What A Swell Ride It Was

Like other eccentric hobbies-breeding unusual pets, say, or collecting early blues recordings--an appreciation for Depression-era architecture brings out the fanatic in people. It takes perseverance; art deco buildings tend not to be clustered in neat historic districts, but salted among the gas stations of early highway-strip developments or on the workaday fringes of downtown. They are frequently small, mundane or obscure structures, which makes the battles over preserving them all the fiercer. Not everyone accepts that warehouses and drive-in laundries are part of our precious architectural patrimony.

But it is precisely that democratic impulse that enthusiasts cherish in American architecture of the 1930s. Since that time, who has bothered to build stylish factories or classic bus stations? When construction resumed after the war, the gray cloud of minimalism had descended on the landscape. For the next 30 years, the paradigm for most buildings in America was the concrete or glass cube, scaled up or down according to function.

But were those art deco buildings ever swank! In 1940, when the Washington, D.C., Greyhound terminal opened on New York Avenue and 12th Street, it was a major cultural event meriting six pages in The Washington Post. William Arrasmith's rounded concrete facade, divided by an exuberant central pylon, expressed the highest ideals of modern engineering: the conquest of turbulence by streamlining, a concept so powerful it was applied to buildings and refrigerators no less than vehicles. Twenty-five thousand people came to marvel at the domed and skylit ceiling and the copper-trimmed walnut benches, the columns of gleaming black Formica and the greyhound medallion in the posh terrazzo floor. The building's style, says Richard Striner, a historian and president of the Art Deco Society of Washington, "strikes a balance of elegant civility. It is flamboyant but not obnoxious." Nobody back in 1940 considered this too swell for the sort of people who couldn't afford a train ticket.

Which explains, perhaps, the ever-so-slight creepiness of the restored bus station, which reopened last month as a kind of grand portal to a glamorous hunk of office building belonging to a Canadian insurance company. The renovation marks the success of a seven-year effort by Striner to spare the terminal from demolition-an audacious undertaking, since in 1984 the building was not just obscure but literally invisible. Eight years earlier, in a Bicentennial salute to the decline of American taste, it had been covered with a repulsive mansard roof and corrugated asbestos panels, enabling capital visitors to see at least one structure reminiscent of the shopping centers they had left behind. Only when the first panels were removed could anyone be sure that the original facade had survived.

No expense was spared in the renovation. The preservation architect, Hyman Myers of the Vitetta Group of Philadelphia, tracked down original materials such as Flexwood, a canvas-backed veneer covering for the balcony's gentle curves. New photo-realist murals were commissioned from Washington artist john Grazier in the spirit of the lost originals, which showed buses outside national landmarks. A bas-relief sculpture of a 1937 Super Coach was made to nuzzle at one of the boarding docks. The racing greyhound on the central pylon is gone, along with period touches that won't be missed, such as the "colored" restrooms, but otherwise the architecture is all there.

The only thing lacking is the spirit of the place. The attached office building, by Keyes Condon Florance, is in the soulless style of super-postmodernism. Visitors pass from the restored station into a high, narrow atrium which seems to have about six different kinds of marble in it, plus stainless steel, mahogany, glass and who knows what else; it is flamboyant and obnoxious. The very sumptuousness of the renovated terminal, which will soon enough be filled with the brisk murmuration of passing lawyers, is a reminder that we live in an age when, as in medieval times, decoration is the prerogative of the rich.

Is there a model here for other cities with art deco bus stations worth saving? Probably; there are nearly 50 such terminals around the country, including 10 survivors among the 15 or so designed by Arrasmith. Many of them occupy valuable downtown sites which the company, struggling back from bankruptcy, would like to turn to cash. In the last few years the Detroit station has been razed, the one in Orlando purchased by the city for a parking complex and others put on the market; the Los Angeles bus station is scheduled to close later this month with its fate still undetermined. A few have been saved. A beautiful glass-block and blue Vitrolite station in Columbia, S.C., built in 1939, has been converted into a drive-in bank. The old Chicago terminal will be preserved, according to a Greyhound spokesman, as the base of an office tower. And as for the buses themselves, they now come and go at "intermodal transportation facilities," affording passengers easy transfers among different carriers. Maybe someday people will be campaigning to save them, too. But don't count on it.

What A Swell Ride It Was | News