The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Metro decision to paint Union Station vault rubs some the wrong way

A coat of white paint ignited a colorful discussion Wednesday among Metro riders, historians and transit enthusiasts, who pondered a fundamental question: should Metro’s iconic station vaults be painted or preserved in their concrete vastness?

A number of stations have been splashed in white over the years; most recently a stretch on the Eastern end of the Orange, Blue and Silver lines was repainted during SafeTrack surge 2 last year.

But earlier this week, transportation planner Matt Johnson pointed out Metro was also in the process of coating the Union Station vault in white — lumping Metro’s busiest station with at least five other underground stops that have been painted since 1992. The undertaking was met with swift condemnation not only in the Twitterverse, but also from a prominent Metro historian who documented the system’s design and creation. It also raised concern from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which approved the system’s original design. The commission did not take an official position, however, and riders at Union Station seemed to welcome the change.

Zachary M. Schrag, author of “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro,” said designer Harry Weese would have balked at seeing his architectural marvel awash in white, particularly a “historically significant” stop such as Union Station.

“I feel that he would be dismayed, “Schrag said in an interview Wednesday. “The raw concrete, which of course gave Brutalism its name, was a pretty significant feature.”

Metro “is breaking the cardinal rule of Brutalism by painting the vault at Union Station,” Johnson tweeted.

(Brutalism refers to a blocky, concrete-heavy and generally jarring form of architecture that emphasizes exposing the raw materials comprising the structure.)

In an email Wednesday, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel confirmed the station was indeed being painted, at a cost of $75,000 to $100,000. Under its Back2Good initiative, Metro seeks to wash, polish and scrub all of its 91 stations annually.

But Stessel said Union Station was getting a bit of special treatment to brighten the environment for customers at its busiest transit hub. Stessel said the fine arts commission was not involved in the decision, but pointed out that other stations — Farragut North, Archives, Stadium-Armory, Potomac Avenue and Capitol South — have been painted for years.

“Customers frequently comment about station lighting, asking Metro for brighter stations, which also helps them feel safer and more secure,” Stessel said. “While power washing was considered, years of dust, dirt, and grime coating the vault cannot effectively be cleaned and does little to move the needle when it comes to brightness.”

But that explanation was less than sufficient for historians and preservationists, who say Metro’s architecture should remain close to its original form, while conforming to modern standards of function and safety.

“I would wish that the authority would think of themselves as the custodians of a great work of modern architecture,” Schrag said.

Arguments against painting Metro stations aren’t new. Back in 1992, when Farragut North was given a $15,000 paint job, Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey scolded the agency for what he saw as the “aesthetic damage” of painting the vaults. ($15,000 was the cost of materials in 1992, and the material cost for today’s job has doubled to $30,000.)

“With the technology, materials and expertise available today, solving problems by painting over them is out of date, not to say flat-out stupid,” Forgey wrote then.

Farragut North the Underground Bungle by fsiddiqui2011 on Scribd

Thomas Luebke, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, said Metro’s decision to paint the vaults raises issues, but no official review has been undertaken.

“There’d be some concern about painting over the essential concrete form of the vaults,” he said. In general, he said leaving the concrete unfinished would be consistent with Brutalist principles.

Stessel said Union Station is the only stop being painted and Metro will decide whether to paint others after the work is completed. He said the station will receive three coats of paint — two primers and one final coat — so what riders are seeing today is not the finished job.

That didn’t stop them from marveling at the work being done Wednesday.

Lesley Kirby had to look twice at the station walls before boarding her Glenmont-bound train to Northeast Washington on Wednesday.

“I’m undecided,” she said. “I think that renovating old buildings while preserving their historical integrity is okay. Painting gives it a fresh face and will give it more appeal to tourists.”

Still, she said, whether Metro is compromising the historical integrity of the stations depends on how much legwork they did to consult with preservationists, and conform to the original design principles.

Another rider, Penelope Saltzman, 58, of Northwest, said the station was noticeably brighter, and she welcomed it.

“I can live with Brutalist architecture, but to me the light is more important than preserving it,” she said.

Edgar Rodriguez, 34, also of Northwest, strongly endorsed the change, saying the station looked “more modern.”

Of the unpainted wall, he remarked: “Was it originally supposed to look old and grimy?”

On social media, some said the beleaguered agency had more pressing issues to tackle, wondering why a cash-strapped and safety-challenged agency should worry about paltry considerations like concrete and paint. Others gave colorful assessments.

Said one Twitter user: “maybe it’s a promotion for the next Star Wars movie? now it looks like the hallway of the millennium falcon.”

Schrag said the system’s original designers used great care in determining the aesthetic of the capital’s subway system. He said Metro should have exercised similar discretion, or explore other ways of brightening stations, such as adjusting the angling of the lights.

“Obviously painting is not demolition but it is irreversible, and in that sense it really deserves greater consideration,” Schrag said.

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