M ike Chambers of East Haven hops the train to Grand Central Terminal every weekday morning at 4:40 a.m. When he arrives, he’s at work. Chambers is in charge of the carpentry shop at Grand Central itself.
He enjoys showing off his workspace. Standing on the steps looking down at the main terminal, he looks up instead, at the ornate ceiling adorned with paintings of astrological signs. He shows off the architectural curiosity of another ceiling in the vast station, the curved one in the tunnel outside the Oyster Bar, where, if you stand at one end, the special acoustics make it possible to clearly hear someone whispering at the other end, dozens of feet away.
Listening to Mike Chambers makes you think of the simple journey from New Haven to New York as more than a means to an end. It’s an end in itself, a self-contained vision of wonderment—providing you bother to look up, or look out of a traincar window, or look into a history book.
Many American cities didn’t exist before the railroad came. Take a train today and you’re seeing the oldest parts of a community, what was there when the area was first connected by something more rigid than dirt roads.
As a port town, New Haven had a hundred-year head start on a lot of those cities. It also embraced steam power in the early 1800s not just for transportation but for some of its bigger local industries, including clockmaking. Steam locomotives fit into the fabric of what New Haven already had.
The mid-1970s guidebook New Haven—A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design by Elizabeth Mills Brown explains that Cass Gilbert and celebrated landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted (best known for designing New York City’s Central Park) “Sought to refit New Haven with symbols of the American 20th century. Central to the plan was the the creation of a formal railroad entrance—a new station with a grand plaza and an avenue lined with trees leading to the Green. The station was realized but nothing else was, and in the end Union Station was left a forlorn palace in a decaying part of town.”
Is that why Union Station still has a fringey, outskirts-of-town aspect to it? It shouldn’t be considered the wrong side of the tracks—it is the tracks—but it’s never been the beating heart, or bustling hub, of the community, a role railroad stations usually assume by divine right.
Certainly Union Station has its magnificence, if you care to notice it when dashing for one of the frequent trains to destinations elsewhere. Even if you’re rushing, you can appreciate the imposing Solari board which announces the incoming and outgoing trains with flickering black-metal flips of signage; it’s an outdated method, and most Solari boards at other stations in the country have long been replaced. Not New Haven’s, by choice—when a new board was proposed a few years ago, the community rallied to keep the old one. Downstairs, there’s the flashy shiny tunnel leading to the train platforms—a glittering real-life sci-fi passageway which seems to have sprung from a movie like Alphaville or Blade Runner.
Designed by Cass Gilbert, a classicist in an age of architectural modernism, Union Station has relatives that can be reached easily by rail from New Haven. Gilbert did the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. (a four and a half hour commute from New Haven via Amtrak’s Acela Express) and the gothic Woolworth Building in Manhattan (one hour and forty minutes from New Haven thanks to Metro-North) and the Tudor Revival-styled Seaside Clinic in Waterford (not far from New London, the last stop on the Shoreline East rail line out of New Haven).
Transportation studies show New Haven to be the busiest Amtrak station in Connecticut. When there’s a decrease in train travel state- or nationwide, the dip in New Haven is usually less than it is elsewhere. Train travel is a long-accepted way in which New Haveners prefer to get to other places. Union Station is also a place where you can just stand back and marvel at where the city’s come from. And if you’re like Mike Chambers, it means you’ve come home again.
New Haven Union Station
50 Union Ave., New Haven (map)
Amtrak | Metro-North | Shoreline East
Written by Christopher Arnott.