Union Station, the white granite colossus erected 73 years ago as the imperial gateway to the nation's capital, smells of rot. In its abandoned corridors, toadstools grow on soggy maple floors and fetid rainwater drips from light bulbs long since gone dark. In the evacuated offices and hallways upstairs, roaches the size of mice and rats the size of telephones flit amid shards of peeled paint and puddles of mud.
Down on the first floor of what was built to be the greatest train station in the world, damage wrought by the leaky roof overhead appears less hideous. Yet, there is a disconcerting quiet, an inescapable sense of abandonment and decline.
At the station's front door, guarded by 25-ton statues of such railroad gods as fire and electricity, one of three Roman archways has been barricaded off just in case it collapses. oIts granite ceiling is cracked and stained a urine-yellow by leaking water. Behind the archway, in the cavernous main waiting room, the gilded ceiling is also peeling and stained by water.
Train passengers, their footfalls muffled by a water-and-grease stained carpet, have no choice but to trudge through the main waiting room and beyond into the concourse on their one-third mile walk to the trains. The concourse has no heat or air conditioning and it, too, leaks. Everything leaks. The men and women of the National Park Service, who run the station, grow depressed when rain falls because it brings even more damage and speeds the rot.
The official name of this dissipated hulk is the National Visitor Center. Twelve years ago, the United States Congress proclaimed that Union Station should be transformed into an oasis for visitors to Washington that would "inspire the visitor with an appreciation of his Government . . . and bring about a clearer understanding of [its] organization and operation." To this end, Congress has spent or committed itself to spend more than $117 million. "Let us spend some money for Mr. and Mrs. America," announced one House member.
Now the oasis is a slum; the inspirational vision, a nightmare. Standing less than a half-mile from the Capitol, Union Station is a dissolute symbol of big government gone mad. It cost the federal government more than $117 million to help destroy the station, and it may take another $90 million to fix it. For the Mr. and Mrs. America it was designed to edify, Union Station only supports dark suspicions that Congress and the federal bureaucracy are wasteful, inept and perhaps evil.
The Union Station debacle was caused and is perpetuated by members of Congress who deceived themselves and each other, who happily accepted a uniquely inane building contract, who stubbornly refused to reassess the visitor center plan in light of changing circumstances, who lacked the courage or insight to seriously question the promises of their colleagues and who now laugh at their leaky creation as though they were not responsible for it.
The debacle was also caused by scores of bureaucrats who blindly fought for their narrow self-interests, attacking and hating and paralyzing each other as they ignored the crumbling train station. The railroads, which own the station and Amtrak, which now uses it as the third busiest train terminal in the country, were also part of the petty, self-serving infighting which continues to this day.
"There's nothing very particular about what caused all this, except that it's gone on so goddamn long," said longtime Washington lawyer and power broker Charles A. Horsky, who, as an adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson, first got the federal government involved in Union Station in 1963. Congress and the bureaucracy have given Union Station nothing more and nothing less than 17 years of what, for lack of a better title, can be called the Regular Washington Treatment. The train station is a victim of this treatment and its story is a primer on the workings of the federal city.
Union Station, however, was not built to teach civics lessons by falling down. It was, for more than 50 years, a remarkably beautiful, functional and admired station that accommodated train passengers in comfort and in style. With rail ridership on the East Coast expected to nearly triple in the next 10 years, many people interested in passenger rail have spoken out against the bastardization of a train station that could well serve the public. E. M. Frimbo: 'It Is So Ugly.'
Foremost among those who decry the fall of Union Station is E. M. Frimbo, who is considered by railroad buffs, railroad executives and working railroad men to be the most authoritative railroad aficionado in the world.Frimbo rode a train to the station recently to give his views on what's happened to it and when he set foot in Washington he had completed a lifetime total of 2,610-207.2 miles of train riding. Frimbo, whose real name is Rogers E. M. Whitaker, is an editor and writer for The New Yorker magazine. He describes himself as aged, bent and curmudgeonly; his demeanor and speaking style are a sophisticated blend of W. C. Fields and Winston Churchill. Upon arrival here from his home in Manhattan, Frimbo was dressed in a blue seersucker sports jacket, white shirt, gray flannel trousers, black wingtips and a green necktie bearing the logo of the Festiniog Railway of Wales (of which he is a life member and engine driver). He wasted no time in assessing the station:
"Look at all this! It is a torture chamber! Look at all these temporary walls. Look at all this!" said Frimbo, as he began the long, circuitous 1,900-foot walk from the lower-level tracks to the building's front door.
