Back on track: Seattle's renovated King Street Station

Pomp and circumstance surround the opening of renovations at Seattle's grand train station. Does it signal a new era for train travel?
Sneak peak inside

Sneak peak inside Photo: Ronald Holden

It's almost an American birthright: the lure of the open road, the siren song of travel, the sheer visceral excitement of a road trip. In fact, the glamor is overrated. Highways are crowded and gas is expensive. Bus stations long ago became a dumping ground for the down and out. Airports teem with long lines and short-tempered travelers. 

Trains, once the most elegant form of travel, have fallen victim to erratic schedules and outdated equipment, not to mention decaying terminals in many cities. For a long while, Seattle has been one of them. Had you been sitting on a torn plastic-leather seat in the once-grand waiting room of the King Street Station a few short years ago — stale air, fluorescent lights, a dingy low ceiling, grimy floors, metal gates barring the restrooms — you could easily imagine Charon coming through the flickering gloom to take you across the Styx. 

And yet, King Street Station was once among the finest in the land. It was built shortly after the turn of the 20th century, in the heyday of rail travel, and went into service in 1906 as a terminal for the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific railroads. (Union Station, across 5th Avenue to the east, would follow five years later.)

The station's 245-foot clock tower was modeled on the Campanile standing in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. San Marco's tower is 324 feet, same as the Daniels & Fisher tower in Denver, same as Brisbane City Hall. Until the construction of the Smith Tower in 1914, it was the tallest structure in Seattle. 

King Street with San Marco campanile. Photo: Ronald Holden.

For a time, its capacity was tested by heavy use, until “glamorous” travel by private automobile in the 1920s outstripped rail. After a brief revival during World War II, King Street fell into disrepair, followed by decades of outright neglect that turned the station into an urban wasteland. 

A series of misguided "renovations" in the 1940s, 50s and 60s removed the building's marble walls and glass mosaic tiles; the plaster ceiling was lowered and covered with acoustic tiles. The waiting room's historic light fixtures were replaced with fluorescents, and the elegant terrazzo floor was allowed to crack beyond repair. 

Despite the station's deteriorated state, Amtrak began operating increasingly popular trains along the Vancouver-Portland corridor. The trains were clunky and its schedules less than trustworthy. King Street's ticketing facilities and waiting room remained desultory at best, but ridership — and interest — began to pick up  and so did interest in a better station. Sounder trains discharged more and more commuters at King Street, where the bus tunnel's Chinatown/International District station provided a seamless connection with Seattle's transit network. 

Meantime, Paul Allen bought and renovated Union Station, and the splendors of early 20th century public buildings became apparent. Almost too late, Seattle realized what was being lost. 

In 2008, the City of Seattle purchased the station from BNSF, which had taken over local railroad operations, for $10. Using funds from its Bridge-the-Gap levy, Seattle embarked on an ambitious updating. Most of the money went for earthquake protection; another $20 million paid for two new tracks that will make it easier for trains to use the station, rather than backing in and out of the mile-long rail tunnel that runs from the station to the Seattle waterfront.

The centerpiece of the restoration is the “new” waiting room, resurfaced with steel plating and re-plastered (with modern materials such as epoxy molds) to recreate the opulence of the 1916 original. The headline in the Stranger's blog, only slightly overblown: “The New King Street Station Waiting Room Looks Like the Inside of Wedding Cake.” 

Ceiling at King Street. Photo: Ronald Holden.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Apr 25, 11:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article about a once again great place, thank you.

Maybe 7 or 8 years ago I took a friend from out of town to the station in hopes of catching a train home. Her comment that it seemed like something that belonged in the Soviet Union pretty much summed up the place at the time. Actually, many of the Soviets' train stations were much better than what King Street had become, but the point was still valid.

I just hope we put enough resources into rebuilding our passenger rail system before oil becomes hugely more expensive to import.

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 5:59 a.m. Inappropriate

"Sounder trains discharged more and more commuters at King Street, where the bus tunnel's Chinatown/International District station provided a seamless connection with Seattle's transit network."

If you were to actually get out there and do the connection between King Street Station and the bus tunnel you find that it is short but hardly "seamless". You'd need to gather your bags, leave the station, go out into the street (aka rain), wait for the crossing light on a very busy street, walk a couple blocks, go down into the tunnel and find your connection. If this is "seamless" you must be holding your clothes together with Duct Tape.

JamesD

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 9:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the kind words, Snoqualman.

And JamesD, I sympathize with your observation, and don't want to minimize the logistical issues you raise, but crossing a street with your bags is really no worse than changing gates at SeaTac, at least in my view.

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I frequently take the train to Portland, and have always enjoyed spending time in their renovated station. I'm thrilled that Seattle has put time and attention to bringing our station back to life!

sandik

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

But still not as seamless as would be ideal. I love King Street Station and understand the historical reasons why we have the current situation, but oh, if only Union Station were the Sounder and Amtrak station instead..

