tower, light fixtures, and information booths.

In one, Hoak captured the intended grandeur of the station's arrival and departure lobbies at the rear of the station, as well as the sense of anticipation from well-suited men in fedoras and frocked women making their way to and from their terminals. In another rendering, Hoak's precise hand sketched out the scroll-like Art Deco ornament that adorned each corner of the entryway to Mail, Baggage and Express areas. Hoak's hand seemed sure and certain, confident in the future potential of what he was designing.

Though Hoak's finally given credit in this exhibition, many more draftsmen and architects remain nameless. Almost all of the Getty Research Institute's 6,500 architectural drawings, sketches and blueprints were unsigned, were made anonymously by architects and draftsmen who worked for the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal Agency, the corporation comprising the three railroad companies involved in the venture.

"Alameda Street Elevation" detail shows handwritten notes in beautiful script. | Photo: Carren Jao

Handwritten notes remind viewers of the human hand in the process. | Photo: Carren Jao

It was an unknown draftsman that helped render the Union Station's 850-foot long façade, which we walk past every day on Alameda street. His deft hand showed a Union Station where the high-ceiling-ed concourse and clock tower could co-exist with the two-story buildings and arcades on either side. Clear lines depict the station's complex grillwork, crosshatching show where tiles might go. Small notes in elegant handwriting indicated the minutia involved in a large undertaking. Every note was a reminder that someone had labored with just pencil, paper and few tools over this meticulous plan.

In another, yet another nameless artisan, drew the inlaid compass medallion patterns that would eventually grace the floors of the Union Station. Interlocking lines, loops and basket weave patterns seem to dance in unfailing, repetitious harmony. It is a task now more easily done with computers, but there was none of that then.

Iconic architecture nowadays is often seen as a one-man or two-man undertaking, where a single source was the fountainhead of genius, but "No Further West" reminds viewers that design is a collective affair that borrows from the labor of many.

"Floor Study Design B," January 7, 1937 by an Unknown draftsman. | Photo: Carren Jao

"Floor Study Design B," shows the complexity of one design. | Photo: Carren Jao

Bronze ornaments in design and in reality. | Photo: Carren Jao

"Elevations, Traveler's Aid" August 20, 1937 by Edward Warren Hoak.  | Photo: Carren Jao

Watch our special on "Invisible Cities," the avant-garde opera performed at Union Station:

Read more about Union Station and "Invisible Cities:"

Invisible Cities: The Dematerialization of the Opera
Artistic director Yuval Sharon details his inspiration for "Invisible Cities," and the endless possibilities opened up by the use of headphones. The presence of wireless technology in the experimental work creates a new operatic experience -- and maybe even expands the definition of opera.

Invisible Cities: The Science of a Silent Opera
Sound designer Martin Gimenez explains the challenges of getting wireless technology to deliver the extraordinary sonic experience that befits the unconventional opera.

Invisible Cities: Composing an Opera for Headphones
In composing the music for "Invisible Cities," Christopher Cerrone created many levels of orchestral detail that would evoke the elaborate and fantastical places that Calvino imagines.

Invisible Cities: The Choreography of Union Station
Dancers in "Invisible Cities" execute an array of moves in Union Station that range from rigorous solos to improvisational and hip-hop-like explosions, to glacially slow stances.

Finding Space in the Inferno: Observations on Calvino's 'Invisible Cities'
Union Station is an ideal place to realize the opera "Invisible Cities," an adaptation of Italo Calvino's book about relationships between built environments and social and economic life.

More content on Union Station from KCET Departures:

A Los Angeles Primer: Union Station
All who pass through Union Station, Los Angeles' 1939 memorial to the heyday of passenger rail, must dream of a distant, glamorous, lost era of American train travel. Having passed the post-WWII decades as little more than a curiosity, how has Union Station managed to regain its relevance?

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Top Image: "Alameda Street Elevation" July 21, 1936 by an unknown draftsman. | Photo: Carren Jao

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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