Sunday, July 11, 2010

Washington Deco: The Old Greyhound Terminal

The stretch of New York Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets NW is a wonderfully open urban space—a broad, divided east-west avenue with a triangle of parkland and busy north-south streets on either side. The spot could make for a handy transportation hub, and that is just what it did for almost half a century, hosting the Greyhound Bus Lines Super Terminal on the south side of the avenue. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the D.C. Preservation League, the Art Deco Society of Washington and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the former terminal, completed in 1940, survives today nearly intact as the entrance pavilion to a modern office building at 1100 New York Avenue.



The terminal is a classic art deco (or  moderne) landmark with a streamlined 1930s look that epitomizes the promise of the industrial age as the hope for the future and the savior of civilization. The stepped central tower, a typical "ziggurat" design, exudes freshness and optimism with its clean, triumphal lines. The smoothed corners and streamlined look of course also suggest the speed with which Greyhound's Super Coaches were to whisk you to your destination. The building's architect, Louisville-based William S. Arrasmith, designed over 50 streamlined bus stations for Greyhound in the 1930s and 1940s, and this Super Terminal may be his finest. The building's exterior is faced in Indiana limestone and neatly rimmed along its upper edges with glazed black terracotta coping. Aluminum trim and glass-block accentuate the entrance. Inside is a large, round central waiting room with stores on either side. The floor was a jazzy checkerboard terrazzo. The walls were originally partially finished in walnut and trimmed in burnished copper. Large photo murals of scenic places throughout the United States were on the upper portions of the walls. Formica in dark red, brown, and gray was used for wainscoting, columns, and counter tops.

Greyhound got its start on the back roads of Minnesota, where Carl Eric Wickman began a jitney service for iron miners in 1914. The company grew rapidly through a series of mergers and acquisitions, becoming one of the largest in the United States by 1929. The company's expansion mirrored the growth of the industry, which was so rapid that cities like Washington struggled to deal with the congestion it created. The city's newspapers from the 1920s and 30s are filled with articles about new bus services and decisions by the Public Utilities Commission to try to limit their takeover of city streets. While stations were located at various spots downtown, New York Avenue was a particularly attractive location because it connected directly with highways to the east. Greyhound had built a restrained art-deco terminal near the northwest corner of 14th Street and New York Avenue in 1933. Called an "imposing addition to the architectural beauty of the city," by The Washington Post, that terminal could accommodate just 12 buses, with 2 loading and unloading lanes. It lasted only five years before the company decided to build the much larger Super Terminal two blocks to the east.

The new station opened to great acclaim in March 1940. On opening day, 25,000 gawkers filed in, admiring the stylish decor, all the leather and aluminum. A swing band played, and some people danced where they could find room. Each guest was given a "souvenir," the newspapers tell us, although what it was we do not know. The $1 million, fully air-conditioned new building seemed to impress everyone to no end.

The waiting room in 1943 (Source: Library of Congress)

The timing of the opening was propitious, coming just before hordes of servicemen and other government workers began inundating the city to fuel the war effort. The terminal was quickly overrun with business. In May 1943, Wilson Scott wrote in the Washington Times-Herald of his impressions of the wartime bus station. He noted that "On Sunday nights in addition to the regular buses, almost 2,000 service men are transported back to camp between the hours of 6 p.m. and 12 midnight... I have often seen a long line of soldiers, sailors and sweethearts on Sunday night wrapped around almost three full sides of the block on which the terminal stands and waiting seats." Ever present were military police and shore patrolmen along with their Black Marias and patrol wagons, ready to nab any troublemakers or servicemen who had gone AWOL. On a more poignant note, Scott  found a civilian cop trying to comfort a bedraggled young boy who had run way from home two days before. "Dressed in a gray sweater and corduroy knickers extending practically to his ankles and looking out with timid, forlorn eyes on a cold, cold world, the little lad was too frightened to talk." After trying his best to communicate with the child, the cop finally called a police wagon to take him away, which I'm sure did much to settle the young boy's anxiety.

