Toledo’s old Union Terminal, now referred to as Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza, is firmly planted in the aesthetics and dreams of mid-20th century America but has been renovated to meet the needs of 21st century travelers. It is the busiest rail station in Ohio and is served by numerous intercity bus routes.
Opened south of downtown in 1950 by the New York Central Railroad (NYC), the Toledo facility was one of the last structures built in an era in which rail travel was dominant and stations were envisioned as transportation palaces that represented a city to the world. The people of Toledo had long desired a new train station to replace their rambling 1886 Gothic inspired, multi-towered and gabled structure. As transportation needs and aesthetic tastes changed in the early 20th century, civic boosters began to view the old Union Depot as an eyesore—Victorian architecture was considered outdated, ugly, and unbefitting of a modern industrial center like Toledo.
When the old Union Depot caught fire in 1930, citizens actually gathered and cheered on the flames, but the building remained standing and was repaired. In the 1940s, the city’s planning commission, charged with creating a new vision for the city, wrote, “It is almost a crime to repeat what has been said so many times, that the first impression of a city one has, is formed upon the entrance to the city, and that invariably the opinion of strangers arriving at the Union Depot is bad.” Although designs were long in the works for a new station, the Great Depression and World War II diverted resources elsewhere. It was not until post-war when the railroad began to think about reinvestment in its infrastructure that the Toledo station complex became a priority.
Upon its opening in September 1950, Toledo Union Station was hailed in the New York Times as the “$5,000,000 Dream of 40 Years,” and a week of events was planned to celebrate the new building. Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the combined American forces in the Pacific during World War II, was invited as the principal speaker. Events included a “Youngster’s Day,” a city-wide tea party, and “Glass Day” during which the city’s glass manufacturers unveiled a Vitrolite (an opaque, pigmented glass then manufactured by the local Libby Owens Ford Company) mural in the building. The highlight of the festivities was the opening day parade where a model of the old Union Depot was set on fire!
The station which rose along Emerald Ave from 1947 to 1950 was unabashedly modern, incorporating restrained Art Deco lines and large expanses of glass block in reference to the city’s main industry. Commentators expounded upon the variety of glass used in the building, including plate glass, glass block, double-glazed and tempered glass. Soon enough, the press referred to the station as the “Palace of Glass.”
The new Union Terminal was designed by Robert Crosbie, a New York educated architect who had worked as an assistant engineer and designer for the NYC since 1936. The exterior consists of alternating bands of buff brick and silvery glass block that wrap around corners. The rows of glass block are punctuated by windows, but all of the glass elements take on square or rectangular forms, producing sharp, clean edges in a striking geometric pattern. Limestone used on the base is carried over to the central, projecting pavilion where the concourse-bridge opens onto the third floor.
The pavilion adds a vertical element to an otherwise horizontally oriented structure because it is slightly higher than the flanking wings and its façade features vertical bands of limestone which frame panels of windows surrounded by glass block—the surface is completely devoid of any brick. At night, the expanses of glass exude light from the interior, creating a welcoming and warm appearance—in fact, this was the view often shown on early picture postcards.
The station had a unique four-story layout. Passengers were dropped off at a four and a half acre park where they used a covered bridge to cross Emerald Avenue and enter on the third floor of the station. The third floor housed the main passenger waiting room and ticketing facilities; passengers then entered another concourse-bridge on the far side of the building that had staircases descending to the platforms which gracefully curved to the southeast so that they would fit into the station site. The ground floor was for baggage and mail services; the second floor had a YMCA and a bunk room for train crews; and the fourth floor was office space for the NYC’s Toledo Division and dispatching offices.
Former passenger areas reflect the glass industry for which Toledo was known. The soaring ceilings of the lobby are emphasized by the sunlight which streams through the walls of glass, and highly polished terrazzo floors add a bit more sparkle. The city’s major glass companies funded the room’s main decoration which is a map of the world centered on Toledo on panels of Vitrolite. The installation features bold color contrasts: white continents against a blue-grey sea and topped by dark red lettering that reads “Toledo—Glass Center of the World.” The red lettering is carried throughout the building.
