#133 Union Station in St. Louis
Hotel Stay... Packed with History and Memories
For some time it has been my dream to spend a night in this hotel... the hotel, housed in what was once the largest and busiest train station in the world.
I first fell in love with this grand train station when I moved to St. Louis, in 1975. The gorgeous Indiana limestone beauty, was almost 80 years old then.
Changes Since 1975
Don and I visited the Grand Hall of Union Station two years ago. Before entering, we were greeted by a jovial doorman who had some good whistling talents.
We only had time to enjoy a cocktail in the lounge, beneath the 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling. I was in total awe as we sipped martinis and watched the glowing colors, gradually change above us. I could barely recognize the hall that I remembered from 1975.
Don and I were also in St. Louis in 2012. We had gathered with extended family at a nearby hotel after my mother's passing. I woke before dawn, the day before her funeral and walked down Market Street, staring up at the dark building.
Despite the sad occasion and chill, I found myself grinning at the sight. My mother had grown up in St. Louis and she visited this station often. It was mind boggling to imagine her here in the 1940's, when train travel was at its peak and the station handled 100,000 passengers daily. I so wish she had been with me to describe her memories.
My Own Travel Memories
That cold day, I wandered until the sun started to warm the clock tower, standing 280-feet high.
I walked past whipping flags and Christmas wreath covered windows and headed inside. In 1894, this building had held a hotel and Harvey House restaurant and huge waiting areas and ticket offices.
The Grand Hall
That December morning it was a stunning sight with all the red chairs and vintage lamps lined up. It looked nothing like the vacant hall I remembered from the seventies when only 3 trains came a day.
It was odd to remember being in the station in 1975, boarding a train with my siblings. But it was stranger to remember the time I met college classmates in the abandoned hall in 1977. Our group of students had met in the abandoned and echoing space, to discuss what we had learned from our urban exploration. As we exchanged info, we shared a picnic lunch with each other... and a homeless man.
This Past April
So, nearly 40 years after that picnic, Don and I entered the doors beneath the "Whispering Arch" and stepped up the stairs...
...into that glorious gold-leafed hall, with Romanesque arches and stained glass. The place was bustling with guests.
Travelers and tourists lounged in comfy chairs, while sounds of clinking glasses at the bar echoed with murmuring voices.
We headed towards the lobby desk and checked in with a very young woman.
She happily greeted and gave us cookies, but she was too young to get it. We didn't want to be in the new section of the hotel. "I automatically put people in the new part... the historic section is just, you know... creepy." We laughed, but insisted that we liked creepy. We got our key and headed past the most beautiful hallway to get to the elevator.
Stairs & Elevator
We found an old elevator. It was a delightfully cozy thing, shaped like a slice of pie.
But most of the time we took the spiral stairs, that wound around the elevator. We loved the entertaining glimpses of outside, through the skinny old windows!
The elevator took us to the third floor terrace, which opened onto the Grand Hall.
We were suddenly right up there with the arches, stained glass and painted columns... with a good view of the crowds below in the Grand Hall.
We had the option of climbing up one more flight, to enjoy an even more dramatic view!
The archway was mighty flashy, with art deco lighting and 2 fine statues with dangling lamps!
And if we stepped back to take it all in, we could look directly across and study the mirror image.
Don and I were going to do the whisper test between the 2 balconies, but ran out of time.
This is actually a photo taken at 7 in the morning.
The lounge was quiet then, but the stained glass was glowing.
As the photo shows, there was nothing creepy about the hall in the historic wing. We opened the door to our Will Rogers Room #326 and found nothing that resembled a haunted hotel.
There was a spacious entry with wood floors, a counter and closets. The guest room was sleek and fresh smelling, with soothing gray and brown tones.
I love a theme, but they didn't overdo! There were tasteful, black and white train prints on one wall and a red and black print, depicting the Frisco train, that was once named for Will Rogers.
The bathroom had some serious luxury, with a marble shower and glamorous lighting, but there was a bit of train humor... a sign reminded, "Please Do Not Flush When Train Is In Station"
Toasting in the Grand Hall
Don and I had martinis at the bar, in the train station that we both adore. We celebrated the fact we were staying in the city where we first met.
It added to the fun, having a bartender who was our age and also grew up in St. Louis. Unlike our desk clerk, Todd had an appreciation for the unique history.
There have been changes in hotel ownership since the big remodeling in the 1980's. But the most curious change in 2 years was the hourly show that took place on the vaulted ceiling in the evening.
We were a bit amused the first time we heard the train whistle blast on the hour. The lights dimmed and the crowds hushed, to watch a light show. Colors and shapes moved across the vaulted ceiling, while music filled the echoing space. A little corny maybe, but I was grinning like everyone else, as the animated displays of flying birds and swaying grass... and fireworks, entertained!
We hardly needed a show, when there was so much detail around us to absorb.
And after so many other visits, I finally had some time to enjoy the details. How I wish I had taken pictures of these beautiful arched windows, back when they were covered in soot and dust.
Just looking at doors was a treat! So many arches... long before the St. Louis Arch!
The door underneath the Restrooms sign, reminded me of peacock feathers. And the glass doors at the end of the Grand Hall were impressive enough... even without the surrounding gold trim and green tile.
Floors and Walls
I found myself taking pictures of corners! The tiny floor tiles were about the size of Chicklets.
The mosaic designs, reached the very edges of the wall, where green, glazed tile took over!
In the morning, I took a moment to sit on the empty couch at the top of the stairwell. The stained glass behind me showed 3 women in classical attire, representing the 3 main railroad terminals in the US. (San Fran, NY and St. Louis)
At the landing behind me, Don and I later had some fun with the Whispering Arch. We stood at opposite ends of the rainbow arch, each facing the wall. Then we conversed in barely a whisper. It works!
Coffee on Deck
We missed out on the hotel restaurant, but in the morning, we stood in line for Starbucks in the gift shop.
We found a nice terrace behind the bar that looked out on what would have once been the Train Shed... I guess. In the '80's it became a festive indoor mall and restaurant space. It's in transition now, with shops sadly closed. More changes coming.
I was captured by the spell of this oldie. I couldn't stop drooling over the past, whether remembering my own visits or wondering about those who crowded the waiting rooms long ago.
I was charmed. I also know there were gimmicks and tourists that added a little Disney-feel to the place, now and then. But I was delighted to ignore any of that. I just love the Grand Hall and our lovely room as well. So darn glad to have experienced it!
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My New Year's Resolution for 2014 was to start documenting some of the memorable overnights I've had in some very odd and curious motels and hotels. Like the adventures in my Dining Blog, I have learned to enjoy the surprises that happen when you step out of the comfort zone, far away from the well-known chains.
I began with a few entries recalling my very first home away from home memories from my youth. Then, I started sharing about some of the quirky and unforgettable motels, hotels and inns that my husband and I have discovered in recent years.
The best part about this challenge was making some lists with Don and getting on the road in search of new overnight adventures. I gave myself a 2-year goal to write up 90 stories and the goal was met. Now we just keep on adding!