Christmas Rush in 1941 (Source: Library of Congress)

The Washington Star reported in July 1945 about a war-bereaved father from Newark, New Jersey, whose son had gone missing in the Pacific. After drinking heavily one night, the man walked into the Greyhound terminal and shot an apparently total stranger, then turned the gun on himself. The stranger, hit in the stomach, survived; the distraught father died later that night at Emergency Hospital.

The terminal in a postcard view from c. 1960.

The station stayed busy for several decades after the war. In 1973, Henry Allen wrote a wonderful profile of the now-old Greyhound terminal for The Washington Post, finding not stylish elegance but "that bus station smell...the stale, sweet, sooty urban smell of cigar smoke, cold sweat and carbon monoxide; the tart, grimy smell of winos, and the starchy air of the cafeteria, like the mess hall of a troop ship." The station had changed. Instead of sumptuous benches upholstered in leather, Allen noted the "plastic seats with bolted-on TV sets that nobody watches." About the architecture, Allen noted with a jaundiced eye that "the downtown Greyhound station epitomizes the march-of-progress school of architecture that scattered its sculptured monuments around the country before World War II"--a futile and naive gesture, he seemed to be thinking. And it was hard not to be jaded at that point, surrounded by the assortment of "pimps, pickpockets. winos, junkies, whores, transvestites, Murphy men, pushers, all-round hustlers and restroom commandos" that populated the terminal on a semi-permanent basis. There were still plenty of servicemen moving through the station, but now they were mostly prey for the hustlers. "These guys go down to the pet store on H Street, buy three-quarters of an ounce of catnip for 51 cents. It makes a good-looking ounce of marijuana. You sell it to these GIs," Allen learned. Finally Allen talked to a young woman sitting in the station's restaurant: " 'You want to know why I hang in here?' she asks.... 'I'll tell you,' she says with sudden ennui, 'I just don't know myself.'"

The old terminal's art deco ebullience, it seems, had become almost an embarrassment on the mean streets of downtown in the 1970s. Greyhound execs must have thought so when they decided in 1976 to box the whole thing up. Architect Gordon Holmquist came up with a renovation based on installing concrete asbestos panels and a squat-looking metal mansard roof around the entire building. The resulting look was buttoned down but awkward and ungainly. In retrospect, it's hard to fathom what the Greyhound people were thinking, but they weren't the only ones architecturally adrift in that Bicentennial year. At the same time the National Visitors Center opened, a horrendous multimedia pit dug into the center of Union Station. Soon recognized as a pointless failure, the Center was shut down within two years. It was not a good moment for transportation architecture.

The re-packaged terminal in 1977 (Photo courtesy of the D.C. Preservation League archives)

Buses parked at the rear of the terminal in 1977. (Photo courtesy of the D.C. Preservation League archives)

By the mid 1980s, the Greyhound terminal had reached the end of the road, so to speak, at least as a bus station. Real estate in the old downtown was beginning to turn around, and the property was quite valuable. Greyhound sold the property for $21 million in 1985 and, after acquiring rival Trailways in 1987, consolidated bus operations at Trailways' new terminal behind Union Station.

Led by Richard Longstreth of the Committee of 100 and Richard Striner of the Art Deco Society of Washington, a coalition of preservationists rallied in the early 1980s to get the old terminal designated as an historic landmark. Their efforts were complicated by the fact that the original facade was covered over and its condition unknown. The developers at first thought to just incorporate elements of the station's facade in their new monster office building, but the preservationists wanted the entire building saved and mounted a sophisticated campaign to do so. Finally, a breakthrough was reached in 1988 when the developers and the future owners of the office building agreed to a 10 percent decrease in total office space that would allow the entire terminal to be saved as a gateway to the new  building. The handsomely-restored bus station cum office building opened in 1991. It includes a striking permanent exhibit on the history of the bus terminal, complete with life-size plaster casts of historic buses standing precisely where their bays would have been at the back of the original terminal.