Frimbo, who has ridden every inch of every passenger train line in the United States and has frequented every major train station in this country and most in the world, seemed testy after less than two minutes in the station. He began his long walk in a dreary passageway above the lower-level tracks, a corridor with scarred concrete floors, grime-smeared walls and filthy windows. The passageway led to what is called the "replacement train station," completed four years ago as part of The National Visitor Center project and located behind the original Union Station. The replacement station, built beneath a parking garage that thus far has cost $24 million and is only about 60 percent complete, has a low ceiling, waiting areas with plastic chairs and bright flourescent lighting.
Upon entering the replacement station, Frimbo explained: "It is so ugly. Everything about it is ugly. The station looks like a bad small town bus terminal. God, what a depressing place! With a few cosmetic changes this could be the waiting room of a big city hospital where the accident cases are brought in."
He pointed to the station's cafeteria-style restaurant, which has no chairs: "Why do people have to stand up to eat, for God's sake? This is not a penal camp. But coming here is like being punishsed; you have to walk all these miles to catch a cab. This station isn't where it belongs. It should be back where it used to be -- close to the street. In the old Union Station there was life, there was energy, there was constant motion and no confusion."
Walking out of the replacement station, Frimbo whirled to pronounce a final judgment: "What is this? This is one of the major train stations in the country in a capital city of the world. What kind of haphazard idiocy is this? For the train passenger this whole place has been turned into a sort of Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn. Where are the trains? Is all this necessary? The pathetic payoff from all of this is that people come up to me everytime I come here and ask where the trains are."
Frimbo strode through the dogleg passageway connecting the replacement station with the concourse of the old station. The concourse, a long, cylindrical building, is cut in half by a plywood partition painted red, white and blue. It echoes to the dull thud of train passengers tromping with their luggage over a carpeted wooden floor that inexplicably is elevated two feet over the original concourse floor.
Then Frimbo turned his jaundiced eye to the passing train passengers: "If I were from the Department of Interior [which runs the visitor center through its agency, the National Park Service, and has pleaded guilty to inflating the number of visitors there], I'd be sitting here counting as visitors the people thumping by into the train station out back to justify the decision to cremate this station."
Frimbo contemlated the carpeting: "This carpet is stained, threadbare and dirty. It is complete nonsense. A simple wooden or stone floor would be much better. Here in the concourse, the sounds used to be lively. There were people hurrying to the trains, there were the sounds of the trains themselves moving on the tracks. It was not like this. This is a funeral. There is decay here, isn't there? The carpet is dirty enough to send up a very unpleasant odor." Frimbo wrinkled his nose, then seemed lost in thought. Finally he said, "Someday historians will dig up this place. They will have to conclude that some terrible plague forced the people of this city to abandon the station."
Moving from the concourse towards the front door, Frimbo entered the main waiting room. His attention seized on the pit -- a vast, carpeted hole in the ground with a projection screen and two "Welcome to Washington" greetings in large golden letters. The pit once offered a slide show on the scenic wonders of Washington, but now it is dark and empty. "Look at this!" Frimbo barked. "This is the submarine base. The Navy brings its submarines here for repairs." It was nearly seven years ago when Frimbo first heard that Interior planned to dig a big hole in the main waiting room. "I was horrified," he recalled. Later, he came to see the pit for himself. "I saw people come in to the station and look at this bathtub where they used to sit in comfort and they would pathetically ask where the trains were." Interior officials say that to this day the most commonly asked question in the visitor center concerns the location of the trains.
The mutated train station seemed to provoke Frimbo beyond sarcasm, to black humor. He pointed past the looming pit to the east side of the waiting room. "Behind those columns over there was one of the great restaurants of Washington. Now what do they have over there -- porno movies?" Informed that the restaurant had been turned into the National Bookstore, Frimbo grunted. Seemingly surfeited with revulsion, he left the station for lunch.
After calming himself at a nearby restaurant with a "Fresh Fruit Extravaganza" and iced tea, Frimbo returned to give a sort of summation on Union Station: "This station is essential. But it has been made inadequate for people because they must walk long distances. The government has tried to make this place a monument, but it is a busy train station [with 2,525,480 passengers last year]. This decision was made by people who have no intention of using trains under any circumstances. It is my theory that this never would have happened had the members of Congress who created this National Visitor Center been riding trains, instead of airplanes." 'The Finest Railroad Station in the World'
The federal government's transmogrification of Union Station into a strange, leaky tomb was, according to Frimbo, "deliberate murder." But murder has little meaning without knowing who died. The tragic fall of Union Station can only be understood by knowing its past glory.
