Houston Union Station: The Great Hall Revealed

Houston Union Station:
The Great Hall Revealed

by Tom Marsh

Copyright © 1999
Gulf Coast Chapter NRHS Inc.
Photos by the author unless noted.

The Astros Daily is grateful to Mr. Tom Marsh who has graciously allowed us to include this article in our history section.
The original article can be viewed at http://www.kingswayrc.com/gcst/union/union.htm.

For some 30 years, false ceilings and partitions hid Houston Union Station’s Great Hall. Now, as part of the station’s renovation as the main entrance to Enron Field, new home of Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros, the Great Hall is being renovated. The false ceilings and walls are gone, revealing a remarkable public space.

By special arrangement with the Houston Astros and the Harris County Houston Sports Authority (HCHSA), Gulf Coast Chapter-NRHS members toured the new ballpark and Union Station on Friday, July 9. The tour, which was open to members only, was announced at the June membership meeting. The short-notice timing was necessary because the Union Station portion of the tour had to be scheduled for the period between the end of asbestos abatement and the start of major renovation work.

Houston Union Station in the 1960s before the Great Hall was closed and false ceilings and partitions installed.
(Houston Belt & Terminal photo)

Union Station’s rebirth as the main entrance to Enron Field technically is a renovation and not a restoration. The station is being adapted for a new use, and while the HCHSA and the project’s architects are working along Texas Historical Commission guidelines for adaptive re-use of historical structures, they are under no obligation to follow the most restrictive of the guidelines as the building never managed to attain any type of protected status as a historical landmark. The most noticeable impact of this lack of protection is in Union Station’s upper floor offices, which have been completely gutted for remodeling. In addition, the roof will feature a "party deck" overlooking the field, something the station's original architects surely never envisioned.

Enron Field rises where Union Station's tracks once lay. Home plate is at the lower left hand cormer of the photo. The top right floor in the building will be the Astros owner's office. Immediately above on the roof will be a party deck, which will be available for rent to the public.

The tour was led by the helpful and informative Jerry Dinkins, owners’ representative on the construction project. Before entering the station itself, Mr. Dinkins directed us to various levels of the new ballpark, giving the group a feel for the sight lines of the field from various parts of the new stands. Comparisons with the Astrodome will be inevitable, and we will leave most to the local media. Suffice it to say here that most of the patrons at the new park will at least be closer to the action than they are at the Astrodome. However, among the reasons the Astrodome was built are mosquitoes, heat and humidity, and only time will tell how many local baseball fans really want outdoor play over air conditioning. When the new facility’s retractable roof is open, fans will have a nice view of Union Station’s upper floors and downtown. It will be interesting to see how often the new ballpark’s roof is actually opened for games; even Mr. Dinkins, an energetic proponent of open-air baseball, admits that the first season will be something of an experiment.

The riveted open-air concourse has been removed and is stored for possible later use in another location. The area between Union Station and the new ballpark will be connected by a new, mostly glass addition.

After viewing the construction progress from the stands, the group hiked through the project to the front of Union Station for the main event, a tour of the recently-revealed Great Hall.

Shorn of its false ceiling and walls, Union Station's waiting room is an elegant space featuring fluted columns and arched roof supports of two sizes that lend the space a visual tension. At one end, a balcony overlooks the Great Hall from the upper floor offices. While not of a size to impart the awe of New York's Grand Central Terminal or Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, the Great Hall does bespeak of the importance its builders put on their new construct in the growing city.

Gulf Coast Chapter NRHS members in the Great Hall.

In the first years of the 20th century, railroads became Houston’s most important industry. In 1903, railroad baron Col. B.F. Yoakum set out to build his so-called “Crow Foot” system, which eventually linked Houston with the Rio Grande Valley, North Texas and New Orleans. In 1905, in alliance with the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF), Yoakum established the Houston Belt & Terminal Railway (HB&T) to provide his railroads and the GC&SF with passenger and freight facilities in the city. Union Station was the culmination of that effort.

Designed by the firm of Warren & Wetmore, which also participated in the design of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Houston Union Station opened March 1, 1911. The $5 million dollar terminal was typical of the period, a combination of efficiency and elegance. Extensive office space was added in 1912 in the form of two additional floors, completing the structure that stands to this day.

The largest railroad passenger terminal in the Southwest, Union Station was built as a stub-end facility, denoting the city’s importance as a place where trains originated and terminated rather than just passed through. Some of the nation’s finest trains could be found alongside Union Station’s platforms, trains with famous names like Ranger, Texas Chief, Sam Houston Zephyr, Texas Eagle, Twin Star Rocket, and California Special. The interurban stopped at Union Station and the terminal hosted both the original Freedom Train of the 1940s and its later Bicentennial incarnation in the 1970s. The famed Flying Scotsman from the United Kingdom called at Houston Union Station on its 1969 tour.

Great Hall column detail

HB&T’s Timetable No. 3, effective March 10, 1940, gives a snapshot of operations at Union Station. The timetable lists 32 daily arrivals and departures operated by the owning railroads: International-Great Northern, 10 trains daily; GC&SF, eight trains daily; Gulf Coast Lines, eight trains daily; and Burlington-Rock Island, six trains daily. The number of departures declined after World War II as Americans took to their automobiles and airliners. The last regularly scheduled departure, Amtrak’s Lone Star, pulled out of Houston Union Station on July 31, 1974, after which the city’s rail passenger service, down to two trains, was consolidated across town at the T&NO depot.

Union Station, an important part of Houston’s heritage, became to many people just an aging office building in an unattractive part of downtown. Now, construction of the new ballpark gives the historic structure a new lease on life.

Gulf Coast Chapter-NRHS thanks Patricia Ekstrum and Lisa Barner of HCHSA and Jerry Dinkins of Schindewolf & Associates for their help and participation in our tour of Union Station at Enron Field.

Houston Union Station's Great Hall

Copyright © 1999-2011 Gulf Coast Chapter NRHS Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the author.