Exploring L.A.’s Metro Art Scene at Union Station

Exploring L.A.’s Metro Art Scene at Union Station

I’ve read about and seen pictures of the fabulous art in metro stations around the world in cities like Stockholm, Naples, and Moscow. But considering that I rarely take public transportation here in L.A. – we Angelenos love our cars – I had no idea that there are such great artistic offerings on display in various metro stations around my own city until I recently took a tour of the Los Angeles Union Station and the Metro Gateway Headquarters Building downtown.

In celebration of Union Station’s 75th anniversary, special tours of the station are being offered on various dates throughout the year. Considering that I’d never even been to Union Station before (gasp!), I decided that I was long overdue for a tour. Led by a Metro art docent, the tour offered our group with access to various parts of Union Station that aren’t typically open to the public. During the tour, I also got to see some art on display in Metro’s corporate headquarters which is adjacent to Union Station.

Here are some highlights from the tour…

I met up with the docent and the tour group at the information booth near the Alameda Street entrance at 10am. Considering that I was half an hour early, I had a bit of time to snap a few pre-tour pictures of Union Station.

Back in the early days, three individual railway companies – Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway – decided to consolidate their services in one facility. In the 1920s, city officials approved construction and the costs were shared amongst the three companies. The station was partially designed by John Parkinson and Donald B. Parkinson, and it officially opened in 1939.

Ticket counter used back in the day
Ticket counter used back in the day
Beautiful vaulted ceilings in the old ticket room
Beautiful vaulted ceilings in the old ticket room
Old school phone booths
Old school phone booths

We were led into the station’s now defunct Harvey House restaurant which was owned by Fred Harvey. Harvey owned a chain of hospitality businesses including hotels and restaurants that ran along railroads in the western United States.

(l) The main part of the Harvey Room; (r) A ceiling in one of the private rooms
(l) The main part of the Harvey House; (r) A ceiling in one of the private rooms
The bar area
The bar area
View of the Harvey Room from above
View of the Harvey House from above

Harvey’s restaurants were high end, and the uniformed waitstaff and kitchen crew had to adhere to high standards of service.


Today, Traxx is Union Station’s fine dining restaurant of choice that’s been serving train travelers and locals alike since 1997.

Just outside of the Harvey Room, we were taken to the courtyard where the docent pointed out Chinatown’s original boundary line and informed us that Union Station was built in L.A.’s original Chinatown.

Prior to construction, this incited a lot of controversy led in part by the Los Angeles Times who argued that the station would forever obliterate Chinatown and its surroundings.

The station’s passageway leading to various departure ramps features light boxes highlighting works by various artists and photographers.

"Paradise Found" by Suzanne Adelman is meant to remind travelers to take the time to appreciate the station's outdoor spaces
“Paradise Found” by Suzanne Adelman is meant to remind travelers to take the time to appreciate the station’s outdoor spaces
"En Route" by Sam Comen features travelers the artist encountered while passing through Union Station
“En Route” by Sam Comen features travelers the artist encountered while passing through Union Station
"En Route" by Sam Comen
“En Route” by Sam Comen
"In the Shadow of the Zanja Madre" by Kevin McCollister
“In the Shadow of the Zanja Madre” by Kevin McCollister – the artist presents the station and its surroundings as being ready for a close up in recognition of L.A.’s film culture
"In the Shadow of the Zanja Madre" by Kevin McCollister
“In the Shadow of the Zanja Madre” by Kevin McCollister
"High Hopes" by Jim McHugh - Polaroid film was used for these architectural portraits
“High Hopes” by Jim McHugh – Polaroid film was used for these architectural portraits

Next, the art docent pointed out some beautiful mosaics depicting the city’s spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The docent also pointed out a light installation exhibit featuring flashing vertical lights that flash from left to right. If you look closely, in between the flashes, you can see images of passing trains and celebrities’ faces. Needless to say, I wasn’t quick enough to capture any of these elusive images.

During the tour, I discovered that Union Station also features an aquarium. After walking through the main passageway away from the Alameda Street entrance, I started seeing imprinted designs in the flooring which meant that the aquarium was close by.

This piece of art called the “River Bench” in the station’s east lobby was designed by May Sun and was designed for the “City of Dreams, River of History” project. The sculptured cone rising from the floor resembles a mountain and is partially made from rocks from the L.A. River.  Inlaid into the sculpture are bottles, Chinese crockery, dentures, and other artifacts discovered during excavations around the station that reflect the original Chinatown that was displaced when Union Station was constructed.

Normally, water flows from this mountainous sculpture, but given California’s water shortage problem, the water has been turned off.

As we headed up the escalator en route to the Metro’s office building, I couldn’t help but notice the gorgeous glass ceiling and the mural nearby.

The mural was designed by L.A. artist, Richard Wyatt, who’s probably best known for “Hollywood Jazz: 1945 – 1972,” a mural that can be found at the Capitol Records building.