From its inception, Union Station was intended to be far more than just a place to catch a train. The construction of gargantuan train stations in cities like St. Louis and New York in the 1890s had taught railroad executives to think no small thoughts. But Washington wasn't St. Louis; it was the capital of "the greatest nation on earth" and its train station was to be the "finest railroad station in the world," according to its builder, the Baltimore & Ohio and the Pennsylvania Railroad.
At the turn of the century, Washington was in desperate need of a new train station. The existing two stations, one located in the middle of the Mall and the other about a block north of the Capitol, were crowded eyesores. Railroad tracks crisscrossed the city; trains sometimes mashed dogs, horses and pedestrians.
By 1901, the McMillan Commission had been created by the U.S. Senate to revive L'Enfant's long-neglected plan for a spacious, elegant capital city. A new train station, a "Union Station," was seized upon as the seminal building in the revival of Washington. Members of Congress, nearly all of whom then relied on train travel as they rely on air travel today, were solidly behind the idea, appropriating $3 million to help the railroads pay for the $21 million terminal.
The railroads, then among the most wealthy and powerful institutions in America, hired renowned Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham to design their station. Burnham designed a station reflecting the corporate attitude of the railroads and the spirit of the nation at the time: Strong, self-confident and self-righteous.
Burnham leaned on the precedent of imperial Rome. The station's central pavilion, supported by six Ionic columns, was modeled after the triumphal arch of Constantine. The main waiting room, a chamber itself larger than entire train stations in most cities, was inspired by the baths of Diocletian. Beyond the main waiting room, Burnham abandoned the classical precedent, opting for the power of size. The concourse, where passengers queued for their trains, was constructed as the largest room under a single roof in the world. At 760 feet in length it could accommodate the Washington Monument, with 100 feet to spare at each end. It was larger than all of Grand Central Station in New York and could hold the entire standing Army of the United States, which at the time numbered 64,170 soldiers.
Union Station was built to be awesome in general and luxurious in particular. The facade was constructed of white Bethel granite from Vermont, a stone previously used only for New England tombstones. Waiting-room benches were made of mahogany, as were all the doors and interior woodwork. The floors in offices in the east and west wings (some of which are now growing mushrooms) were laid with first-quality clear maple. In the men's room, there were vitreous procelain-lipped urinals placed between dividers of blue-veined Italian marble.
Because President James A. Garfield had been shot in 1881 in the old Baltimore & Potomac station on the Mall, Union Station was designed with a presidential suite on its east wing. The suite, the only such room in any train station in the world, permitted the president and various authorized potentates to wait for and board their trains without mixing with the masses. Hung with three crystal chandeliers and decorated with tapestries and gold leaf, the room was first used by President William Howard Taft who sat his 300-pound bulk in a chair specifically constructed for obese leaders.
The station was a self-contained city with its own electrical generating plant, steam generating plant, water towers, mortuary, bakery, butchery, ice house, nursery, bowling alley, turkish baths, swimming pool, basketball court, YMCA hotel, resident doctor, police station, liquor store, pharmacy, soda fountain, dry cleaners, public showers and a shop for resilvering the monogrammed silver serving dishes used in the restaurant. There was also a secret peephole used by law enforcement authorities to scan the main waiting room for fugitives and other furtive characters.
World War II, bringing crowds of 140,000 to 175,000 passengers a day to Washington, forced Union Station into its busiest years. More than 5,000 people were put to work running the station. James (Doc) Carter, now 61, went to work as a redcap on September 10, 1942. He remembers Christmas during the war years: "You talk about your mix of people, there were pocket-pickers and flim-flammers. People used to bribe me to put them in wheelchairs so they could get to the trains in front of the crowds.
"I knew people to be in the station for three days fighting for a seat on a train. I had an uncle, name of Landreaux Witherspoon, used to work down on the concourse cleaning up after the crowds and he found everything you can think of on the floor after those crowds cleared out. Women's underwear, money, false teeth. Oh good God, you couldn't get to the bathroom through those crowds. You can imagine what happened."
On Dec. 23, 1944, a wartime crowd of more than 220,000 people forced the station to close for the first time since 1907. Two years later, Sgt. George Timko, 23, of Perryopolis, Pa., a soldier who'd been wounded in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany, was trampled by a holiday crowd rushing for a train. His leg was broken. From a hospital bed in Arlington, Timko said he'd like to thank the civilian and two sailors "who finally stepped between me and the crowd and kept me from being trampled to death."
