Photo Series: The Construction of Union Station

(originally published 1/9/20)

When I was a kid growing up in Lawrence, Sundays were often spent riding in the back seat of some Chrysler product looking at construction sites. My dad was in the building materials business, mostly concrete blocks, and he loved to see buildings going up, whether they had his product or not. Not all, but most of them were big projects, because there was a lot of big building going on in Lawrence in the 1950s and 60s. All this is to explain my fascination with these photos of Union Station’s construction.

Old Union Station (left) during the 1903 flood

To begin, Union Station was built out of necessity, but not in haste, thanks to those involved. The necessity was caused by the 1903 Flood that covered the West Bottoms, killing livestock, ruining businesses, and tolling Union Depot’s death knell. The photo (left) looks south on Union Avenue, with the Depot partially underwater across from a row of commercial buildings.

There had been discussion and debate about the need for a new station – away from the West Bottoms – for at least a decade. It took a few more years for there to be consensus on the new location, the new facility and its new design. The discussion was not among those in the city, but rather among the major railroads that owned the rail and used the depot. The city was occasionally consulted, but mostly ignored. In the end the railroads that made all the decisions, including the choice of Chicago-based Jarvis Hunt as architect.

Union Station construction crew on site.

Construction started in late 1911, and was completed three years later. These photos, from the State Historical Society of Missouri’s website, document the project almost from first day to last. The project was more than the main terminal building that’s a local icon. An entire railroad operation was built, including the track system, the railway express buildings, and a Main Street viaduct over the tracks.

Panoramic view of the Union Station Construction site, looking south

There’s a lot to notice in these pictures. This two-panel panorama is a good example. I’m relying on the reader’s ability to zoom in to these photos for more details, but I’ll point out some things to look for. The panorama is facing south. One day, the grassy area that’s at the top, dead-center, will be the site of the Liberty Memorial. To the left of that will be Crown Center. If you can zoom in on the houses and other buildings on that hill , you’ll see this was not an idyllic view. Union Station became the anchor that would define this area even to this day.

A glimpse of OK Creek that ran at the bottom of the hills through today’s Crossroads district.

The footprint of the main terminal is just being laid in the photo to the right. In the lower left of the picture is a rock wall with a tunnel, with water at the bottom of that trench. This is a last view of OK Creek, a particularly tricky crossing for wagons headed west, driving up from the river landing toward Westport. The creek was eventually diverted and the creek bed buried by Union Station.

For a different perspective, the photo on the left faces north, and shows construction on the massive waiting room that led to the platforms and trains. The large brick building in the upper left corner is the National Biscuit Company. Zoom in to see a lot of the building details going north almost to the river.

Beneath the waiting room, the tracks ran east and west, and on either side of the long wing of the waiting room were the shed roofs over the tracks and the platforms where passengers boarded or exited the trains. But these were not the usual sheds. The iron canopy was a more functional version of the Beaux Arts design of the station itself.

The Beaux Arts style is more boldly evident in the interior views of the Grand Lobby under construction. Above, having finished much of the interior, the work begins on the beautiful marble floor. On the left we get a peek into the interior of the waiting room. On the right, the last of the scaffold needed for the detailed ceiling work still stands. Also note in the left a “ghost” image of a worker. Several of these interior shots were double exposed, causing these phantom images of someone – perhaps the same man – in similar coveralls.

These four images of the interior, taken for the architect, Jarvis Hunt (no doubt for use in a professional portfolio) really do show why Union Station brought pride to the city, and wonder to that first generation of travelers. Following clockwise, the photos show:

  • (Upper left) The Grand Lobby, looking at the east wall, with the ticket booth in the center, the high chandeliers and higher arches, and the entrances to the shops and restaurants around the walls.
  • (Upper right) The more formal side of the Fred Harvey Restaurant operation. The company also operated a diner in the station.
  • (Lower right) Rows of benches disappear into the distance along the walls of the large waiting room.
  • (Lower left) The women’s waiting room, distinct from another room (not shown) labeled “the women’s lounge,” neither of which is for the actual purpose of a “ladies’ room.”

There is much more to Union Station’s story, and I highly recommend two works to check out for those who are interested. One, of course, is 1999’s beautiful Union Station, by Jeffrey Spivak, the full-color quality treatment that the newspaper’s former Star Books division produced. The other is The City Beautiful Movement in Kansas City, by William H. Wilson, originally printed in 1964, then reprinted again in 1999 as part of Kansas City’s 105th anniversary. Two chapters are devoted to the station. “The Need for Rail Re-Planning” offers a great depiction of the behind-the-scenes wrangling to come up with a plan. “Jarvis Hunt and His Station,” covers the architectural project and the construction, and how Union Station did – and in some ways did not- fit in with the City Beautiful movement planning of the day.

The completed Union State, fall 1914

(Featured Photo: Union Station in the the midst of construction, October 30, 1912.)

A Note on Photos: The photo of Union Depot in the 1903 flood comes from the Missouri Valley Room Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.

The rest of the photos represent just a few of the 65 photos available at the State Historical Society’s website, where it is much easier to zoom in for all the great little details, to say nothing of admiring the quality of photography from years gone by.. Here’s the link for that site:

State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City (Union Station photos)

The photos are all from the Society’s George A. Fuller Company Photograph Collection. The Fuller Company was the construction firm on the Union Station project. The photograph collection includes images of other local projects including the original Federal Reserve Bank and the original Children’s Mercy Hospital.

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