Historic Structures

Capital Traction Company Union Station, Washington DC

Date added: November 16, 2010 Categories: Train Station

The union station for the street railway transit system was planned to accommodate four private lines as a transfer and terminal point. The project was the subject of much controversy in Congress before its authorization, but the prominent Washington architect, Waddy B. Wood (1869-1944) created an unusually planned building enhanced by the use of fine materials and excellent craftsmanship.

The followjjig is an excerpt from Street Railway Review, July, 1898:
"When the Capital Traction Company of Washington, D.C extended its line in M Street about 18 months ago, to the north end of the Aqueduct Bridge, which connects with Virginia, and affords the only convenient means of access to Fort Meyer (the government cavalry station) and contiguous territory one of the conditions was that the station building at the terminus of the line should be such as to admit of its use by other lines for car storage and for a passenger depot. The most available site for this union station was the west half of the block bounded by Prospect Avenue, 35th, M, and 36th Streets; this is on a steep hill directly north of M Street, the rise being 60 ft. in the block which is only 250 ft. long.

"To give as much room as possible for the storage of cars, the Building Department permitted the retaining wall along Prospect Avenue to be built under the sidewalk as an "area wall," and the wall of the building is on the property line. After sane discussion between the company's architect and the city Building Department as to dimensions it was decided to build the retaining walls of concrete, 13 ft. thick at the base with brick pilasters 4 ft. x 4 ft. at intervals of from 13 to 20 ft. As an additional precaution box girders were used on the second and third floors abutting against the east and west walls, thus bracing them against each other. These girders were figured both as columns and as girders to resist, besides the strains from floor loads, a thrust of 200 lbs, per sq. ft. of wall surface. Girders and I-beams were built into the pilasters parallel to the walls upon which the curtain walls were built to form the exterior of the building. In this way "areas" were left between the curtain and retaining walls which serve the double function of ventilating shafts and light wells. The inclined wall forming the foot of 36th Street, and that portion along the stairway were built of squared rubble (Blue Gneiss) for appearance sake. With the exception of this street wall the walls were all built in trenches; that is, the proper location of the walls being staked out three trenches, intersecting at right angles, were started and carried down to about 3 ft. below the level of the finished floor. The rock in the trenches was solid and almost without seams and had to be loosened by blasting, and this was true of the entire mass over the whole site except for a few feet of surface soil and rotton rock on top. Against the interior face of the trench walls wooden forms were placed and concrete was filled in, the pilasters, already mentioned, being built at the same time of hard cherry brick laid in 2 to 1 Portland cement mortar. The actual rock face formed the other side, and all irregularities and cavities made during excavation were filled in solid with concrete. As the filling-in progressed numerous "weepers" of 2-in-wrought-iron pipe were placed in the wall. After the removal of the framing the east wall, which was to be exposed to view from the interior of the building, was given a coat of cement plaster. After the completion of the walls the excavation of the interior portion was begun. In this work some 90,000 cu. yds. of material, nearly all rock, was drilled, blasted and hauled in wagons across the river and dumped upon the south approach of the Aqueduct Bridge. The excavation measured from outside of west wall to outside of east wall about 194 ft,, and was about 247 ft. the other way.

"The building proper is three stories high, 242 ft. deep, and has a front of 180 ft. It is built of brown mottled brick, with white stone trimming and steep-pitched red tile roofs. The tower, which contains passenger elevators, is 140 ft. high, and is capped with a steep red tile roof. The flat roof of the portion used for car storage is on the level of Prospect Street in the rear, and was designed with an idea of its possible future use as a summer roof garden. In the center is a covered passageway leading from the Metropolitan railway on Prospect Street to the elevators in the tower. That portion of the building facing on M Street is devoted to terminal offices of the various railways, and waiting and toilet rooms for passengers making transfers. These rooms are handsomely finished in red oak wainscoting, delicately-tinted walls, panelled ceilings of stucco with rich corners and decorations, granate floors, ornate black iron grills and stair railings. The entire lower floor is occupied by the terminal arrangements of the Capital Traction Company. Directly in the rear of the waiting rooms, on all three floors, are long corridors, 25 ft. wide, with space for two car tracks and necessary switches for the use of foreign cars which may enter the building.

