Come aboard Greenville's 'Union Station'

buildings downtown historic

When Greenville's "Union Station" on West Washington Street was completed in 1905, it was a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, it did not remain a joy forever. By the time it was demolished in 1988, the depot bore only a faint resemblance to its glory days, yet even now, 20 years later, its memory still lingers in the minds of those who cherish the heyday of railroading.

The station was designed by Southern Railway's "official architect," Frank Milburn, who was one of the most popular (and controversial) architects practicing in the South at the turn of the century. Announced in 1904 as a $30,000 project, it eventually, according to railroad records, came in at a hefty $56,068.

Milburn -- who designed the dome on the statehouse in Columbia as well as courthouses in Winston-Salem, Charlotte, and Anderson, the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, and St. Mary's Church here -- had eclectic (to put it mildly) tastes and a real ability to win architectural competitions.

He had less interest in details such as sturdy construction. (He was roundly criticized for both his designs and carelessness.)

His plans for Greenville's station, recently discovered by artist Ron Gillen in the archives of the South Carolina Room of the Hughes Library, certainly indicate his skill in drawing elevations.

While Greenville's station was not considered nearly so important as Spartanburg's or Columbia's, both of which he also designed, Milburn nevertheless created an impressive 210-foot-long brick and stone building with a three-story, 65-foot tower, swooping roof lines and elegantly appointed interiors.

It replaced a far simpler rectangular wooden building with a separate telegraph office that had served the community since at least 1880.

There had been a depot on West Washington Street since the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line had first linked Greenville to the north in 1874, and while that line had gone through bankruptcy, becoming the Richmond and Danville's "Piedmont Air Line," it had emerged in the 1894 as a part of the Southern Railway System.

Flourishing at the beginning of the century, the system began replacing old stations throughout the South.

Imagine that it's 1906 and you are going from Greenville to Washington, D.C., on one of the eight trains that stop at the Southern Depot.

As you drive down pleasantly residential Washington Street in your buggy (you could reach it by trolley or new-fangled automobile too), you glimpse from blocks away the red "witch's cap" rooftop on the tower above the passenger station.

Swinging around the cafe and Carpenter's Drug Store at Mulberry and Cook streets, your driver pulls up under the columned porte-cochere.

He carries your luggage to the baggage room while you enter the red-roofed building through massive doors and find yourself in a spacious tile-floored and marble-lined lobby.

To your left is the expansive and extensive waiting area for white passengers; to the right, the "Colored Waiting Room." Naturally (it's 1906, remember), the left side is larger and has more amenities, including a parlor for ladies and a smoking room for gentlemen, each with access to toilet facilities.

Those areas, as well as the tiled floor, coffered ceiling, and wainscoted waiting room itself are lit by handsome floor to ceiling windows that provide plenty of light.

The vestibule that separates the races has a staircase to the tower (what better place to point out to visitors the smokestacks that mark Greenville's vibrant new cotton mills?).

At the rear, beyond the staircase, is the many-windowed ticket office and access to the platform.

On the right side, beyond the "colored waiting room" (equally as tiled and marbled, but far smaller), is a lunchroom with a U-shaped counter.

An open breezeway leads to the baggage room, express room, telegraph office and mailroom. The station office is at the far end. No marble or tile here, but well lit, commodious and carefully planned employee space.

Pew-style benches line the departure platform where trains leave for Charlotte, Washington and New York to the north and Atlanta and New Orleans to the south.

The steam-belching monsters generally arrive on time, but gentlemen check their pocket watches, pace impatiently and peer as far as they can down the tracks long before the first whistle sounds for the arriving train.

When the conductor calls "All aboard," you firmly grasp your ticket in your hand and step out from under the elegantly curved "umbrella canopy" roof over the platform, mount the stairs with the help of a porter, and eagerly search for your Pullman compartment. (We are imagining here, so let's imagine you are wealthy enough to afford the cost.)

The parting whistle sounds, the mail and baggage have been loaded in, and slowly at first but then with increasing speed, the New York and New Orleans Limited leaves the station and makes its way through Cripple Creek, travels behind Poe Mill and American Spinning Co., goes under the bridge at Worley Road and crosses Rutherford Road as it heads north.

You sit back in the new Observation Car and relax. You're on your way to Washington.

That station was Greenville's primary access point to the rest of the nation for decades, but it changed over time.

The "Ladies Parlor" and Smoking Room vanished by 1920, after war and war camps made such luxuries irrelevant. Its trademark tower came down less than 10 years later -- it leaked.

College students, businessmen, vacationers and military personnel rode it regularly into the '60s.

As cars replaced trains, the station was neglected. Its ceiling was lowered, its ornate painted eaves were left unpainted, its welcoming entrance replaced with "No trespassing" signs, and its rail traffic reduced to two trains a night -- none by day -- by 1980.

When officials of the Norfolk & Southern, the successor line to the Southern Railway, announced in 1988 that it would be demolished and a "functional" Amtrak Station erected in its place, there was an outcry from preservationists, of course. And, equally of course, the railroad paid no attention.

But, admittedly, their officials had a point. The building had been so changed and neglected that its historic integrity had long since vanished along with the exciting anticipation of train travel to distant parts.

The station is gone, but its memory remains as a symbol of Greenville's lost past.

Judith Bainbridge