But his mural at Union Station depicts diverse people from various time periods and economic backgrounds in an effort to reflect all the people who pass through Union Station. In the mural, Wyatt included an image of his grandmother wearing a blue dress and hat.

Once inside the lobby of the MTA building, there was a model metro train on display and more wall murals to admire.

The first murals that the docent pointed out reflect the changing landscapes of the site of Union Station over the years.

It’s easy to see the progression in the landscape from 1870 to 1910 and to 1960.

From the upper lobby floor of the MTA building, it’s easier to get a top-to-bottom view of some of the building’s murals
From the upper lobby floor of the MTA building, it’s easier to get a top-to-bottom view of some of the building’s murals
A mural depicting L.A.'s cityscape in more recent times
A mural depicting L.A.’s cityscape in more recent times
View of L.A. from the Metro building's terrace
View of L.A.’s downtown skyline from the Metro building’s terrace

Viewing L.A.’s skyline from the Metro building’s terrace, it’s hard to believe that L.A. used to be so barren.

Overall, the Metro art tour is a great and FREE way to explore L.A.’s alternative art scene for locals and tourists alike.

For details about the Union Station 75th anniversary tour and other Metro art tours, click here.



In which city have you admired great metro station art?

  • I can’t believe it’s a train station. I love the ceiling and the designs on the floor. And the Chinatown boundary is a winner!

    • Dana Carmel

      I know – it’s such a fabulous, old station. It gives a great glimpse into times past!

  • I love the architecture – It’s got this old time cathedral feel. The murals and art along the walls makes the place more interesting.

    • Dana Carmel

      I agree – I love the tall, cathedral-like ceilings.

  • What a beautiful building! I love discovering beauty in unexpected places like this 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      You and me both, Catherine! 😉

  • This looks like such a great and informative tour! I have breezed through Union Station to catch an Amtrak but I’ve never paid much attention to its history and art. This was so enlightening and I feel like I need to visit it now to really appreciate it. We always pass it on the way to Chinatown or Olvera St. Thanks for the virtual tour and inspiring us to stop next time.

    • Dana Carmel

      At least you’ve been to Union Station – I can’t ever recall going inside before this tour! Crazy, considering I was born in L.A. and have lived here for the majority of my life. But yes, the next time around – don’t whiz through if you can help it. Hopefully you’ll have time to schedule one of the Metro’s free tours.

  • Ha! I was reading the first part of this and looking at the pictures and literally said out loud softly, “Oh my gawd, it’s sooooo beautiful.” Phoenix sleeping at my feet (or so I thought) immediately sat up, “Yes?” Me, “Yes, you are beautiful too…” Silly kid. That did literally just happen now. Dana, I would absolutely go on this tour! I will say it again that gosh I was the four of us could connect up somewhere in between Reno and L.A. sometime even just for a quick day visit! So, the one thing that caught my eye more than any other was Harvey House. I would LOVE to transport back in time and eat there, ya know?? 🙂 Tell Jave we say hi! 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      Tell Phoenix he’s not beautiful…he’s gorgeous! 🙂 We should definitely meet up sometime, Mike. If you’re ever headed down this way and if we’re ever near your neck of the woods, we should make it happen!

  • What gorgeous and vibrant photos! If I’m ever in the area, I will definitely take this tour. There’s something about train stations that’s so classic to travel. It’s a great place to watch people.

    • Dana Carmel

      Thanks, Reginia! The great thing about this tour is that it’s free and it’s such a key part of L.A.’s history and present. I also love traveling by train although I don’t get to do it often.

  • Another place l am ashamed to say l never visited in all my time in L.A. I did pick someone up there once, but just drove around in the car till l saw them..lol! Lovely images as usual. I love seeing old photos of L.A, so empty..

    • Dana Carmel

      It’s funny how we take our own backyards for granted. But don’t feel badly because it took me practically a lifetime to finally visit – lol! The next time you’re in L.A. you should definitely check it out.

  • What a beautiful station, it looked like the insides of a cathedral for a moment. I love places with such history to it.

    • Dana Carmel

      Yes – the high vaulted ceilings definitely give it a cathedral feel. I love these kinds of historical places of interest as well. I can’t believe that it took me practically a lifetime of living in L.A. to finally visit!

  • jan

    I love train stations. Some of my favourites are Milan, Monaco, Cordoba (Spain), Lisbon (Oriente station). Oriente or Vasco da Gama (sort of twin stations) have fantastic tiled artwork by seven artists. I love this Union Station you are showing us. The woodwork is wonderful. Did it ruin Chinatown in your opinion?

    • Dana Carmel

      Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to check out Monaco’s station when I was recently there. I’ll have to keep the other stations you mentioned in mind for whenever I get a chance to make it to those cities. I don’t think the station ruined Chinatown – the borders have definitely been readjusted, but Chinatown is still alive and thriving in L.A.

  • Really interesting post, love the “En Route” display!

    • Dana Carmel

      Thanks, Becky!


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