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.|