Although constructed by the New York Central Railroad, the Union Terminal also served the Baltimore and Ohio, Chesapeake and Ohio, and the Wabash Railroad. The terminal was actually just one of nine structures built on the 25 acre complex; other buildings erected accommodated mail and car service and Railway Express facilities.
The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority purchased Union Terminal from Conrail (a successor to NYC) for $20,000 in 1995. In 1996, the Port Authority undertook a $6 million renovation and spatial reorganization of the building and renamed it Central Union Plaza. The Port Authority team assembled a diverse funding package, and worked closely with the region’s Congressional delegation. $4.4 million from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development administered through the Ohio Department of Transportation paid for the initial renovation except for the third floor concourse; $250,000 from the National Park Service covered façade restoration and a new heating and air-conditioning system; and $1.3 million from the Port Authority went towards the local shares required of various federal and state funding programs.
The passenger areas were moved to the ground floor for easier access to the street and platforms. In keeping with the Art Deco detailing of the building, the new passenger areas were designed to reference the original period of construction. The floor features a large geometric pattern in tan, black, orange, and blue reminiscent of the terrazzo flooring so popular from the 1930s to the 1950s. Since the space had originally been the baggage area, the ceiling was low. Project architects Seyfang Blanchard Duket Porter, Inc. therefore chose silvery metallic colors and lighting covers to brighten the space and visually expand it. Streamlined black banquettes with silver metal detailing complete the look.
The former passenger waiting room on the third floor was restored but is now used for meetings and events. Renovated office space incorporates touches of Vitrolite, a nod to the detailing of the public spaces. On the exterior, the brick and glass blocks were restored and repaired or replaced as needed. The small original window openings were enlarged to allow in more light, but the architects carefully sized the new frames to align with the modular glass blocks. A new roof was put in place and work was done on the surrounding roadways and landscaping.
The entire project from conceptual planning to completion took 15 years, and throughout the initial three-and a-half year main project, the Port Authority worked with the State Historic Preservation Office and the Northwest Ohio Historic Preservation Council to ensure that the building’s essential historic design features remained intact; new elements and large design moves had to conform to the principle of “reversibility” – meaning that those changes could be undone in the future with minimal impact on the structure.
City funding stipulated that one percent of project monies had to be used on public art. Working with the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, contemporary sculptures were added to the grounds to enhance its function as a vital piece of the public realm. In addition to transportation uses, the building also houses the offices of the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments. In 2001, the facility’s name was changed to Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza in honor of the civil rights leader.
In time, the NYC became a major force within Ohio railroading, but it was not the first line to operate in the state. That honor falls to the Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad which was chartered by the legislature of the Michigan Territory in 1833 to connect the mouth of the Kalamazoo River on Lake Michigan with present day Toledo; eventually the line was shortened to the thirty-three miles between Toledo and Adrian, Michigan. By 1836 the first horse-drawn trip was conducted, and this was the first operating railroad west of the Alleghany Mountains. A year later a steam engine arrived from the famed Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia; when the early steam engine functioned properly and the tracks—which had no gravel ballast foundation—were in good order, the trip took only three hours and cost $1.50. The city’s earliest known depot was at Monroe and Water Streets about a mile north of Union Terminal. Early chroniclers of the city recalled that it was a small building that had been built as a barber shop.
Over the next century-and-a-half, this section of track fell under numerous companies such as the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad and eventually the NYC. As the city grew during the Industrial Revolution and the first half of the twentieth century, Toledo became a rail hub due to its position as a Lake Erie port and location between Chicago and points east. Maps show Toledo at the center of a web of rail lines that connected it to all parts of the nation.
