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Grand opening, part 1

DATE OF EVENT: Thursday, Nov. 4, 1999

DATE PUBLISHED: Friday, Nov. 5, 1999, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: Eighty-five years — almost to the day — after it opened in 1914, Union Station reopened, newly renovated and housing Science City. It was the end of a project financed by a historic bistate tax, a sales tax assessed on both sides of the state line. The landmark’s darkest days were behind it, but there would be problems on the horizon for the station as the city struggled to fund its maintenance. But all that was in the future. This was a time for celebration.

A reborn Union Station made its debut Thursday night, 85 years after the first train chugged in and a decade after the crumbling station was finally shuttered.

And what once was a dilapidated heap of fallen plaster, sooty walls and puddled floors has been restored to a landmark of shining marble and ornately painted ceilings that some say shows what a united Kansas City metropolitan area can accomplish.

The station, renovated at a cost of $250 million, will house Science City, an interactive museum run by the Kansas City Museum, as well as theaters, shops and restaurants.

“This is one of the great edifices in the nation, right here in Kansas City,” said Sprint Corp. Chairman William T. Esrey. “To be able to restore it to its historic grandeur and at the same time put it to such a creative and worthwhile use as a science museum, to me is just an unbeatable combination.” …

“I don’t know how to describe it,” said Drue Jennings, co-chairman of the capital campaign, as he stood dwarfed by the old North Waiting Room’s 65-foot ceilings. “You could use any superlative you could think of. Remarkable, awesome, intimidating. … These walls were totally black. We couldn’t walk through here in our suits. It was dirty and decrepit.”

But even when the station was at its most decrepit, Jennings said, the large space that Union Station occupies in people’s memories made fund raising an easy sell.

“People walked through here, particularly the older generation, and you could see their minds at work, conjuring up memories,” Jennings said.

Fund-raising co-chairman Bill Hall said: “Once we brought someone in the building, we had a convert.”

Among the memories swirling through the cocktail party chatter were those of Henry Bloch, who felt mostly fear when he left for the Army in 1944 by way of the station.

Then there was Walter Cronkite, who was a reporter for KCMO and United Press in Kansas City in the 1930s.

“All the movie stars used to come through here on their way to Los Angeles,” Cronkite said. “It was always a great time to get them. They’d had a few drinks on the train. You could usually get them to talk about things they wouldn’t normally talk about. I particularly remember John Barrymore. He was always good for a quote.”

Cronkite, a longtime supporter of the station’s renovation, was an invited guest. The party coincided with his 83rd birthday, and the evening ended with Jennings leading the 600 guests in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

As important as the renovation was the way it came about, said Jennings, chief executive officer of Kansas City Power & Light Co.

In 1996, voters in four counties in Kansas and Missouri overcame political and geographic boundaries to approve a bistate cultural sales tax that raised $118 million for the renovation. …

Reconstruction began in January 1998. Since then, cracking concrete floors have been repoured, rusted steel beams replaced, broken plaster walls recast and a new heating and cooling system installed.

Outside the Grand Hall and old waiting room, though, the building is vastly changed from the days before World War II when hundreds of trains came through every day, and hundreds of railroad workers trolled the vast basement with baggage and mail sacks.

Gone are the stairs to the trains. Gone, too, are the train platforms and tracks. In their place, Science City occupies a glass annex to the west of the waiting room — now called Festival Plaza — and its cityscape facades wrap underneath that room, where some of the original trusses are still visible.

But not everything is done just yet. Earlier Thursday, workers in hard hats still scurried around the building, completing a list of some 80 items that contractor J.E. Dunn Construction Co. demanded be finished before the first party started.

So as tables with black tablecloths and multicolored rose arrangements were being set up in Festival Plaza, the sounds of drills, generators and electric screwdrivers reverberated through the Grand Hall. …

But there was no question the renovation was almost complete. Brass-finished doors were in place, the buffed-up golden light fixtures were on the walls, and even the balcony railings were glazed mahogany.

“We want it,” said Scott Vath, a J.E. Dunn vice president in charge of the restoration, “to look perfect.”

It looked that way to Mayor Kay Barnes.

“It’s just wonderful,” she said. “I think it’s going to have more impact than people realize. I think it’ll be a gathering place, like the Country Club Plaza. People will say, ‘When you go to Kansas City, go to Country Club Plaza and go to Union Station.’ ”