It takes a brave visionary to make big things happen in big spaces. Bob O’Loughlin is doing just that with his renovation—or better yet, reinvention—of St. Louis Union Station.
First, some history about this National Historic Landmark: It was designed by German-born architect Theodore Link (1850-1923) with three distinct areas: the Headhouse, Midway and the Train Shed. Built of Indiana limestone, Union Station’s design was inspired by the fortifications of Carcassonne in France.
Union Station opened as the country’s largest, grandest terminal in 1894. The Headhouse originally included the hotel, ticketing and waiting areas, and the piece de resistance, ‘The Grand Hall.’ The Hall, initially executed by the Chicago firm of Healy & Millet, soars 65 feet above the tile floor and is accented with elaborate Romanesque arches in shimmering gold. Stained glass windows on the second level diffuse the sun’s rays in brilliant color. Link, who was fascinated with the new invention of electricity and the decorative uses it offered, first conceived three 4,500-pound, 20-foot-diameter iron chandeliers that would each hold 350 lamps. Only one was built and installed; and when the war effort needed iron, the fixture became scrap metal for the good of the country in 1942.
The Shed, when originally built, was the largest roof span in the world. It covered 42 tracks servicing 22 railroads; in its prime in the mid-1940s, Union Station was the world’s busiest train station, welcoming more than 100,000 passengers a day.
As we all know, Union Station fell on hard times, with last train pulling out of the terminal in 1978. In 1985, following a $150-million renovation, Union Station reopened with great success. The hotel was again receiving visitors, and the train shed housed shops galore for visitors and locals alike. But, once again, due to all sorts of circumstances, Union Station lost much of its appeal.
Enter hotelier Bob O’Loughlin and his team at Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM). Beginning in 2012, O’Loughlin took on the daunting task of transforming Union Station for the 21st century. The whole idea is to make the complex a more ‘experiential’ for people of all ages.
The Grand Hall will be taken back to a level surface sans the existing platform in the middle of the space originally installed in the ’80’s. A Starbucks will occupy what was originally the ladies’ lounge area on the east side, while the original men’s lounge will remain the hotel check-in. The existing bar is being removed and a more period-appropriate gathering spot will anchor the south wall.
One of the most exciting additions to this space will be the 3-D imaging shows in the works. Not to give away too much, but visitors will be able to sit in the Grand Hall and actually see a train fly through the air! No kidding! The east end of the building that once housed a comedy club now is being used as a space for themed events.
The Shed has been divided into two distinct levels: The top level will offer ‘mini-museums’ to whet guest’s appetites for what else is there to see beyond Union Station (think traveling exhibits from The Magic House, Saint Louis Science Center and Saint Louis Zoo). The lower level will house one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants, including a planned train-themed eatery in the old Houlihan’s space.
The new exhibition space has banquet capacity for 2,500 people and can house up to 140 booths for a convention. As for the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, O’Loughlin’s LHM team is busy refurbishing the 539 guest rooms, restoring elegance to the grand spaces—it is their expertise, after all!