After the war and through the 1950s, passenger traffic at the station continued heavy. It survived the assault of a runaway train that smashed through the north wall of the concourse on January 15, 1953, demolishing the station master's office and plunging through the concourse floor into the basement baggage room. By the 50th anniversary of Union Station, 50,000 passengers a day used the station, 210 trains pulled in and out on the station's 38 tracks every 24 hours and regular employes numbered 4,100. President Dwight D. Eisenhower continued to use the Ferdinand Magellan, a specially designed private railroad car with armor plate that had been used by presidents for 16 years. But the station was covered with grime and advertisements. It had become tacky.
The decline of passenger train travel was catching up with Union Station. More and more travelers were driving and flying. In 1949, of the 44 billion miles traveled by Americans aboard trains and airplanes, trains had 80 percent of the mileage. By 1968, airlines had 88 percent of the mileage and less than 2 percent of the traveling public used trains.
The railroads that owned Union Station began sniffing disaster in the late 1950s and offered to give the station to the federal government in 1958. Five years later, growing nervous from paying property taxes of $355,000 a year and annual maintenance bills of nearly $1 million, the railroads floated a plan to level Union Staion, using the prime location at Delaware and Massachusetts avenues to erect an office building. The station that for more than half a century had been a symbol of the power and glory of railroads was now a liability, and the executives of the B&O and the Pennsylvania had no qualms about demolishing it. "The executives didn't have a sentimental bone in their body," said Shaw, who managed the station under orders from the railroads.
The Washington establishment, however, wasn't about to let the money-starved railroads raze a monumental building. Charles Horsky, special assistant to presidents Kennedy and Johnson for national capital affairs, persuaded the Smithsonian in 1963 to do a study on the cost of converting Union Station into a transportation museum. A year later, the train station was declared a national landmark, making it practically impossible for the railroads to tear it down. Without the option of building an office building, the railroads again became eager to drop the station in the lap of the federal government.
Coincidentally, the federal government, in the form of the National Park Service, had been hungering since 1954 for a fancy building where it could orient tourist to the scenic and educational wonders of Washington. The park service was frightened by a Stanford Research Institute study in 1961 that predicted a doubling in visitors to Washington in the next 20 years, from 15.4 million in 1960 to 35 million in 1980. (This prediction was wrong; the number of tourist in Washington was 26 million last year.) The park service was lured to Union Station by a consulting study done for downtown businessmen that, for the first time, formally proposed the train station as a "single piece of assembled property" for a visitor center.
The park service pressured the White House, which pressured the Congress, which in 1968 passed the National Visitor Center Act. That measure, in effect, gave the park service what it had wanted for two decades, a monumental building for tourists. It was to be a "truly emotional experience," according to George Hartzog, then director of the park service.
Union Station has, indeed, touched the emotions, though hardly as Hartzog had envisioned. For most of the 1970s, the granite behemoth on Massachusetts Avenue has been a profound embarrassment to Congress, the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, the National Park Service, Amtrak, the Department of Transportation and local business leaders. Officials who are not embarrassed are angry, and those who really don't care about Union Station seem to enjoy laughing at it. Invariably, critics of the train station make snide remarks about "that funny hole in the ground" which has come to be known as the pit.
The pit -- a gloomy orifice which the federal government officially christened the Primary Audio-Visual Experience (PAVE) -- is the result of architectural overkill, congressional meddling, bureaucratic back-stabbing, consultant envy, heavy-handed management and bad luck. If the Union Station story is a primer on how the federal city works, the real and complete facts of the pit must be its first chapter. To see Washington from the pit is to see the absurd underbelly of the nation's capital.
The federal government paid $1,563,360 for the pit. It has slide projectors that once showed 5,500 color slides of Washington and the scenic beauty of the United States in a 9 1/2 minute program called the "Welcome to Washington Presentation." The show ran continuously, and every time it ran, it cost the government $13.65. On July 4, 1976, the day the pit opened to the public, its slides refused to work right. The pit closed down on Oct. 28, 1978, after two years and five months of nasty reviews. The most common comments among those who saw the working pit-were: (1) Why look at pictures of Washington when you can walk out the door and see the real thing? Why does the pit have escalators?