These will be brought in on steel trestles, those from the lower level onto the second floor, and those from the higher level onto the third floor, the lay of the land in the vicinity being such as to make this possible. As most of the suburban lines during the hours of slack traffic run their cars at comparatively long intervals, it is believed that the Union Station will prove a great convenience. In the rear of the waiting rooms and track space already mentioned are located the car storage portions. This space is the full width of the building and 177 ft. long, and except for a central light shaft 19 ft. 7 in. wide, the space from ground to roof is occupied by the storage tracks, 12 in number, on each floor. Transfer tables across the entire width at either end and car elevators are also provided. The floors in the car storage portion are somewhat novel. In this work 7-inch 85-lb. grooved girder steel rails are used, spaced 4 ft. 10 in. c. to c, resting upon I-beams. Between the rails the Ransome system of concrete fireproof flooring was built, this floor weighs 28 lbs. per sq. ft., and was calculated to stand a safe load of 175 lbs. per sq. ft. Previous to its adoption a test was made to determine its strength; it failed under a load of 12,160 lbs. resting upon a block which has an area of 1 sq. ft. The final failure of the test floor resulted from excessive deflection.

"The entire work of design and construction was under the direction of D. S. Carll, chief engineer and superintendent of the Capital Traction Company, and Waddy B. Wood, architect. The foregoing data and the illustrations were taken from the description of the station published in a recent number of Engineering News."

The structure underwent extensive alteration in 1911, the exterior results of which are clearly evident in the accompanying photographs. The following excerpt from a valuation study by 0. E. Penney, engineer, D.C. Transit Company, notes subsequent alterations:

"During 1906, and again in 1908, space on the second floor which had not been used previously was converted to office space. This was really the beginning of the movement of general office personnel and functions to the building. Previously it had served primarily only as an operating division.

"The operation of cars on the underground electric system had proved completely practical and to increase the efficiency of operation it was determined to use larger cars equipped with double trucks. These cars, being larger than the single truck cars, many of which had been converted from horse operation to cable operation and finally to electric operation made necessary large scale changes in the Georgetown Carbarn.

"In 1910 and 1911 the carbarn portion was altered to permit the entrance, handling and storage of the larger cars, and a new car elevator was installed for the purpose of raising cars from the ground floor to upper floors. The office portion of the building was rebuilt and enlarged and the third floor fitted up for office purposes. In connection with the latter work a passenger elevator was installed.

"This was a major undertaking and resulted in the nearly complete reconstruction of the building. Much of the steel skeleton was replaced and what remained was strengthened. In addition to the elevator for cars three new transfer tables were installed. The M Street side of the building was extended forward and upward to create the present outline of the building and to provide more office space along the M Street and 36th Street sides of the structure.

''In 1921 and 1922 part of the car storage area on the 2nd and 3rd floors along the west side of the building was converted to office space.

"In 1933 Washington Railway and Electric Company and The Capital Traction Company were merged to form Capital Transit Company. Headquarters for the new company were established in the Georgetown Carbarn, and to accommodate the greatly enlarged office force many changes were made in the building. The closed passageway from Prospect Street to M Street across the roof was removed, and the roof in the central portion of the building was removed to form a large light well on the third floor and erection of partition walls to form rooms and corridors resulted in conversion of the entire third floor from carbarn to office.

"On April 30, 1949 the Rosslyn - Benning Line, which had operated in part from Georgetown Carbarn, was abandoned and the division office was closed after 54 years of continuous operation. Some cars remained in the building as stored cars but in May of 1950 the last car was removed and the building indeed was only general office building. Near the end of 1952 what had been car storage area on the first floor was converted to office area for the Treasurer's Office, the Machine Accounting Division and the Personnel and Medical Offices, all of which had formerly been on the third floor. This change relieved the upper floors of a considerable amount of weight and provided a great deal more space for the operations involved. At the same time air conditioning on a large scale was introduced.

"During the period 1957-1960 the entire second floor was converted to use as office space, and the entire building was refurbished inside and outside to make of it a modern office building. Ceilings which had been built to clear street cars were lowered to normal height and acoustically treated to reduce noise; fluorescent lighting was installed; walls for the most part were papered rather than painted; carpets were installed on nearly all floors; and the building was completely air conditioned. For the convenience of employees a lunchroom was installed. Much of the antiquated, but not antique, furniture was discarded. What furniture was left was modernized as to design and finish in company shops and a great amount of modem furniture replaced that which had been retired.

"The additional space provided made it possible to bring all general office functions into one building for the first time in many years, if not for the first time ever, and there was still space available for lease to tenants.

"Today the building which was conceived 66 years ago as a grandiose structure of the traction era, which was then in its ascendancy, has been remolded into a highly functional modem structure of the bus era. What does the future hold in store for this fine old Georgetown landmark?" December 18, 1961.

Overall dimensions: 180' (front) x 242' (deep); three stories in height plus 140' tower.