We cannot let this anniversary pass unremarked. This year is the 100th anniversary of the completion of Union Station in Washington, D.C. (The grand opening was October 27, 1907, but the building was not yet finished then.)
The building was designed by Daniel Burnham. It was built as part of the McMillan Plan for beautifying the capital city of the United States. Pierre L’Enfant had, at George Washington’s request, laid out a beautiful design for the city a century earlier, but L’Enfant’s ideas were not fully realized. The McMillan Plan, conceived at the turn of the twentieth century, brought L’Enfant’s original design to fulfillment.
In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, these two great teachers of right living list magnificence as one of the virtues of an upright man. Only those who are in charge of large public projects are able to practice this virtue. In order to execute such responsibility well, someone who controls large sums of money for the public good must attain magnificence.
Public money is spent well when it produces something not merely useful, not just efficiently put-together. Rather, something built for the public must possess elevating beauty. It must lift us up to the true dignity which the human race possesses.
We could catch trains in little demountable depots, as we did here in Washington through the 1980’s (after the failure of the ill-conceived National Park Service Union Station Visitor Center, which attracted more pigeons than people). It is not necessary for us to catch trains in a 100-foot-high double vault of marble and steel with coffered ceilings, Italian statues, and sculpted water fountains.
It is not necessary to have such a place for the catching of trains–but it IS magnificent to have one. It is fitting for a noble race, an upright people, a nation of grand ideals.
This fall is also the twentieth anniversary of the grand re-opening of Union Station after it’s decade of decrepitude. My father was very excited about it back in 1988, but I was too distracted by being a freshman at a New England College to pray much attention.
Then I had a pivotal experience of life. I came home from college on the train for Thanksgiving. Four months in the foreign territory of western Massachusetts had me miserable. Nobody there believed in God, and the sun went down at 3:00 in the afternoon.
But then, when the train arrived in Washington, I did NOT emerge into the graffiti-covered construction site that had been our train station for almost as long as I could remember. No: I stepped out into the newly re-opened Union Station, in all its pristine splendor.
I could not believe my eyes. The splendor of Rome itself had come to my hometown train station. I thought: This is where I belong. This grand city is my home. You can have Williams College.
Not long after, I told one of my Williams’ buddies: “You know, if some celestial power offered me a choice at this moment, either to live out the rest of my days on earth within the confines of the District of Columbia, with no opportunity ever to leave it, OR to have the freedom to go anywhere in the world–except into the city of Washington–it would take me all of one second to make up my mind. Give me my home turf.”
My days in New England were numbered. Before long, I was a student at the Catholic University of America. The rest is more or less a Washington-D.C. history. (I am allowed into the suburbs.)