The high-arced ceilings and hexagon-tiled floor of Union Station's Great Hall served as Seattle's front door for many travelers when the train depot first opened in 1911. The historic landmark, which now serves as Sound Transit headquarters, celebrated its 100th birthday Friday.

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The high-arced ceilings and hexagon-tiled floor of Union Station’s Great Hall served as Seattle’s front door for many travelers when the train depot opened in 1911.

Men with handlebar mustaches and bowler hats sat on high-backed benches reading the newspaper. Women reclined in rocking chairs in the Ladies Waiting Room after long train trips.

The station — which, after years of abandonment, was restored as Sound Transit’s headquarters — celebrated its 100th birthday Friday with speakers, a live symphony and a model-train exhibit at an open house.

The landmark is nestled in a true transportation hub, with the International District station on one side and the 105-year-old King Street Station on the other.

“These two century-old buildings are once again functioning in their original form, with some variation,” said J. Craig Thorpe, a Bellevue artist nationally known for his railway illustrations. “There’s a reprise of what they were in the 21st century.”

King Street Station came first

With a more practical design considered typical of railroad architecture at the time, King Street Station came before its next-door neighbor, serving two railway lines owned by James J. Hill.

Hill’s adversary, Edward H. Harriman, wanted to erect a more impressive depot to house his own two lines, and he opened red-bricked Union Station five years later.

“The interior was similar to a lot of the grand train stations around the country,” said Heather MacIntosh Huffnagle, co-author of the book “The Story of Union Station.” “It was a monumental space, a basilican space like an old church.”

Its opening came after the Klondike Gold Rush and land annexations had bloated the city as it transitioned from a Wild West town to a booming metropolis.

“The station came along just on the tail end of that major growth,” said Alan Stein, staff historian at “If you were going to be a player as a major city at that time, you had to have a railroad stop.”

But soon after the station opened, automobiles emerged as a force that ultimately would overshadow train travel. During the 1930s, the number of rail passengers plunged 70 percent compared with pre-World War I figures, according to Huffnagle’s book.

Advertising ploys aimed at romanticizing train travel failed, and when newly formed Amtrak chose King Street Station as its Seattle home in 1971, Union Station closed its passenger-train service. The Great Hall hosted the occasional event, but the rest of the depot lay dormant for decades.

Key partnership

The station’s rebirth in 1999 resulted from a partnership between private investors and public officials who shared a single goal: recreate the station’s historic elegance to serve as Sound Transit’s headquarters.

Years of abandonment had left the building in great disrepair, its water-damaged floors covered with up to six inches of bird droppings, its walls near collapse.

Workers first stabilized the old depot, then began restoring the building like a damaged painting, getting every detail as close to the original as possible.

Some of the ceramic roof tiles were no longer usable, so Nitze-Stagen & Co., the real-estate investor heading up the project, ordered new ones from the Pennsylvania company that made the originals.

A 78-year-old man who looked after the station’s clock back when it still marked the arrivals and departures of passenger trains came forward and volunteered to repair it for free.

Maintaining the building’s historical look was important to all those involved in the restoration.

“It brings back all of those ghosts, the soul of the building,” said Kevin Daniels, Nitze-Stagen president. “People can walk through again and remember how it was when they were a kid.”

Although one might feel small in the echoing chamber of the Great Hall, artist Thorpe loves the majesty of it. It gives him the feeling of something greater than the present moment.

“And, after all, isn’t that what train travel was and isn’t that what it still can be?” Thorpe said. “We’re invited beyond what we are… . It draws us in and then out into something bigger.”

Brittney Wong: 206-464-3195 or