The terminal as it appears today.

30 comments:

  1. Absolutely wonderful! Your best yet. Bravo!

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  2. What indeed were architects in the 70s thinking??? The city is full of their hideous concoctions -- just look at our city's public university up at Van Ness. Thank goodness folks had the sense to preserve the Greyhound gem before it was demolished...

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  3. This was an excellent write up. I live just up New York Ave and pass this frequently. I'll now have a much bigger appreciation of the building and how close we were to losing it.

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  4. Great read! Always wondered what that building was about.

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  5. Daniel Marra, Sr.July 13, 2010 at 9:08 AM

    Very nice!! Seeing the preserved Greyhound Terminal is awesome and brings back great memories. I rode Grehound buses from Wash, DC to and from NYC from 1954 through 1956 while in the military. From 1958 through 1975, I drove buses to and from NYC & Phila, to Wash,DC Greyhound Terminal.
    Thanks for the memories!!

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  6. "Restroom commando"? That...leaves a lot to the imagination....

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  7. And what is a Murphy man? One can guess about restroom commando, but the Murphy man is beyond me. It's fascinating to see how the building seems to bring out both the poet and the inner Dashiell Hammett in everyone who writes about it. A fascinating piece!

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  8. As I recall a Murphy Man is a the name for a con man who, typically, would take money from a victim to procure a prostitute on his behalf but steal the money -- usually by placing the money in an envelope but then switching it out with an envelope filled with paper. This swindle was called a "Murphy Game" but I don't know why.

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  9. I've tried to search for the history of the term Murphy Game online. An Encarta item says it was named after an imaginary prostitute ``Miss Murphy'' who was used as a lure, while Wiley says it's after a 19th century confidence man of that name. Since a Murphy is also slang for potato, it may very well be one of those terms coined at a time when businesses would post signs like ``No dogs, no blacks, no Irish.''

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  10. Great research, but have to say I'm not really a fan of the building. I always feel like it needs a coat of paint to liven it up.

    That part of New York Ave. is actually my least favorite part of downtown. It's hot, empty and imposing- the kind of place you want to walk through as quickly as possible.

    Good to know that Greyhound has fifty plus years of being a magnet for all things seedy.

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  11. What an excellent writeup. Thank you!

    My father was a big fan of Art Deco and this building was a true delight to him (and me) In fact, it was hard to tell where the terminal ended and the new building began!

    Glad this building was saved. DC's Art Deco history doesn't seem to get the attention it deserves

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  12. Thank you so much! This is great!

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  13. I am the proud owner of one of the two Raymond Lowey-designed metal greyhounds from the building's original signage. (Visible in the early postcard and photo.) Purchased at a DC junk store years ago. Not 100% sure it's from the DC station, but it seems likely. Interestingly, it's riddled with bullet holes. Wow, that's 70s renovation is one of the most appalling things I've ever seen. I had no idea. Thank god it was reversible.

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  14. OMG I remember so well year ago while transit in the Navy catching a Greyhound in WaShington DC. I also remember a cute blond flirting with this sailor... luck would have it... she was going the other way.

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  15. I spent some time there commuting between D.C. and College Park. The drivers taught us how to "pop" the doors so we didn't have to wait in the cold.

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  16. I used to take buses from that location in the early 80's. Really sketchy neighborhood then.

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  17. I, too, would catch the bus there to Tuskegee,AL when I was a student there....Long bus ride!

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  18. Well, I recently snapped a foto of the building from the 11th street side and put it in my blog at http://ragandboneslady.blogspot.com/2012/07/seeing-art-deco-in-downtown.html

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  19. I drove out of this station many times,we did a lot of work during the holidays (Gold Line) late 70's early 80's. I sure do miss it. Restrooms were down stairs not to cool if you know what I mean.

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  20. So where did the Restroom Commandos relocation program send them to?

