“TEMPLES TO A FORGOTTEN RELIGION: THE AMERICAN RAILWAY DEPOT”
National Railroad Historical Society Bulletin, Fall 2010
4-43, ~10,000 words
It is natural that the railroads would reserve their grandest architectural creations for the establishment of urban depots. Large cities required large structures, and here the railroad was free to create expressions of power that befit the egos of their masters. As a prototype for these depots, the railroad corporations chose a very auspicious secular Renaissance structure: the Italian town hall, seat of the original era’s corporeal power. As fine an example as any is Portland, Oregon’s Union Station, opened in 1896. Architectural historians Thomas Vaughan and George McMath note the explicit references:
…the molded brick and stucco treatment is reminiscent of Milan, and the city wall towers of north Italian towns; or perhaps, the palazzo treatment of medieval Bologna, where even now one finds similar brick construction, over-hanging tile roofs and small balconies.10
As Venturi et al note, “the iconography of Renaissance architecture… is literally based on the Roman, Classical vocabulary, [and] was to be an instrument for the rebirth of classical civilization….”11 By aping the forms of Renaissance government buildings, there was more than a little ego displayed by the railroads. The urban business elite who ran the affairs of most metropolitan areas—and the railroads that they owned—were making a clear statement that they were the new Medici, and that it was they who held the reigns of power in this new industrial age. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and as Venturi et al noted, “revolutionary eras are given to… symbolism and to the propagandistic use of architecture to promote revolutionary aims.”12
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in many cities—Portland included—the mock Renaissance town-hall railroad depot was larger than the actual city hall. Sometimes, the implied threat to the governance fabric was higher: in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the Union Pacific’s magnificent Romanesque depot (1889) stands at one end of the city’s main street, facing the capitol building at the other, with the street dead-ending at both structures.13 That this arrangement was accidental is highly improbable. Later structures such as Chicago’s Union Station (begun in 1913 but not completed until 1925) or New York’s Pennsylvania Station (1910) exaggerated this disparity further. Where Portland’s or Cheyenne’s depots were larger than their respective city halls, in Chicago and New York the station waiting rooms were larger than most government buildings. Tellingly, both of these larger structures were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad, a company that described itself in global terms as the “standard railroad of the world.”
Yet, despite the raw service of power that they were built to serve, the depot retained a certain religiosity, a sacred charm. Some of this is no doubt attributable to the unprecedented nature of the railroad’s capabilities. Beyond the portals of the depot, each railroad corporation offered access to a privileged space with the power to work miracles, to defeat time and space. Through the railroad space—that space that existed beyond the entry doors of the nearest depot—businessmen could expand markets, travelers could be swept from shore to shore, and the world went by in a blur. The precision of the movement was awe inspiring; as writer Warren James Belasco notes, “arriving exactly on time—say 7:13—on some “crack” intercity express, was taken as a sign of American technological mastery over bad weather, personal vagaries, and hard terrain.”14 And just as with spiritual power, taking advantage of the railroad’s power required submission, only in the case of the railroad the submission was to the timetable and station agent rather than to Holy Scripture and a priest.
This effect was all the more profound in the vast urban depots, the great temples to the power of modernity. As the railroad era of the nineteenth-century waxed on, depots grew in size and sported steeples, temple-fronts, goddess statues, and waiting rooms that resembled worshipping spaces. G.K. Chesterton, critic and author, noted the religious quality of these depots:
…a railway station has much of the quietude and consolation of a cathedral. It has many of the characteristics of a great ecclesiastical building; it has vast arches, void spaces, coloured lights, and, above all, it has recurrence or ritual. It is dedicated to the celebration of water and fire, the two prime elements of all human ceremonial. Lastly, a station resembles the old religions rather than the new religions in this point, that people go to it.15
The poet Langston Hughes described New York City’s Pennsylvania Station as “a vast basilica of old” where the search was “ever for a dream of God….”16 The religiously inspired architectural trend would last; the main waiting hall of last incarnation of Omaha’s Union Passenger Terminal, erected in 1931, is one such example. Inside the vast chambered space is a holy kind of darkness, with incense-thurible chandeliers hanging from the rafters and benches like church pews. But it is more than the accoutrements that speak of sacredness; the building itself, vast, sturdy to the point of being overbuilt, is an article of faith. Those who built these monuments of self-aggrandizement believed that what they were building was the beginning of centuries of civilization. They did not yet know that the very economy they had been midwife to—the global, networked economy—would one day be their ruin. And so the hubris of these profane and earthly structures took on an accidental taste of divinity.