The advancement of Toledo was not always assured. By the late 18th century, the Ottawa people had established a village along the Maumee River near its entry point into Lake Erie. Early European-American settlers of that period included fur traders Peter and Robert Navarre from Detroit who built a cabin on the east side of the river. At the time, much of the land on that side was a dense swamp forty miles wide and one hundred and twenty miles long that had been formed by the glaciers; when they receded at the end of the last Ice Age 20,000 years ago, they dug a large depression that filled with water when it rained or when the river and streams overflowed their banks. The Great Black Swamp, as it came to be known, was populated by snakes, wolves, wildcats, and disease-carrying mosquitoes. Dense stands of oak, sycamore, hickory, and other trees easily subsumed explorers who lost their sense of direction. Only after decades of back-breaking labor were enough trenches constructed to drain the area and convert it into farmland.
After the War of 1812, settlers returned to the area and numerous villages were established along the Maumee River, including Port Lawrence and Vistula. In the 1820s and 1830s, canal building began in earnest in Ohio and to better position themselves for a place on the routes, Port Lawrence and Vistula decided to merge in 1833 and called their new municipality “Toledo.” The origins of the name are not certain: some claim that it was after the royal city of Spain, or perhaps suggested by a local merchant who thought it was pretty and easy to pronounce. Although Toledo was not chosen as the terminus for the Miami and Erie Canal or the later Wabash and Erie Canal, in time it did benefit because the original terminus north of the city became too shallow for most boats and businesses migrated to deeper water at Toledo.
For much of the 1830s, Michigan Territory and Ohio argued over the strip of land at the Michigan-Ohio border which happened to contain Toledo. Imperfect early maps and surveys resulted in border disputes that culminated in the Toledo War of 1835-36; eventually Ohio kept the strip while Michigan received more land on the Upper Peninsula. As the nineteenth century progressed, Toledo became a center of industry and sported manufacturers making furniture, carriages, beer, and glass, for which Toledo became famous. Like many Lake Erie ports, Toledo also became a center for steel manufacturing; iron ore from Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula could be shipped by freighter while coal from Pennsylvania and West Virginia arrived by rail.
In 1888, Edward Libbey moved his New England Glass Works from Massachusetts to Toledo in part because the area was known for its high-quality sand deposits—needed for glass making—and natural gas resources. Four years later, the company took his name and produced glass tableware. Libbey backed inventor Michael Owens who figured out how to mass-produce basic glass items like bottles and window panes. The automobile industry was exploding to the north in Detroit, and also in Toledo where Jeep was a prominent employer. Glass windshields were in demand and their production helped to further integrate the city’s glass industry with the automobile sector. In 1936, the Owens-Illinois Glass Company commissioned the first building to be covered in glass. Glass still plays an important role in the city’s economy, but not in the mold of the past. Solar energy firms now turn glass into solar cells and panels in an effort to redefine Toledo as a leader in the Green Energy Movement.
Libbey was instrumental in the establishment of the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) in 1901. Apart from its fine collections of European and American art, the institution is renowned for its collection of art glass initiated by Libbey. Today the collection exhibits Renaissance and Baroque European pieces, American art glass, and specially commissioned pieces from international artisans; the museum was forward thinking in collecting and displaying American glass at a time when it was considered inferior to European sources. In the 1960s, the TMA built the Glass-Crafts Building where master artisans could teach glass-working techniques to students and the public—this informal gathering of artisans flowered into the Studio Glass movement. In 2006, a new Glass Pavilion by Tokyo-based architectural firm SANAA provided a new home for the glass collection. The majority of the building’s interior and exterior walls are composed of more than 360 glass panels—a fitting choice of materials.
Amtrak provides ticketing and baggage services at this station which is served by four daily trains.
Visit the terminal this Saturday; national train day in Toledo. Should have NS and Ann Arbor locos on display; chances to ride motor cars. and Dealers and layouts upstairs. See you all there!!
Anything pertaining to railfanning in Ohio.
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