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  21. I am glad hey kept the outside of the old Greyhound Station.
    I pass by it all the time in my car& look over at it.
    As a lifelong DC resident I use to travel out of that station doing the 60s & early 70s before myself & my sister started driving to our out of town relatives. We went by Trailways most of the time to my grandparents home in Baltimore.Trailways was just across the street from Greyhound but sometimes we would run over to Greyhound to catch a buss tat was leaving as the Trailways had already gone. Anytime we went to Hampton VA or New York we went by Greyhound. But yes I love that old building.

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  22. Interestingly enough, before the terminal was constructed at this location, the site served as the terminal for the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railway for the interurban streetcars that operated between the namesake cities.

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  23. This building WOW Such a dynamic piece of architecture. It has had a profound effect on me for as long as I could remember. We used to pick my grandmother and cousin up from that terminal when they would come up from Suffolk Va, in the 70s. I used to get goosebumps as we would drive past the rear semi circular bus loading area on I think 11th street It was an awsom sight to see the buses parked in a fanned out position from under the circular overhang. I remember going inside the terminal to see relatives off, the circular waiting room with the windows wow. I was a niave wide eyed kid at the time so I had no idea about the bad element that existed there. Sadly I never got to ride a bus from that terminal.

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  24. My wife and I passed this building on a recent visit to D.C. and stared for a few seconds and then surmised that this must be the old Greyhound Station...through which I had passed on a childhood visit to D.C. with my parents in the 1960's. What a great architectural achievement and what a great addition for this wonderfully restored part of D.C.

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  25. Thanks for this great post, with the all too rare happy ending. Ironically, that ludicrous box which was wrapped around it during the seventies remodeling may have helped to preserve this wonderful building. At the time it could easily have been leveled or altered beyond all hope of recovery.

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  26. my father had his commercial artist business at 1010 eye street n.w. which was just across the street from the terminal. i understand that whole area was torn down to build the mci stadium. does anyone know where there might be a photo of the building before it was torn down?

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  27. When I was an active duty Marine in the late 70s/early 80s I would take the Greyhound back and forth from Camp Lejeune NC to PA where I'm from. Trailways was on the opposite side of the street and I'd run over there if I missed the Greyhound. They ran a few minutes apart, so you couldn't lose. lol! I always had a layover in DC, so I'd get off the bus, cross New York Ave and go to a club called The Zoo to drink and dance, then I'd go catch my bus and sleep the rest of the way. It was a pretty seedy section of town then. A couple of blocks near the White House, you would see hookers on the stroll. Wild. lol!
    Nobody from that area would recognize the place now. It's all office buildings, high-end shopping and restaurants.

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  28. Greyhound got its start on the back roads of Minnesota, where Carl Eric Wickman began a jitney service for iron miners in 1914

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  29. Wow go get your popcorn I could sit here and tell you all about the good and bad memories of going greyhound from as early as the 8os I was 18 years old when I first got on it with my newborn daughter, had a layover from dc to Pittsburgh and our wait was 2 hours this women in the station tried to kidnap my child to make a long story short those greyhound workers in Pittsburgh were on their job they jumped in stoped this women and she was arrested.every since then I was scared to go greyhound again but I didn't stop. So back to greyhound in dc the homeless people made a permanent home for themselves.they had Jitney drivers this bus terminal was famous to the prostitutes too I saw way to much when I was young .but like others said I'm so happy that they saved the structure and now all we have is memories...thanks for sharing everyone I still reside here in Dc I love my city

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  30. In 1963, I came through here as a teenager on the way to the World Science Fiction Convention at the Statler-Hilton (now a Hilton, still there). It was a week after the March on Washington, and people didn't know whether the terminal would still be there, or burned down in explosive riots.

    Decades later, I went to the American Booksellers Convention at the new (and since torn down) Convention Center, and was stunned to find the old Greyhound Terminal surrounded by new construction in a now-unrecognizeable area of DC.

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