Union Depot project promises a return of elegance

Main lobby
Another view of the main lobby that gives some indication of what the Grand Concourse must have looked like.
MPR Photo/Tom Crann

By Rebecca Hoekstra

I was excited last week to hear that restoration of the St. Paul Union Depot is finally underway. Not just removing the barriers that have been up for decades and performing cosmetic changes, but an honest-to-goodness restoration that will preserve the integrity of the original architectural design and return the depot to its former elegance.

Looking at photos of the Grand Concourse carried me back to my childhood. My father worked for the railroad, and our family would take train trips to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone and other points in Montana and Washington state. These trips involved sleeping overnight on the train in private compartments -- where the bed actually folded down out of the wall -- and eating in dining cars with white tablecloths.

We looked forward to going to the Depot almost as much as we looked forward to the trip itself. It was my first exposure to a grand building.

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Walking up the stairs, my sisters and I would pretend it was our mansion. We'd enter the main lobby, with its huge marble columns and skylights, and right smack in the middle of the floor, before the ticket windows, was the steam engine, William Crooks. There was a black iron railing around it that prevented anyone from getting on the engine. It was great to stand on the first rail in your black patent leather shoes -- always worn when going on a train trip -- and get a closer look. Later, when the Depot was closed, my father oversaw the dismantling and moving of the William Crooks to the train museum in Duluth.

Walking through to the Grand Concourse, I would slow to a stop in awe, my head slowly tipping back to stare at the height of the ceiling with the painted patterns and windows, then slowly moving down to find the wagon train and steam-engine carvings that ran around the top of the walls. There were rows of wooden benches where everyone would sit and wait to hear their train announced. These announcements were made in a nasally, drawn-out, sing-song male voice that echoed off the walls. I can hear it again just looking at the picture.

Next to the arched doorways that would take us to our train were large wooden structures that resembled oversized grandfather clocks with the track and train numbers displayed. It was a big deal to walk through those doors and down the corridor to the train platform. My stomach would actually feel fluttery from the anticipation.

Down on the train platform, the ground would actually be vibrating from the power of the idling diesel engines, especially when they revved up for departure. I now realize, as I write this, that the experience may have played a role in my enjoying the sound of a good car engine and the power behind it. One more way the Depot has influenced me.

My life has been richer for those train-travel experiences in my childhood that started at the St. Paul Union Depot. My passion for beautiful old architecture started with the Depot. I love to travel, and will base my travel around seeing these elegant buildings. When possible, I book a train ride. Once again in our lives, this wonderful Depot can spark the imagination in children and lead them to realize dreams and passions that might otherwise have stayed hidden.


Rebecca Hoekstra, Wayzata, is a legal assistant and painter whose work is displayed in corporate offices and private collections.