City celebrates 10 years since Union Station renovation

Local and national leaders and other officials gathered Tuesday afternoon under the copper dome of Tacoma Union Station to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the historic building’s renovation and transformation into a federal courthouse.

Those on hand praised the salvation of the building a decade ago, saying it marked the beginning of the city’s current development boom and improving image.

“Wow, ten years,” said Mayor Bill Baarsma. “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

When Union Station was reopened 10 years ago, Baarsma said it was hoped the building would complement the area. That has happened, he said, and has been more successful than anyone imagined.

Baarsma described the saving of Union Station as a “gamble that paid off big time,” helping to give a push to the “rebirth of Tacoma.”

Since then, the mayor pointed out, there have been a string of developments, including the next door Washington State History Museum, the University of Washington Tacoma, the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, the Museum of Glass and Link light rail, which is scheduled to begin operating this fall.

“I could go on and on,” Baarsma said, adding he looks forward to celebrating Union Station in another 10 years, when the city will have even more amenities.

Still, the success of the refurbished Union Station would not be if it were not for the involvement of citizens and city leadership in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Abandoned by Amtrak, the dilapidated station was in very real danger of being demolished despite the building’s historical significance.

The razing of several historic buildings along a two-block section of Pacific Avenue moved the community to act to save Union Station, resulting in the securing of funds for a $40 million renovation and its new use as a federal courthouse.

The impact of the Union Station renovation was quickly reinforced with the construction of the Washington State History Museum next door, which opened to the public in 1996.

The area’s emergence as a distinct district was assured when the University of Washington Tacoma opened in 1997 across Pacific Avenue from the Union Station/Washington State History Museum complex.

“It’s an anchor for the city’s renaissance,” said U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan, who’s courtroom is in Union Station. “We really had no idea this building would become the gathering place it has become.”

Architect James Merritt, who worked on transforming the building from a train station into a federal courthouse, spoke of saving and restoring the building.

“This building is always going to be special to me, of course,” he said. “I think we did it right. I’m proud of that.”

Union Station was built in 1911 by the Northern Pacific Railway, when Tacoma was the western terminus, and was designed by the same architects who created New York’s Grand Central Station.

It was for many years considered the grandest building north of San Francisco.

It was a domed landmark for the area until 1983, and today, in addition to being a federal courthouse, contains a public rotunda exhibit of glass sculptures by internationally acclaimed Tacoma artist Dale Chihuly.

The massive, arched, Romanesque-styled Union Station is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It truly is exciting to be here today,” said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks (D-6th District), who was instrumental in securing federal funding for the project. “This was one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on.”