Pruning the Parks: The $100 Million National Visitor Center Fiasco

Union Station survived the National Visitor Center fiasco and is now a busy train station and upscale mall. This remarkable wide-angle view of Union Station was assembled from 20 individual shots taken on 17 July 2007 and stitched together into one pano image. Derek Heidelberg photo via Wikipedia.

The National Visitor Center was a bad idea that came to a bad end. When it was abolished on December 29, 1981, the NPS breathed a huge sigh of relief. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that $100 million back?

Washington, DC’s Union Station opened in 1908 to great fanfare. Considered one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture, it was the world’s largest train station and the prime gateway to the nation’s capital. In a city virtually cluttered with grand public spaces, it was one of the grandest of them all. The cavernous Main Hall has 90-foot ceilings.

As rail travel declined in the post-World War II era, Union Station became a financial sink and fell into sad disrepair. By the late 1950s, the building was so functionally obsolete that its owners weighed the merits of demolishing it. Early 1960s proposals for repurposing the building as a cultural center or railroad museum were deemed infeasible, and by the mid 1960s there remained little hope that Union Station could escape the wrecker’s ball.

Given Union Station’s proud past, it’s sad that events conspired to place it at the very epicenter of one of the Bicentennial Celebration’s biggest and best publicized flops. Few Bicentennial-related facilities that you can name were planned more poorly, executed less competently, or wasted more taxpayer dollars than the National Visitor Center project. It was situated in Union Station, and it was, sad to say, a National Park Service project.

Like a slow motion train wreck, the National Visitor Center fiasco began happening a long time before it came to its ugly conclusion. The 1960s found many forward-thinkers already beginning to plan facilities, programs, and events appropriate for the celebration of the National Bicentennial in 1976. You have to plan for such things way in advance, especially since some projects involve big money, complicated arrangements, and lengthy construction schedules. Some Bicentennial Celebration attractions were major construction projects, renovations, or community celebrations resulting from planning that began as much as a decade beforehand.

The National Mall, the Capitol, and related sites and monuments were destined to be focal points for the Bicentennial Celebration, so planners began thinking far in advance about new facilities that might be needed. Many millions of visitors would be descending on Washington, DC -- even more than the roughly 20 million or so that visit in a normal year -- and there was consequently reason to think big.

The notion of building a central clearinghouse where visitors could obtain information about DC’s monuments, museums, government buildings, and other attractions had been broached earlier, but by 1967 the idea had moved to the serious discussion stage and the old Union Station was being pushed as the venue.

From the historic preservation viewpoint, repurposing the once-proud Union Station for use as a National Visitor Center was a tantalizing idea. But alas; experience would show that not enough careful thought was given to the economics of the project or to the basic question of whether visitors would want to go to Union Station.

Although we can now see that repurposing Union Station as the National Visitor Center was a monumentally bad idea from the git-go, it had its enthusiastic supporters. None was more ardent than U.S. Representative Kenneth J. Gray (D-IL). Representative Gray served with distinction in nine Congresses (1955-1974), but pushing for the National Visitor Center did not prove to be his finest hour.

Legislation authorizing the National Visitor Center moved through Congress rapidly. On the morning of March 12, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Visitor Center Facilities Act into law and made these remarks:

Each year more than 10 million people visit this Nation's Capital and some 2 million come here to the White House.

They arrive in a strange city. They have to make their way through very unfamiliar streets. If they can find a lot to park their car in, they then must cope with the public transportation system that has confused many a world traveler.

There is no central clearinghouse where a visitor can gather information about our many monuments, museums, and Government buildings. He must needlessly waste hours deciding what to see and determining when he can see it.

The tourist and the student are invited to Washington. Then they are told to go and fend for themselves. It is as if we asked someone to come to our house to visit with us and then we told him to find the kitchen and fix his own dinner.

The bill that I am signing here will assure that in the future our visitors to Washington will at least be given a proper welcome. Under the National Visitor Center Facilities Act of 1968:

--A visitor center will be created in what is now known as Union Station. A new railway passenger terminal will be built nearby.
--A parking lot to hold 4,000 cars will be built adjacent to the Union Station.
--Low-cost public transportation will be available to take our visitors from the center to points along the Mall and the Capitol grounds.
--There will be a Capitol Visitor Center, right in the Capitol Building, where you can find out where to go, what time events take place, the points of history about the building and about our Congress. You will also be able to get books and pictures about the Capitol.
--An advisory commission, chaired by the distinguished Secretary of the Interior, will conduct a continuing review of the visitor's problems and the visitor's needs, so that we can keep our facilities up to date.

