New role, old beauty for station; Restoration: Kansas City's Union Station is being returned to its original grace while being transformed into an urban entertainment center and science museum.


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When Graham Banks arrived at a gala in Kansas City's refurbished Union Station last week, he immediately looked at the ceilings.

Gazing at ceilings is a habit of the Portsmouth, England, native, who is general manager of the Baltimore firm Hayles & Howe, an ornamental plaster enterprise that restored the lofty reaches of grand old buildings such as Union Station.

As ceilings go, Banks says, the ones in Kansas City's train station are stunners.

"I thought the Postal Museum was a big project," he says, referring to the ceilings of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum in Washington.

"But after Union Station, it seemed small."

Banks joins the long list of admirers who over the years have been taken by the Beaux-Arts beauty of the expansive Union Station.

When it was dedicated in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson sent a telegram calling the station "the great gateway to the West."

The old train station is coming back to life as an urban entertainment center and science museum.

Two weeks of parties are being held, including a seated dinner last week for 4,000, leading up to the public opening Nov. 20. The reborn station is being hailed as a grand example of historic renovation and as a shot in the arm for an aging center city.

Financed by private contributions, government funds and a cultural sales tax paid by residents of the nearby Kansas and Missouri counties, the project cost an estimated $250 million.

Once the center of the city and an elegant stop for the nation's railroad travelers, Union Station will be home to theaters, a science museum and several restaurants, including one modeled after its original landmark Fred Harvey House.

The museum, Science City, will include hands-on exhibits designed to stir interest in science. Museum-goers will dig for fossils, track tornadoes and walk through a reproduction of a human blood vessel.

Sections of the museum mix local history with demonstrations of scientific theories.

For example, the daring may ride a bicycle over a cable suspended 23 feet in the air. The bike is modeled after one used years ago to deliver groceries in Kansas City, and it is loaded with weights. A successful ride across the cable demonstrates counterbalancing and how to calculate the center of mass. At least that is the theory.

The science museum offers something new; the vaulting spaces of the old train depot are a chance to revisit an era when railroads ruled the land and Kansas City was the nation's crossroads.

Designed in 1910 by Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt, Union Station is the second-largest railroad terminal in the United States, behind New York's Grand Central.

The rooms are the size of football fields. The ceilings soar. A huge clock, nicknamed "the Big Ben of the Plains," hangs in the Grand Hall. Chandeliers 14 feet tall burn with lights from 155 glowing bulbs.

Baggage tunnels were built wide enough for two trucks to pass each other. Half of the military personnel deployed in the World War II passed through here, many on standing-room-only trains.

At its peak, in 1917, 271 trains came through the station each day.

Fred Harvey, the Englishman who brought fine dining and the charming Harvey Girls to American train travelers, set up shops in the Kansas City station offering Cuban cigars, Paris perfume and men's and women's clothing.

In the decades after World War II, passenger traffic on railroads declined, and so did the fortunes of Union Station.

There was a flurry of civic hope in the 1970s when a Canadian developer signed a contract with the city to renovate the station and build office buildings nearby. That plan fell apart, the city sued the developer, and Union Station sat empty -- and surprisingly unmolested -- for most of the 1990s.

In 1996, with contributions from private sources and the federal government, voters in counties on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas line approved a bistate sales tax of one-eighth of a penny per dollar to help restore Union Station and build the science museum.

Returning the station to its former luster attracted restoration crews from around the nation, including Banks and his team of ornamental plasterers.

After looking at old blueprints and photographs of the Union Station ceilings, Banks surmised that the only way to accurately restore the plasterwork was "to get up there and measure it."

"Working 85 feet in the air presented a bit of problem," Banks says. A scaffolding was erected, and on it wooden planks were placed, creating a floor 6 1/2 feet below the ceiling for workers to stand on. Getting to this aerie, up 110 steps, was "a bit of haul."

Once Banks and his crew got to their perch, they saw that the original plasterer had made changes from the drawings. "All the egg and dart," Banks says, referring to decorative parts of the ceiling, "were not the same size."

Banks and his crew noted the changes. Back in Baltimore, at their Hooper Mill workshop, they built ornate medallions, decorative cornices and huge beams destined for the Kansas City ceiling.

The project entailed about 30 plaster molds, medallions 5 feet in diameter and beams 12 feet long. The ceiling pieces were loaded into seven tractor-trailers and driven to Kansas City. There they were hoisted to the heavens where craftsmen fixed them in place.

In the course of his work on the ceiling, Banks learned a bit of Kansas City history.

One day there was a hubbub at the front of the station. Masons had almost plugged up a bullet hole in the station's limestone exterior.

Generations of Kansas City schoolboys have gawked at this hole, a memento of the 1933 Union Station Massacre, during which gangsters Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Adam Richetti gunned down several law enforcement officials and their prisoner, Frank Nash, outside the station.

The historic hole was saved from the mason's trowel.

Union Station's restoration still has some unfinished business. Passenger trains no longer stop there. The handful of Amtrak trains that roll through Kansas City use a small, undistinguished structure a few hundred yards from the old station.

But space has been set aside in the newly burnished building for Amtrak. And if all goes according to plan, Kansas City's regal Union Station will once again receive railroad passengers next year.

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