Travelers coping with increased delays and security lines and downright bad airport design often wish for a return to the golden age of air travel, when luxurious service, spacious cabins, and a more carefree attitude were the norm. That sounds unthinkable today, considering the upcoming holiday travel season. But those seeking out design excellence may want to look back at the golden age of railroad travel. Late 19th and early 20th century train stations combined classical architectural styles and a desire to embody modernism and forward momentum, resulting in grand public buildings that served as both gateways and symbols of an optimistic new age. Curbed collected some of the best examples of classic designs—as well as a few contemporary examples that capture the skill and grandiose scale of traditional transit hubs—to celebrate these unique buildings, and perhaps inspire some wanderlust.
Milano Centrale (Milan, Italy)
This expansive arched station, which opened in 1931, may have been modeled after Washington, D.C.’s famous Union Station, but it also looked ahead by incorporating a number of Art Deco flourishes. A replacement for the city’s previous central station, which was built in 1864, Milano Centrale features a series a wide steel canopies designed by Alberto Fava, part of streamlined look. Design and then construction kicked off before World War I, but was delayed due to the conflict. Mussolini sped up construction when he came to power, believing the modern station could symbolize the power of the regime. An extensive restoration project was announced earlier this fall.
St. Pancras International (London, England)
Clad in red brick, this London landmark, called “the cathedral of the railways,” may look its age when viewed from Euston Road. But inside, and throughout the new entrance, the station gleams with modernity, the result of a £800 million renovation in 2007. Completed in 1876 by the Midland Railway Company, the combination station/hotel complex was immediately celebrated for architect George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian Gothic design and the expansive train shed engineered by William Henry Barlow. Wrought iron ribs inside created a stunning, open interior, a layout adopted by the designers of New York’s Grand Central Station.
Union Station (Los Angeles, California)
Considered the “last great railroad station,” this 1939 design by John Parkinson and Donald B. Parkinson stands as one of the architectural duo’s great additions to the city. A blend of styles, architecture, and materials, it’s a knockout, featuring interior walls covered in travertine, a southern garden, and a restaurant by southwestern architect Mary Colter complete with an inlaid cement tile floor patterned after a Navajo blanket. Half a million people joined part in a three-day celebration when the station opened in 1939.
CFM Railway Station (Maputo, Mozambique)
Designed by an associate of Alexandre Gustav Eiffel, this 1912 station, with its charming pastel green finish and wrought-iron dome, has become not just a transport hub but a community gathering space. It’s often used for music and cultural event, including fashion shows and concerts.
Atocha Station (Madrid, Spain)
The Spanish capital’s main commuter station was already an architectural beauty, boasting a stunning turn-of-the-century design by Alberto de Palacio Elissagne and Gustave Eiffel. But following a 1985 renovation led by Rafael Moneo, the station’s original building was converted into a multi-use space that blossoms with an indoor tropic garden. With gorgeous trees and flowers set beneath the steel-and-glass roof, the concourse offers visitors an escape from the city without the need for a train ticket.
Gare du Nord (Paris, France)
The busiest station in Europe, this grand Parisian landmark, originally established in 1846, was demolished and rebuilt in the 1860s following the lead of architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff, who blended Beaux Arts concepts with advances in engineering and cast iron. Legend has it that the station wasn’t connected to the city’s grand boulevard system because Hittorff was having an affair with the wife of planner and architect Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. A series of statues ring the building, designed by numerous sculptors to represent some of the key locations served by the railway.
Union Station (Washington, D.C.)
A grand monument that welcomes visitors to our nation’s capitol, this impressive piece of infrastructure was a joint project by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which enabled them to rip up trackwork in the National Mall and open up that grand public space. Designed by Daniel Burnham and William Pierce Anderson, the station inspires and engages, bursting with optimism and grandeur from the triumphal arches and Gustavino-tiled bays to the half-dozen massive “Progress of Railroading” statues in the main hall. The building’s classical references, including the Arch of Rome and Diocletian Baths, and white marble exterior would influence other 20th century public works projects throughout D.C. It’s also quite a step up for the neighborhood, a former swampy slum once derisively referred to as “Swampoodle.”
Old KL Station (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
Built on what was once called Victory Avenue, this ivory-colored station blends Western and Eastern styles, recalling a fusion style found across colonial India. British architect Arthur Benison Hubback integrated a number of elements and flourishes from regional cultural traditions, from the elevated chhatri (umbrella) domes found in Indian buildings to stunning arches and Moorish patterns.
Helsinki Central (Helsinki, Finland)
Used by more than 200,000 passengers daily, the central station in Finland’s capital is the country’s busiest building, and arguably one of its most popular. It’s so well-known, the huge statues of stone men that stand next to the entrance have become animated mascots in railroad advertisement (in one ad, they even rap). Designed by Elliel Saarinen and opened in 1919, the building blends Art Nouveau elements as well as striking modern features, such as the great portal archway and clock tower, showcasing the architect’s prescient shift toward a more streamlined modernism.
Antwerpen-Centraal (Antwerp, Belgium)
The form of many central railway stations results in frequent cathedral comparisons. But Belgium’s most famous station may be the most deserving of such a title. Designed by Louis Delacenserie, the stone clad terminal building, topped with a grand dome, recalls the detail and beauty of religious architecture, with an almost ostentatious combination of grand staircases and expensive finishes.
Formosa Boulevard Station (Kaohsiung, Taiwan)
One of the most modern buildings on this list—it opened in 2008—this subterranean station nonetheless dazzles with its massive, multi-hued “Dome of Light,” a glass ceiling by Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata. Considered one of the biggest public art installations in the world, the massive circular scroll, nearly 100 feet in diameter, tells the story of human progress.
Ramses Station (Cairo, Egypt)
While it’s named after an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, this station offers a very modern interpretation of Islamic architecture and design. The station lost some of its luster during a recent renovation that modernized the interior.
Union Station (St. Louis, Missouri)
While it’s not a functioning station anymore, having been turned into a hotel, shopping center, and entertainment complex in the early ‘80s, this National Landmark still exemplifies the best of classic railroad station design. Architect Theodore Link’s design, clad in Indiana limestone, featured towering, ornate arches and a gold leaf-covered grand hall. During the golden age of railroad travel, the station serviced 22 separate railroads and was considered one of the world’s largest and busiest terminals. Thankfully, this gem of a station was given a second life instead of consigned to the scrapheap of history.
Liège-Guillemins Station (Liège, Belgium)
Santiago Calatrava’s recent World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York City gets all the attention in the United States, but this earlier design in Belgium serves as an equally impressive showcase of his airy, highly engineered style. The soaring white canopies, ethereal arches that seem to great travelers coming from every direction, create a soaring, light-filled terminus that embodies forward movement.
São Bento Railway Station (Porto, Portugal)
Named at a monastery that formerly stood on site, this Beaux Arts beauty is primarily known for the panels of azulejo, delicate blue-and-white tiles that tell stories from Portugal’s history. Artist Jorge Calaco painted the more than 20,000 tiles that line the stunning vestibule.