We are making a very special effort this year to try to attract foreign visitors to our country.
We hope that the visa requirements for foreign tourists can be cased. Hospitality cards will be issued which will entitle foreigners to very special discounts at hotels and Government-operated facilities. I hope many restaurants and other firms will join in this program.

Naturally, many of these foreign visitors are going to come here to our Capital-come to Washington.

And I think it is all the more important now, when all Americans will be opening their hearts and their homes to visitors from other lands, that the Nation's Capital should provide a very special welcome.

For Americans and foreigners alike, we want Washington to symbolize the best of our country--a city of beauty and warmth and hospitality.

For the fact that the Congress has brought me this legislation and for their presence here this morning, I express my appreciation.

The National Park Service was given the responsibility for constructing and administering the new facility. It was not a good day for the NPS.

After many travails, the project was completed, except for the parking garage, in time for the opening ceremonies on Independence Day 1976. Tourists who visited the National Visitor Center found two 175-seat movie theaters that offered a "Washington, City Out of Wilderness” film, multilingual information desks, a bookstore, and other attractions, including most particularly an extravagant slide show presentation that used 100 Kodak Carousel slide projectors and 100 screens. Though officially dubbed the PAVE (for Primary Audio-Visual Experience), this array was widely -- and derisively – called “the Pit.”

Alas, few tourists went to Union Station. The National Visitor Center was poorly publicized, lacked convenient parking, and offered little that was genuinely interesting to the typical DC tourist. Small wonder that it never caught on. After embarrassingly low attendance, loud complaints, some 20 congressional hearings, and a 1977 GAO report that Union Station was in danger of structural collapse, the National Park Service decided to pull the plug. The PAVE was terminated on October 28, 1978, and the National Visitor Center was out of business. Union Station was sealed shut in 1981, and before the year was out (December 29, 1981), Congress transferred Union Station to the Department of Transportation. The National Park Service was finally rid of the damn thing.

The monetary outlay for the National Visitor Center fiasco had been $100 million, give or take. This works out to about one million dollars per Carousel projector.

Postscript: Union Station did not succumb to the wrecker’s ball as many feared. Instead, it was restored and reopened in 1988 as a busy AMTRAK station and upscale shopping mall with over 100 shops and restaurants. The owners claim that 32 million visitors pass through Union Station each year. That would make it the most visited place in The District.

Comments

During a recent, temporary, two-year stint my wife spent in Washington, with an apartment a few blocks from Union Station, I got to know this structure well enough to get through it.

Though not as grand as Grand Central Station in that fair metropolis to the north, I've found Union Station to be quite pleasant as a jumping off point for the Metro, for a jolt of Joe or piece of Danish when you're passing through, or for tacky D.C. memorabilia.

True, it's probably not as grand or as pertinent as it was a century ago, but it's a place that should be treasured nonetheless.

And they serve up some of the best brews in the city next door at Capitol City Brewery; it's in the old post office.

Kurt, it seems only reasonable to expect a little ambiance at Union Station. After the Park Service finished pouring $100 million down the National Visitor Center rathole, Congress enacted the Union Station Redevelopment Act of 1981 and by 1988 an additional $160 million was spent on a three-year project to "restore Union Station to its former glory." I don't know about you, Kurt, but I'd enjoy my Starbucks a hell of a lot more during a Union Station visit if I didn't know that it cost over a quarter of a billion dollars to make that building a going concern again.

I couldn't help but notice in LBJ's remarks mention of the Capitol Visitor's Center. The final price tag on that fiasco? $621 million. Yet another lesson that it takes more than good intentions to ensure that public money is well spent.

Frank C, I was visiting there in October and after a long day of walking the museums, all I could think of was a cold brew from Cap City. Had my wife convinced of the same thing. To my disappointment, the place was closed down and looked pretty gutted. We ended up eating at Union Station.