Long considered a Los Angeles architectural icon, the Los Angeles Union Station was the last of the"great" train stations built during the peak of rail travel in the United States. Financed and constructed by the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, and Union Pacific railroads and completed in 1939, Union Station centralized passenger rail travel in Los Angeles and provided the primary gateway into the city before the rise of air and automobile travel.
While the building is now a recognizable symbol of the city, the three major railroads involved in the project fought for decades to forestall its construction. Reluctant to finance a union station when they already owned and operated separate terminals in the downtown area, the railroads did not start the project until pressured by local business and political leaders and mandated by the California Railroad Commission. The railroads appealed the commission's directive for more than a decade but were finally forced to begin land acquisition and construction in the early 1930s.
The railroads settled on the station's current location because Southern Pacific already owned a significant amount of land in the area. In acquiring additional property for the project, however, the railroads displaced Los Angeles's original Chinatown, forcing many Chinese American land owners and tenants to relocate to Chinatown's present location. The community's forced relocation disrupted the community and destroyed the historic center of Chinese American life in Los Angeles. The dislocation of the community was controversial even at the time of the station's construction.
After acquiring property for the terminal, the railroads commissioned well-known Los Angeles architects John and Donald Parkinson to design a station building that reflected Los Angeles's rise to a city of international stature. The Parkinsons were distinguished for their work on a number of city landmarks, including City Hall, the Bullocks department store, and the Alexandria Hotel. The architects used a blend of Spanish Colonial Revival and Art Deco design elements to emphasize the city's status as a "modern city" as well as its "Spanish" heritage. In particular, the architects emphasized the city's "Spanish" heritage in the terminal's arcades, arches, mission tile roofs, and stucco walls.
While the station was heavily used in its early years, it suffered a period of decline after World War II as airplanes and automobiles replaced trains as the primary mode of transportation in Los Angeles. The terminal was virtually unused when Catellus Development purchased and restored it in the 1990s. The City of Los Angeles also revived travel through the station in the 1990s by making it a regional transportation hub in the subway and commuter train systems. The building is currently included in the National Registry of Historic Places.