Washington’s Metrorail has come under fire, literally, in the last few years, but the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)’s recent effort to paint the vaults at Union Station has sounded an alarm in the architecture and preservation community.
Metrorail can trace its history back to 1967 when an interstate compact between the federal government, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia authorized the creation of WMATA to develop and operate a regional transit system. WMATA approved initial plans for a 98 mile system in 1968, and construction began the following year. The first leg, 4.6 miles of track and five stations between Rhode Island Avenue and Farragut North, opened in March of 1976 with connections out to Virginia and Maryland completed in 1977 and 1978. Since them, Metrorail has continued to expand with the last completed line, the Green Line, opening in 1993, and the newest Silver Line stations opening in 2014..
Today Metrorail stations are considered modern, brutalist landmarks. The majority of Metrorail’s stations were design by architect Harry Weese. Weese was a modernist and an expert in rail projects, but also an urbanist and preservationist, who worked on the restoration of buildings by Adler & Sullivan and Daniel Burnham. Weese designed the metro to be monumental, much like the city of Washington itself. But he developed the system as a kit of parts including simple structures and features that repeated from station to station, giving Metrorail a simplicity and uniformity. As described by Architect Magazine,
The iconic concrete vaults of the subterranean stations are lined with coffered precast concrete panels, diffusely lit by recessed fixtures located behind and below the station platforms. Hexagonal terra-cotta floor tiles line the platforms… The open-air platforms feature arched metal canopies that mimic the arc of the curvaceous vaults and the warm bronze tones of the fixtures in their below-grade counterparts.
At its opening, more than 50,000 people lined up for their first ride. Forty years later it remains a popular architectural icon, despite track problems and rail delays. In recognition of its enduring significance, the AIA awarded the DC metro its Twenty-Five Year Award, explaining that its “stations combine Modernist forms with subtly classical elements to create an experience that speaks to the contemporary power and complexity of the federal government, along with bedrock democratic design traditions.”
But this spring, with no authorization from local review agencies, WMATA whitewashed the vaults at Union Station. WMATA defended its actions arguing that the paint would brighten the station. But the decision has come under strong criticism. A coat of paint may seem like a small change, but it is an irreversible measure that not only detracts from the original exposed concrete design but will only lead to further maintenance challenges.
WMATA has to juggle main interests, but station illumination does not have to come at the expense of historic preservation and long term stewardship. At a time when WMATA is facing many challenges, a decision to act in the public good and invest in long term strategies that respect the metro’s contribution to Washington, DC’s architectural legacy would make this an easy fire to put out.