SAINT PAUL, Minn. - It has taken 40 years, but passengers will once again be using the massive Union Depot building for transit. The 1923 Depot has been closed to train traffic since 1971.
Railroad baron James J. Hill was a principal owner when the Depot was built to replace an earlier structure destroyed by fire. "He knew that this was going to be the 'fabric' of Saint Paul, that Saint Paul living room," said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, Ramsey County Railroad Authority Chair. "It was a public building, events, celebrations, a time to come together and share experiences. We have incorporated that back into this building."
The section of the Depot visible from Fourth Street and featuring 10 large stone columns is called the "Head House." It has been opened as a setting for restaurants including Lee Ann Chin's and Christos, which is still there. The old ticketing windows are the restaurant's bar.
The second floor of the Head House holds 39 private condos, a throwback to a few years when the structure was privately owned.
However, behind the Head House, the "concourse" and "waiting room" have been closed to the public since train service ended, with only one exception. A display of memorabilia from the Titanic disaster was housed in the waiting room for several weeks in 1999. Visitors were depressed to see the dilapidated condition of the old train station.
"12 years ago, there was a lot of people in the community thinking, oh, the Union Depot would be great to get moving forward. Lots of thoughts," recalled McDonough.
It has taken $243-million dollars and 2 years of restoration and new construction to bring Hill's concept of "intermodal" transit back to reality. Most of the funding has come from federal programs, largely shepherded through Congress by then House Transportation Chair James Oberstar, Representative Betty McCollum and Senator Amy Klobuchar.
The State of Minnesota added $13.7 million in bond funds. The Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority levy contributed $51.5-million. The County estimates that 2,220 workers labored on the construction project and claims that 4,400 new jobs have been created by the project.
The project includes new bus platforms and a new Amtrack platform with access off of the vast waiting room. It is that huge space that will most delight former users of the Union Depot. In its heyday, 20,000 people walked across the waiting room's terrazzo floor to get to 300 trains each day. The project restored the original terrazzo floor to its old gleaming condition.
Also restored is the long, overhead frieze that encircles the entire waiting room. "When they built this building, they actually had this history of transit, all the way around here," said McDonough, waving his arm toward the frieze. "Ox cart, stagecoach, trains and our history of transit continues to add to that."
The big skylights have been cleaned and scraped of the black paint, a holdover from the blackout days of World War II, when thousands of soldiers and sailors bid farewell to loved ones and then were welcomed home on that same terrazzo floor.
Metro Transit bus service to and from the Union Depot is to begin Saturday. Amtrack is expected to move its Twin Cities offices and station into the Depot from the Midway area. While the platform area is finished, it is still necessary to connect the rails to the Amtrack mainline, a distance of only a few yards. Amtrack service to the Union Depot is expected in the first quarter of 2013.
The final stop on the Central Corridor light rail line is to open in front of the Union Depot in 2014, giving the old train station the intermodal setup designed to carry it for another century.
The public is invited to tour the renovated concourse and waiting room on Saturday at 214 E. 4th Street (at Sibley) in Saint Paul.
Events begin with a formal dedication ceremony in the Head House at 9:30 featuring Oberstar, McCollum and Klobuchar. Then, a curtain will be dropped, revealing the renovated spaces at 10am. Family activities are planned for the remainder of the day, including a family movie night at 5pm in the waiting room.