The Main Hall of Washington’s Union Station

Grand Entrance

Washington’s Union Station

During a recent walk through Washington’s Union Station, the 96-foot ceiling of the Main Hall fairly gleamed. The ornately coffered plaster surface, now punctuated by 23-carat gold accents, has been restored to its original glory as part of a full-scale renovation. The effect is awe-inspiring.

Designed by Daniel Burnham in 1907 and previously renovated in the 1980s, Union Station was due for a facelift when a 5.8-magnitude earthquake damaged its ceiling in 2011. The Union Station Redevelopment Corporation (USRC), which manages the federally owned property, spearheaded the repairs. The first stage: refurbishing the Main Hall and ensuring its structural safety while keeping the station operational. “The process took three and a half years,” says USRC’s CEO Beverley Swaim-Staley. A rolling scaffold enabled workers to take on the mammoth project in sections.

The ceiling now conceals a seismically sound steel framework that anchors the coffers. “Threading the steel structure and new ductwork, heating and air-conditioning systems into that narrow space was a challenge,” says Swaim-Staley. A net at ceiling level caught falling plaster while the renovation progressed.

A grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation covered the work of ornamental plasterers Hayles & Howe, and the application by The Gilders’ Studio of more than 120,000 sheets of gold leaf. “The ceiling now has 75 to 100 years of life,“ Swaim-Staley says. “This was quite a feat of engineering.”

ARCHITECT OF RECORD: John Bowie Associates, Wallingford, Pennsylvania. STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: McMullan & Associates, Inc., Reston, Virginia. DEVELOPER: Union Station Investco, Washington, DC. PHOTOGRAPHY: Colin Winterbottom.