The very word "pit" is loathsome to officials at the Department of Interior and the National Park Service. "A degrading remark," says Jack Fish, director of the national capital region of the park service, who prefers the acronym "PAVE." Interior and park service officials were so sensitive about the pejorative connotations of the word that outsiders have struggled to find another way to refer to the hole in the ground. In February 1978, before a House subcommittee, Transportation Secretary Brock Adams tried, and after much mumbling, failed to come up with a synonym. Adams said "pit" and his press secretary, seated nearby, flinched. "I told him not to say pit," the aide said.
The urge to make light of the pit has struck many members of Congress and the federal bureaucracy. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) asked during a 1978 hearing if the number of people going down in the pit equals those coming up. Wags, mostly bureaucratic enemies of the Department of Interior, have suggested the pit be converted to a disco, an oyster bar, a burial site for Smokey the Bear or a new National Aquarium (utilizing all the water that leaks through the train station roof). Others have suggested stocking the pit with hungry lions and casting in all the Washington decision makers who helped make the pit the architectural abortion that it is. Train station lovers around the country have nothing but hatred for the pit. Larry Batley, 65, who first entered Union Station when he was 5 says that when he saw the pit for the first time in 1976, he sat down beside it and cried.
Seymour Auerbach, a Washington architect who was the chief designer of the National Visitor Center for seven years, came up with the original idea of penetrating the terrazzo flooring in the main waiting room of Union Station. Auerbach said the pit concept grew out of a "profound concern on the part of everybody that the entire audio-visual exhibitry [in the visitor center] not offend the integrity of the architecture."
Auerbach, who has taken a lot of heatfor his creation, contends there is a world of difference between the pit that struck his fancy in the late 1960s and the hole in the ground that now graces Union Station.
"The pit was actually a communication system between the upper and lower levels [at the train station]. It was a good idea. It would have brought the whole damn thing together," said Auerbach. His plans had envisioned a visitor center on two levels. The basement level, where visitors would enter the center, was to have had two large theaters and various educational exhibits. The transition from the basement to the main floor of the center was to have been the pit. That explains the escalators. Auerbach's plans for a two-level visitor center were nixed in Machiavellian ways he never understood. He knew only that his concept was perverted. "The pit has been totally misused," Auerbach said.
Construction began on May 28, 1974, when a half-dozen jackhammers took to the floor. The jackhammers were briefly stalled when William Drumeller, project manager for the railroads that owned the station, called up his boss in Cleveland to find out for sure if the floor of the venerable building should be violated.
"They want to dig up the floor," said Drumeller, on the phone to John T. Collinson, then vice president of the Chessie System, which recently had absorbed the B&O railroad and was under contract to Interior to restore the station. "Can I let them go ahead?"
"If that's what they want to do, let 'em," Collinson said. And the pit began to emerge amid piles of rubble and clouds of construction dirt. The mess made it impossible for women to get to the restroom. Amtrak passengers were forced to take a long walk around the east end of the emerging pit. Amtrak, led by a pugnacious lawyer named Robert S. Medvecky, got mad and sued. "We were being screwed in so many ways by Interior, the only way to negotiate was to sue," Medvecky said.
By branding Union Station with a pit, Interior effectively scared off any bureaucratic rustling by agencies such as the Department of Transportation, which at the time thought it would be smarter to preserve Union Station as a working train station than to convert it to a visitor center. "Once you pit, it is very hard to unpit," said former DOT under secretary John Barnum. According to DOT and Amtrak, the pit was one of the strangest and most effective ploys ever used in a bureaucratic squabble in Washington. Interior denies any such accusations.
The lawsuit that Amtrak filed in the wake of the pit managed to topple the funding arrangement under which the railroads had borrowed money to restore Union Station and build a parking garage out back. Construction at the station stopped, leaving a large, incomplete and rather forbidding hole in the ground.
By the fall of 1974, the hole had been transmuted by the U.S. House of Representatives into an ominous weapon of debate. Kenneth J. Gray, the Democratic congressman from southern Illinios who had for seven years embraced the visitor center plan much as medieval popes embraced the crusades, took the pit to the House building and grounds subcommittee, which he chaired, and threatened his colleagues with it.
"Do we want to approve $12.9 million for a facilty Americans can be proud of. . .?" Gray asked, not mentioning that his $12.9-million request was on top of the $8.6 million he coaxed out of Congress in 1973 and on top of the $87.5 million in 1968. "Or do we want to spend $20 million to fill up a big hole?"
