Giving New Life to an Old Downtown
The historic renovation of the Union Station railroad terminal in downtown Kansas City, Missouri created an entertainment destination and a catalyst to revitalize the citys downtown area. Inside the new station is the Kansas City Museums Science City, an indoor attraction that combines the best elements of museums, science centers, theme parks and theaters into a unique indoor venue offering varied avenues of exploration and educational fun to its visitors.
Union Station, Kansas
City, Missouri, circa1914
The renovation of Union Station began during 1995 and Science City celebrated its grand opening on November 20, 1999. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the restored station itself is a significant destination, as it is considered one of the three great American train stations along with New York Citys Grand Central Station and Washington D.C.s Union Station. When the Kansas City terminal opened in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson called it the great gate to the West. Today, the giant 995,000-sq.ft. Kansas City terminal is topped in size only by Grand Central, and its architectural features rival those of the New York and Washington facilities, both of which have both also been restored.
Kansas Citys restored Union Station is expected to attract more than one million visitors a year in its role as the home of Science City. The new station will also feature several restaurants and shops, a theater district, and intermodal transportation facilities including an Amtrak station.
Union Station renovation was one of the largest recent historic preservation efforts in the U.S. The station and its surrounding acreage is owned by a non-profit organization, the Union Station Assistance Corporation, who co-developed the project with the Kansas City Museum. Science City will be operated by the museum, an accredited regional history and science museum with a 60-year operating history.
It took more than four years to restore Union Station and build a new addition to the west of the stations North Waiting Room.
The renovation included hiring master craftsmen to restore elaborate ornamental plaster and architectural details, the replacement of 8,000 concrete roof tiles, removal of 8 million pounds of debris and hazardous materials, construction of two new parking facilities, design and construction of a 65,000-sq.ft. addition to house Science City activities, and the design and integration of an intermodal transportation system to serve local commuters and travelers.
The cost of the project is estimated at $250 million. In a true spirit of public/private partnership, the project pulled together support from a variety of community sectors. Private contributions totaled nearly $100 million, including $25 million from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, $20 million from the Hall Family and Hallmark Corporate Foundations, $9 million from the Sprint Foundation, and several $2-million and $1-million private gifts. The federal government provided about $30 million from various agencies, primarily the Federal Transit Administration.
Locally, the greater Kansas City area made national history in 1996 when it passed a bi-state 1/8-cent sales tax to fund half the cost of the Union Station project. Voters in three Missouri counties Jackson, Clay and Platte teamed with Johnson County, Kansas to support the tax by a 65 percent majority. It was the first such bi-state compact in the history of the United States. The tax is expected to raise $118 million toward the total $250-million price tag of the buildings restoration.
Science City will operate as the primary tenant within the Union Station but other uses will include several restaurants, shops and office space. Initially the project will have 132,000 sq.ft. of retail space in addition to Science City. At least three different restaurants are planned, with the goal of returning the station to its former glory as a community gathering place. Union Station was once considered the citys front room, where people would go after the theater, on special occasions, or simply stop by for a cup of coffee and some dessert. Project planners designed the station so that downtown office workers, tourists and area residents will find reasons to gather at Union Station once again.
Science City bumps the inherent appeal of the station into a destination within a destination. Literally an indoor city, Science City is divided into distinctive districts, which include Festival Plaza, Uptown, Downtown, Southside, Old Town and Theater District. Each district has its own character and contains a variety of neighborhood environments that replicate the look and feel of selected city settings. Overall, the 285,000-sq.ft. science museum/entertainment venue includes more than 50 hands-on experience environments, ranging in property lot size from 200 sq.ft. to 3,000 sq.ft.
The districts and their neighborhoods offer multiple opportunities to play, experiment and learn while exploring science as well as a bit of history. For instance, visitors can step into an interactive fountain and be totally immersed in water without getting wet. Or they can report on a late-breaking news story and produce their own newscast, prepare and deliver a TV forecast on Science Citys own weather channel, or create their own newspaper front page or learn the ins and outs of space suits, go on a tour of duty on Mars, practice controlling remote exploration robots, and explore the living quarters aboard Science City Space Station or dig for fossils and come face to face with prehistoric creatures or design their own car or build a spacecraft.
Some other neighborhoods and their activities include:
Mister E. Hotel: Investigate strange happenings in the hotel. Is it in violation of city code? The laws of physics? Or is there a simpler, more scientific explanation?
Crime Lab: Help identify the culprit or prove your own innocence by identifying clues and using investigative equipment to link evidence to the suspect.
Severe Storm Center: Experience a storm while exploring the science behind weather.
Einstein Tours: Reroute the citys water supply, wire up circuits, or crawl through ductwork to find the heart of the high rise.
Farm Co-op: Climb into a state-of-the-art combine to plan, plant and harvest crops using satellite imagery.
Community Nature Center: Experience a different point of view by going underground to walk among roots and coming face-to-face with giant ants and other soil creatures.
Tree House Nature Center: Explore the tree canopy and the world it contains from high above the forest floor.
Hidden Treasures Cave: Creep through passages and feel flying bats overhead as you seek out hidden life and geologic mysteries within the cave.
Nature Center Butterfly Farm: Experience butterflies, bees, and hydroponic plants as you stroll through the greenhouse.
Medical Center: Journey on a trip through the human body and diagnose a patient.
Old Town: Tour a hardware shop (circa 1868), a telephone office (circa 1930), the Jones Store featuring fashions from 1940, as well as 11 other time zones, each bringing the visitor into the designated time period through surroundings, furnishings and hands-on experiences. Included in the experience will be restored trains that will pull right into the station along a pair of new rail spurs.
A Theater District will pump up the volume during evening hours. An Iwerks 3-D theater, a domed theater planetarium and a stage theater will feature entertainment attractions at night to draw a more adult crowd. From motion pictures and laser shows, to live magic, music and improv acts, City Nights promises an Adventure of a Nighttime.
In addition to housing Science City, Union Station is also designed to accommodate catered banquets, receptions and conventions. The buildings former North Waiting Room, more than a football field in length and featuring 65-foot high ceilings with meticulously restored turn-of-the-century ornamentation, is a spacious banquet facility offering seating for 1,400 and plenty of standing room for special events.
To enhance Union Stations appeal to both tourists and local residents and to create cross-traffic between other downtown draws, the building is linked via a glass-enclosed skywalk to the nearby Westin Crown Center Hotel, Crown Center Shops and Hyatt Regency Hotel. The museum is expected to attract a million visitors per year and add approximately $8 million to the metropolitan areas economy. The renovation has also boosted property values in the downtown area, and the area known as the Freight House district is seeing the conversion of dilapidated buildings into art galleries and lofts.
In short, historic preservation can bring new life to old downtown areas. In Kansas City, once a vibrant downtown area because of its railroad terminal, its safe to say that history is repeating itself.
For more information, contact Science City at Union Station, 2300 Main Street, Suite 130, Kansas City, Missouri 64108; 816-460-2222, Fax 816-460-2260.