New attractions will combine with heady doses of railroad nostalgia to keep a St. Louis favorite on the top of travelers’ checklists
St. Louis Union Station, a castle-like landmark on downtown St. Louis’ skyline since 1894, will be taking on a new life as a family entertainment complex highlighted by a world-class aquarium.
The St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station, set to open in 2019, will be located in the former shopping mall under the massive steel train shed. Construction on the $45 million attraction is expected to begin this fall. The retail space, which included a large food court, is now empty.
St. Louis-based PGAV Destinations, the firm chosen to design the 65,000-square-foot aquarium, has been involved in the design of exhibits at many of the nation’s top aquatic attractions, including the Georgia Aquarium, South Carolina Aquarium, Discovery Cove and SeaWorld.
The St. Louis Aquarium will feature tanks with 700,000 gallons of water housing thousands of aquatic species from the rivers and oceans of the world, including one of the Midwest’s largest collections of sharks. Employing an animal husbandry team of marine biologists and aquarists, it will be an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). One million visitors are expected annually.
Other components of the $100 million complex at Union Station will include the St. Louis Wheel, a 200-foot-high observation wheel with 30 climate-controlled gondolas seating up to six adults each for a 10-12-minute ride. The wheel will be located in an area beneath the train shed that will be known as the Train Park. Already home to the Hard Rock Cafe and Landry’s restaurants, this area will feature food and beverage concessions served out of train cars and shipping containers.
One Train Park attraction that has been entertaining visitors since last November is the Fire & Light Show at the Lake, which emanates from nine fire pods submerged in the small lake (really a pond). Tube lights hung from trees and lights projected onto the train shed’s ceiling create a display synchronized to music. The show takes place every hour on the hour from 5-9 p.m.
Also undergoing some construction is the train-themed, St. Louis Union Station Hotel, which occupies the station’s Headhouse, a National Historic Landmark. It is adding 28 new guest rooms beneath the clock tower section. Part of the Curio Collection by Hilton and a member of Historic Hotels of America, the hotel (formerly under the Hyatt and Marriott banners) will have 567 rooms when the $6 million project is completed.
Constructed of Indiana limestone, the fortress-like, Romanesque-style building originally housed a 75-room hotel, Fred Harvey restaurant, passenger waiting rooms and railroad ticketing offices. Its red-tile-roofed tower and turrets are patterned after buildings in the medieval walled city of Carcassone, France.
Most impressive is the hotel’s Grand Hall, with its 65-foot, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Arguably the city’s grandest public space, this sumptuous lobby (once the main waiting room) is a symphony in gold leaf, marble, stained glass, stenciling, plasterwork, statuary, mosaics and green glazed terracotta bricks. A 3-D laser light show (5-11 p.m. nightly) on the ceiling entertains hotel guests relaxing in armchairs and sofas or seated at the 65-foot-long marble bar.
Just off the lobby is Grand Market Hall, a spacious, ornately decorated coffee shop/gift shop with a glassed-in model railroad that keeps guests engaged. The handsome Station Grille, in the old Fred Harvey space, is the hotel’s full-service restaurant.
Besides train-themed guest rooms in the Headhouse, the hotel accommodates guests in two modern, six-story wings under the 11.5-acre train shed. An outdoor swimming pool operates from May to September. The original Midway is now used for trade shows and was just expanded to include additional meeting space.
Hallways and many of the guest rooms give a nod to Union Station’s history with artwork and decor depicting railroad themes. Rooms in the Headhouse are named after legendary trains like The Texan, Dixie Flyer and Wabash Cannonball. There might be a sign above your toilet warning, “Please do not flush while train is in station.” In the hallways it’s fun to peruse framed magazine ads depicting the luxury features of Pullman cars.
On tracks in back of the hotel, near Hard Rock Cafe and Landry’s, are vintage rail cars available for stationary events or excursions.
St. Louis Union Station, including the hotel and rail cars, is owned by Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM), the largest privately held hotel company in the St. Louis region. (www.lhmc.com)
When it opened in 1894, Union Station was the world’s largest and busiest railroad station, its train shed the largest roof span anywhere. At its peak during World War II, Union Station handled 300 trains and 100,000 people a day. The last train departed on Oct. 31, 1978, ending a chapter in St. Louis history. The station reopened in 1985 as a mixed-use complex with retail shops, restaurants and event spaces, a popular spot with locals and tourists alike. Exhibits on the station’s history reminded visitors of its glory days.
For more information on Union Station’s past, present and future, visit www.stlouisunionstation.com.