The pit, as wielded by Congressman Gray, was apparently intimidating enough to bully Congress into approving the $12.9 million. In less than eight days, both the Senate and the House passed authorizing legislation that Gray promised would take care of the pit and all of the visitor center. But Gray, who'd been to the House three times in seven years to plead for what he promised would be the final Union Station appropriation, did not get off the floor without having the pit turned against him.
Former Rep. H. R. Gross (R-Iowa), known and feared on Capitol Hill as the "Abominable No Man" for his resourceful opposition to virtually everthing, used the pit as a cudgel: "The gentleman from Illinois speaks of the hole in the ground that exists over in Union Station. Yet, it is quite a hole he has caused to be dug. I will say to the gentleman from Illinois, if I may have his attention, that there is one way to fill that hole and that is not to go to the taxpayers of the entire country, but fill it with the broken promises that have been made to Congress with respect to the financing. Or it can be filled with the paper the bureaucracy has used in connection with this project."
Gross proposed spending $100,000 to fill up the pit and to pull the federal government out of Union Station altogether. His plan was defeated, but Gross and the pit embarrassed Gray. For the future, Gross's condemnation of the pit helped sour Congress to any legislation concerning Union Station.
The pit went into the year 1975 as the "communication system" that architect Auerbach had planned. But in January, Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) strolled over to Union Station to check out the pit and he was not pleased with what he saw. Yates, who controls the purse strings for Interior as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on Interior and related agencies, held up the appropriation of the $12.9-million authorization that Gray had rammed down the throat of Congress three months earlier.
"It just seemed to me with all the money that had been poured into it, it was time to call a halt and take stock," said Yates, 70, a powerful man in Washington's world of federally subsidized culture. Since Gray retired in the same month that Yates held up the money, there was no crusader to take the matter to the full House. Two months later, Secretary of Interior Rogers C. B. Morton gave up on the funding "in the national economic interest." The pit was in trouble.
There was no money to build the basement level of the visitor center. The "communication system" had nothing to communicate with. The pit (make that PAVE) lovers at Interior were forced to retrench. Interior had to find some way of redesigning the hole in the ground to fit the budget and they came up with a sort of poor-man's pit. The first step was to get rid of the architect and slide-show designer who'd been working on the old, expensive pit for six years. The then-general manager of the visitor center sent a letter to Barry Howard, a slide-show designer from New York, saying we in the federal government "deeply appreciate all the splendid work" you've done for us, but you're fired. No one ever explained to Howard why. He'd never heard of Sidney Yates until a reporter called him recently. For five years, Howard has been hating the wrong man for the wrong reason.
Architect Auerbach was dispatched in an even more heavy-handed manner, and a substitute architect, Aram Mardirosian, was assigned to redesign the pit. Before he was given control of the pit, Mardirosian had been a consultant to Interior on the visitor center project, a position he had used for two years to advocate that Auerbach be fired. The two architects had grown to despise each other. The result of the firing was a complicated, continuing lawsuit between the two men that has spawned rancorous arguments in federal court and in architectural journals across the country over the right of architects to compete with each other.
Mardirosian was left to do what he thought cheapest to the pit. He wrote a letter ordering "a temporary wall to separate [the pit] area from the basement." The temporary wall, of course, has become permanent. The escalators, which had been intended to carry a constant flow of people from the basement level, were kept, it being more expensive to remove the escalators than to keep them and answer questions about why an architect in his right mind would put them there.
By the fall of 1975, architecture critics in Washington were calling the pit "barbaric nonsense." Hearing of this, Sidney Yates, the vigilant congressional pit watchdog, fired off a letter to the park service to make sure that the pit had indeed been pruned. The park service told him it had.
The pruned pit was opened to the public on the Fourth of July, 1976, as the nation observed its bicentennial. The slide projectors didn't work and most people in Union Station said that day they had no idea they'd stumbled across the grand opening of the visitor center.
No figures exist showing how many people actually entered the pit. Sidney Yates, by October of 1978, had grown weary of even the limited, modified, cut-rate pit he'd help create. He ordered a $2-million cut in the operating budget of the visitor center. The staff was trimmed from 55 to 15 and the pit was closed. Plywood barriers bearing the warning, "Do Not Enter -- Authorized Personnel Only," have been erected to keep people from wandering or falling into the dark pit.
Who's responsible for this fatuous production -- the great leaking train station, the long walk to the trains, the pit? The home of the villain can be seen by standing at the front door of Union Station, and looking through the granite arches at the U.S. Capitol, the home of Congress.