The east side of Lawrence has a very unique and special place that I love to visit. It’s straight out of the Twilight Zone, or at least you might think you are starring in one stepping inside. It is a fully functional 1955 Mid-Century Modern Train Station right out of the hit show Mad Men.

Walking thru the cold glow of the blue neon into the lobby,one first notices the vintage fixtures, from the Jetson style hanging lights to the old General Electric analog clock suspended from the ceiling. The aerial shot of Lawrence itself is a gem, and the retro mod furnishings complete the picture. The signage that proclaims this a waiting room is perfect in its chic block lettering, along with the golden stained wood trim adorning the ticket counter.

The old Sante Fe Depot at 7th and New Jersey streets was until recently known in the area as the scary “Steven King” station, deserted and left unlocked, it attracted vandals and the homeless into its time frozen interior. Built in 1956 to accommodate Lawrence travelers, the station had fallen into disrepair and neglect with the rise of the automobile. Train conductors tell of a time not very long ago that they had to shoo vagrants from inside during a stop in Lawrence.

Recently, a group calling themselves Depot Redux has been working hard to save the station and bring it back to its former glory. They have cleaning parties there monthly and have been instrumental in getting Amtrak to hire two caretakers to meet the train that stops twice daily, once at 6am and again at midnight, departing then to Topeka (the midnight train to Topeka alla the Pips, hmmm.)

The new signage has helped make a visual impact on the progress at the station. Originally, Amtrak had agreed to restore the existing signage and replace the Sante Fe sign in front with a historically accurate Amtrak sign to match, but in August 2010, thieves stole one of the signs. Although the sign was returned, it could not be restored and was instead replaced with a replica. Amtrak’s rebranding of the station with modern and historically correct neon signs was a $50,000  ARRA funded project.

Construction of a new platform to welcome riders is underway. $1.5 million was spent to replace the existing platform with a new ADA compliant one that was funded through government stimulus funds. They anticipate being finished by Thanksgiving, 2011.

The city is still debating the future of the station, with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway offering to sell the station to the city for one dollar. Amtrak has guaranteed the funding for the additional ADA compliant updates to the building which include new bathrooms (I hope they don’t change too much, it’s refreshing to see a public bathroom with both hot & cold water knobs), water fountains and entrances. Unfortunately, the city is undecided on the now 4 month old offer due to the lack of funding it has to complete the over $400,000 of other repairs needed; the roof and HVAC desperately need attention. Although the city has applied for grants to cover these costs, because it does not actually own the station, it has had difficulty in winning any funding to do so. Depot Redux has also applied for a grant for a new roof, but with the ownership matter unsettled, funders have turned away from this otherwise very worthy project.

Amtrak released figures that shows Lawrence ridership of the passenger train is up 26% over the prior year in the fiscal year ending this past September. Nationally, Amtrak experienced a 5.1% growth in the depressed economy, showing a willingness of people to consider train travel a viable and more green option. Compared to 2007 numbers, the usage of this wonderful facility is up more than 70%, much of this can be directly attributed to the grass roots Depot Redux group’s efforts.

This summer, for fun, I took the train from the beautiful downtown Kansas City, Missouri Union Station to Lawrence, arriving just after midnight. I met some really fun people in the lounge car and spent the time in comfort with a cold Heineken and some great laughs. The trip, albeit 15 minutes longer than I could have driven it, was very pleasant and extremely inexpensive! The trip was a bargain at $11, just about what it takes to drive my car there these days. Given the opportunity, I would easily choose that train ride over driving my car.

Traveling by train produces less greenhouse gas emission than either cars or airplanes. As their website touts, “Accordining to U.S. Department of Energy data, Amtrak is almost 20 percent more efficient than domestic airline travel and 30 percent more efficient than auto travel on a per-passenger-mile basis.” With numbers like that and the current trend towards reducing our carbon imprints, Amtrak is going to continue to grow. Amtrak has additional plans to make existing rail travel even more sustainable, visit them here.

Hopefully, our fair city of Lawrence will see the potential here, both in making rail travel more welcoming and accessible, but also in restoring a building that is a part of history that is often over-looked. The 1950s Mid-Century Modern style of architecture is an amazingly understated style that is just recently being recognized as a significant design movement. This building is a tribute to that period and is eligible to be on the Register of Historic Places. What was once a great part of our past, may indeed be the salvation of the future with climbing gas rices, a failing economy and Americans becoming more aware of their impact on environment.

I hope to see in my life, more passenger rails available to and from Kansas City. With Union Station located in the heart of the city and next to Crown Center, a short bus ride from the Plaza, I and my camera would be their best customer on the afternoon train, returning just as I had, on the Midnight Train to Topeka.

The wind
is in the hearts
of all those heads
It whistles

over plains
rich with
wheat and honey.

You have a ticket. It reads:

To Somewhere.
Some time is taken.
Someone is listening.

And you could sit next to me,
maybe for a while.


For more information regarding the Lawrence Amtrak station or the Depot Redux Group, check out these sites:

Depot Redux Website  or Depot Redux Facebook

Update 12/22/2011

  • Work was completed on the new platform and the facility is now ADA compliant. A ribbon cutting ceremony was held on December 3rd.
  • The city commissioners are considering purchasing the station and turning it into a transportation hub for the city’s buses as well as an Amtrak station. They have asked staff to do a more detailed analysis of the site to determine how it could accommodate up to seven public transit buses at a time, which likely would be a requirement for it to function as a transfer station for the city T bus system.


8 responses to “Whistlestop

  1. Very interesting post. This kind of station looks like Edward Hopper’s paintings.

  2. Le vent
    est dans les coeurs
    de tous ces chefs.
    Il siffle
    au fil des plaines
    riche de
    blé et miel.
    Vous avez un ticket. Il se lit :
    À quelque part.
    Quelque temps est prise.
    Une personne est à l’écoute.
    Et vous pouvez vous asseoir à côté de moi,
    peut-être que pendant un moment.

    Ah ! Les traductions approximatives… bises d’ys

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