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Misleading articles like this one are the reason mass transit in the Northwest is so bad. This article, and this author, are directly to blame. Schlepping your bag two or three blocks through the rain is NOT, repeat NOT the same as changing gates at Seatac, where the baggage handlers move your bags. The system is NOT, repeat NOT seamless. Renovating both stations was a huge mistake. One of them should have been destroyed, probably Union station. Amtrak and commuter rail do not connect any where in Seattle, so it is impossible, for example, to connect from passenger rail to the airport, without schlepping your bags between stations. What if you are elderly, disabled (permanently or temporarily), a child, or someone who is not a professional mountain climber? Please Crosscut, don't ever, ever publish this author again. The article is misleading, ignorant, and ridiculous.

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 12:19 p.m. Inappropriate

In addition to the schlep over to the ID light rail station, the First Hill Streetcar will soon run right past King Street Station BUT NOT STOP THERE.

Also, the author mentions that Jackson Street "will once again become the station's logical front door," but by installing the "spiffy new plaza" in place of the driveway, there is no ability for a traveler to be picked up or dropped off on Jackson Street, not legally anyway. The "spiffy new plaza" has trees in planters, the better to block the view of the restored building.

And the development of the north parking lot of the football stadium is quickly closing the window for any chance of relocating the Greyhound terminal at or near the train station. (Actually, the parking lot that became site of the King Street Center building would have been the perfect spot for the bus terminal.)

I love the station and love that it was restored -- I was at the ceremony the other day -- but YE GODS our planner overlords have made some bad decisions.

DTNelson

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 3:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Though I live in Tacoma, the impossible traffic on I-5 has combined with the decidedly non-"seamless" nature of local public transport to keep me out of Seattle since the mid-1990s. Hence I cannot personally attest to the chaos and inconvenience described by James D, Benjamin Lukoff, Uncle Mike and DT Nelson.

But I do regard their accounts as probably true, because I know such discouraging chaos and inconvenience is a perfect expression of the oft-denied but nevertheless obvious contempt for mass transit and mass-transit users that defines the Puget Sound population -- most especially its politicians whether Democrat or Republican.

It seems there's an equally intense contempt for language as well. How else would one explain conversion of Tacoma's once-grand Union Station into a federal courthouse? It not only permanently excludes any possibility of a viable rail/transit connection in downtown Tacoma but gives entirely new credence to a traditional protest of the convicted: "I wuz railroaded!"

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 4:49 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't believe I know Uncle Mike, and apologize if I have inadvertently offended him in some past life. I'm taken aback by his crusade to eliminate from my livelihood the modest stipends I receive from occasional freelance writing.

The points Uncle Mike, JamesD and DTNelson make are good ones, and accentuate the need for greater public vigilance, and more voices at planning meetings.

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 6:40 p.m. Inappropriate

[I really am not old enough to be a coot yet, but ...]

And another thing: The "spiffy new plaza" is paved with crushed rocks, except for a sidewalk along the westernmost edge which is aligned with the "grand staircase." So if you are trying to pull your wheeled bag out the front door of King Street Station and over to the ID light rail station (and you WOULD come out the front door, because you wouldn't tote your luggage up a flight of stairs when an elevator is available, no matter how grand the staircase), you are faced with either taking the longest way around the plaza or taking the direct route across the plaza and bulldozing the rocks with your luggage.

I can imagine reasons SDOT would want to pave the plaza with rocks, e.g., so it can't be skateboarded on, or so it is uncomfortable for bums to sleep on. These would be typical Seattle passive aggressive responses; rather than deal with miscreants in our public places, we build less functional public places in hopes the miscreants will go somewhere else.

I did communicate with SDOT about the trees when the project was in the rendering stage and got back a few paragraphs in architect-speak telling me how wonderful the trees were going to be for the renovation.

DTNelson

Posted Fri, Apr 26, 9:53 p.m. Inappropriate

The nearly irrational comments alarm me. Poor Ronald Holden, he really tried to be objective. I am more worried that Crosscut does not have good fact checkers and allows egregious errors such as the date of the station's construction which is twice misstated. We need to trust the information in our newspapers be they digital or paper.

M

MJH

Posted Thu, May 2, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

It is typical of the current state of communications in this day and age and in this country that all we can do is respond to statements we disagree with (which does nor make said statements wrong, by the way) and start an argument. In the process, we ignore the message and create much uncivil dialogue that misrepresents the message of the column.

The message that we should understand is one of celebration of our heritage and nostalgia for a kinder and gentler time - rather than to celebrate the often strident dialogue inspired by current talk radio and cable news TV!

Someone actually suggested that Union Station should be destroyed and replaced with what - another sinking ship garage? And while we are at it, maybe you would also recommend paving over the Pike Place Market!

The restoration of King Street station is a wonderful event, and should be celebrated - not denigrated because some of us disagree with the author's use of the word "seamless".

sherlock

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