Tacoma Union Station, Tacoma, WA
Location: 1717 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402
The U.S. Courthouse at Union Station is a highly successful adaptive use of a Tacoma landmark. Tacoma's reputation as the "City of Destiny" began when it was chosen by the Northern Pacific Company in 1873 as the western terminus of the northern route of the transcontinental railroad, then under construction. The city became a center for industrial and commercial development. Its economy expanded rapidly over the next two decades, and its population skyrocketed from just under 2,000 in 1873 to 37,714 in 1890.
The city's first rail station was built in 1883, then moved to the site of the present Union Station on Pacific Avenue and enlarged in 1892. In 1906 the architectural firm of Reed and Stem was selected to design a new station more befitting Tacoma's image as a prosperous, thriving metropolis and railway terminus of the Northwest.
Construction of Union Station began in 1909 and was completed in May 1911. Acclaim for Reed and Stem's design was immediate. The Tacoma Daily Ledger praised it as "the largest, the most modern and in all ways the most beautiful and best equipped passenger station in the Pacific Northwest."
Despite optimistic forecasts by the railroad companies early in the century, the future would not be kind to the passenger rail industry. Railway rider ship peaked in the 1930s and again during World War II, then quickly declined as the automobile became America's preferred mode of transportation. In 1971 national passenger rail service merged into Amtrak. The Tacoma offices relocated to Seattle. The last passenger train left Union Station on June 14, 1984, and the abandoned building soon fell into disrepair.
In 1987 Congress authorized the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to lease Union Station for thirty-five years to provide space for the federal courts. After three years of work, the historic building was completely renovated and restored, and a three-story addition was constructed. The federal courts began occupancy in 1992. Today, though it no longer serves its original function, Union Station is once again a source of pride to the people of Tacoma.
Tacoma Union Station is a magnificent example of Beaux-Arts architecture that combines awe-inspiring elegance with spatial efficiency. The architects Reed and Stem were already well known in the field of railroad station design, particularly for their organization of space and movement. At the same time Union Station was under construction, they were collaborating with two other architects to design a world-renowned Beaux-Arts masterpiece—New York City's Grand Central Terminal (1903-1913).
The building's focal point is its ninety-foot-high central dome, which stands out in the Tacoma skyline and has become one of the enduring emblems of the city. Clad in gleaming copper and adorned with four large cartouches, the dome rests on a central pavilion with large arched openings on each side. Flat-roofed symmetrical wings flank the pavilion to the north and south. The exterior of the reinforced-concrete building is faced with multicolored red brick set in a Flemish-bond pattern, with limestone base and ornamental detail. The entrance doors, of stained oak with bronze hardware, are recessed within the arch on the west elevation. A large window fills the arch above the doors.
The dome creates an impressive rotunda in the building's interior, which is visited by up to 300 people a day during the summer season. Shortly after the building's completion in 1911, the dome's skylight began to leak, causing serious problems during the heavy rains regularly experienced in the Northwest. The skylight was eventually covered over, but the leakage—and the structural and cosmetic damage it caused—continued, growing more severe in the decades that followed. Concerns over falling plaster ultimately prompted officials to close the rotunda to the public in the early 1980s. It remained closed until the building was renovated in the early 1990s for its new use as a federal courthouse. At that time, 40,000 pounds of new copper were brought in to re-cover the dome; holes in its plaster interior, as large as eight feet square in size, were painstakingly repaired, and the skylight was reopened.
Today, natural light once again streams into the rotunda, which houses a stunning collection of glass art by renowned Tacoma artist Dale Chihuly. Suspended from the center of the domed ceiling is one of Chihuly's most breathtaking pieces, a 20-foot chandelier consisting of over 2,700 multi-colored, balloon-like glass globes. The rotunda also retains several historically significant features, including a large clock, marble water fountains, and wooden benches.
Most of the railroad tracks and platforms and part of the original concourse were removed during the rehabilitation for the federal courts. A simple, three-story addition, designed by Tacoma architects Merrit Pardini in collaboration with the Seattle firm of Bassetti Norton Metler Rekevics was completed in 1992. The sympathetic addition is located to the north and east of the original building. The two buildings are separated by a courtyard but linked by an interior connector, which extends from the east side of the rotunda.
Ten courtrooms were needed for the federal courts. Two were created within the north and south wings of the 1911 building, while the addition provided eight more. All the courtrooms offer state-of-the-art technology, and are designed so that each can be used, inter-changeably, for District, Bankruptcy, or Magistrate proceedings.
Union Station was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Six years later, a seven-block area surrounding the station, known as the Union Station Warehouse District, was added to the National Register. The renovation and the addition have received several preservation awards.
- 1883: Tacoma's first rail station is built.
- 1892: As railroad use increases, the station is moved to the Pacific Avenue site, and enlarged.
- 1909-1911: Union Station is constructed on the site of the 1892 station.
- 1940s-1960s: As the automobile becomes increasingly popular, the passenger rail industry begins a prolonged decline.
- 1974: Union Station is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
- 1980: The seven-block area surrounding Union Station is designated a historic district and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
- 1984: The last passenger train departs from Union Station and the building is abandoned.
- 1987: The U.S. General Services Administration, with Congressional authorization, arranges a 35-year lease of the building from the city of Tacoma.
- 1990-1992: Union Station is rehabilitated and converted for use as a courthouse. An addition provides more space for use by the courts.
- Architects: Reed and Stem
- Renovation and Restoration: Merritt Pardini in association with TRA (The Richardson Associates)
- Courthouse Addition: Merritt Pardini and Bassetti Norton Metler Rekevics
- Architectural Style: Beaux-Arts
- Construction Dates: 1909-1911; Courthouse addition: 1992
- GSA Building Number: WA7587ZZ
- Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places; contributing building in the Union Depot-Warehouse Historic District
- Primary Materials: Brick and concrete with copper roof and limestone trim
- Prominent Features: Ninety-foot copper dome and interior rotunda; Glass art displays by Tacoma native Dale Chihuly