A Train Station Can be Great Once More

Walk into Union Station in Washington, DC and you’ll see a beautiful, European-style railway station with a majestic high arched ceiling, shops, restaurants, and people from all over the world.

Walk into Greensboro’s transportation center, and you won’t find nearly as big of a building, or as much to look at, but there will still be decent sized crowds for trains and buses at certain times of the day.

Walk into the old Winston-Salem Union Station building at 300 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and you’ll find an empty building, which was an auto garage for three decades but still contains many of the original features from the station.

Railroads once served a very important function in North Carolina as well as the rest of the country, moving goods throughout the state. The station was located on the Winston-Salem Southbound Railway, which was constructed in the early part of the 20 th century to serve the textile and agricultural industries. Later passenger trains began running on the line, and the Norfolk & Western Railway and the Southern Railway began operating trains as well.

In its heyday in the 1940s, the station saw 18 trains and more than 500 passengers pass through each day. You could hop on a train and head to Charlotte, Raleigh, or several other cities around the state. But with the rise of the auto industry and the construction of the interstate system in the 1950s, train travel fell out of favor. The last passenger train stopped in Winston-Salem on June 15, 1970. In 1975 the building was purchased by Harvey Davis, who operated a mechanic business for 30 years before the city took over the building. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

The city received federal funding to restore the station about eight years ago, but it wasn’t until recently the city hired an architect. The challenge, as with many projects of this scale, is having enough money and figuring out what the best use of the space is.

It appears that plans are beginning to go forward with the project. On June 17, about 20 residents of East Winston gathered in the Ishi Pentecostal Temple to give their input on their vision for the future of the station. Several in attendance expressed nostalgia, having ridden trains in and out of the station as children. They want to preserve the history of the station by turning it into a museum. To Davis’s credit, many of original features of the building are still intact.

Others said they thought it would be more important to think of the short-term benefits, and turn it into a retail space. This, combined with the presence of nearby Winston-Salem State University, would help spur economic growth to an area of the city that needs it.

Being a train buff, I would love nothing more than to see Amtrak service return to Winston-Salem and possibly spread to the Western part of the state, but realistically I might be eligible for Social Security by the time that happens. In the meantime, let’s celebrate the building. How? A museum might sound nice in theory, and it would certainly accomplish the task of preserving the station’s heritage, but it would not be located in the most visited section of the city. It would also affirm the idea that trains in Winston- Salem are a thing of the past, and I’m not ready to let that dream die.

The wild card in all this I think is Winston Salem State University. Everyone in the community may not agree on how to use the building, but there are more than 6,000 students who wouldn’t mind having another place to hang out on weekends, or a place to study. Architect Rence Callahan called the station “a fabulous piece of architecture” which could be the “showpiece of East Winston.” Bold statement? Perhaps. But all successful development projects involve some leap of faith. I would point you to Raleigh’s Seaboard Station, which stopped serving trains in the 1980s and was turned into a garden center. In the last decade, the area surrounding that building has been transformed from what was once a dormant area of downtown Raleigh into a popular destination for shopping and eating out.

There’s no guarantee the same level of success which happened in Raleigh will happen in East Winston, but at this point any outcome would be better than the place sitting empty.

There will be more meetings down the road similar to the one last week, and undoubtedly there will be a variety of proposals put on the table. No matter what the city decides to do, some people will be unhappy. But to me, putting the students first accomplishes a few different tasks. It gives them some more options for dining and entertainment, it preserves the station’s heritage , and it says to the city, ”we have a beautiful building here and we want to maximize its potential.” And maybe, one day, trains will once again roll through Winston-Salem as they did in the last century. !