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Walking Tour: Union Tile

April 2, 2010

I commute on the Metrolink from Riverside each day, and the end of that trip is at Los Angeles’ Union Station. When the doors of the train whoosh open, my fellow commuters and I rush out, some to other trains and buses and some, like me, walk from there to offices downtown. Many of us have been doing this daily dash for years and as a result can move through the station without appreciating how beautiful this historic LA Landmark is. Opened in May, 1939, Union Station has been called the “Last of the Great Railway Stations” built in the US. It’s been featured in numerous movies and TV shows, and it’s not uncommon to have to dodge movie crews on the way to and from the trains. Recently I decided that rather than allow familiarity to breed indifference on my part, I’d stop now and then and take in some of the many sights the station has to offer. Union Station is a great example of both Moorish and Spanish architectural styles and those elements inform the exterior design choices. But there are also art deco and moderne touches, too, depending on where you look. All of this was accomplished using stucco, stone, ceramic tiles and wood. For this post I’ll show some of the various ways tile is used in the station and surrounding areas. Some of these tile examples, like the fountain detail above, are part of the original design, some later in the post were introduced more recently as part of adjacent building projects. Let’s slow down and have a look around …

This amazing fountain is in the courtyard area of the station that includes the patio dining area of Traxx restaurant. The repeated fish/wave pattern, the geometric Indian motifs above it and the colors of the glazed tiles all say art deco loud and clear. I love the curved concrete basin; its contrast against the smooth colorful tile is really lovely. Oh, and the metal fish spout above it all has great personality.

Flanking the fountain on either side is another deco-patterned area with a deep cobalt blue ceramic torch above it. The saturated amber colored glass of the rim of the torch gives major contrast, making it seem lit even in daylight.

The interior of the station is a fantastic large-scale mosaic of both rich stone and deco-style glazed ceramic tile. The afternoon sun striking this forgotten corner shines a warm spotlight on these diverse elements spectacularly.

Outside, edging courtyards and patios, there are numerous benches in the same deco tile style. The glowing wood framing the windows of a long-closed restaurant provide a warm contrast to a bench that probably once held hungry travelers.

Centered in another courtyard, this spectacular circular tiered fountain almost seems like an enormous coiled snake to me. A gold urn tops it all in grand style. Recently the landscaping in this area was replaced with water-wise succulents and native plants, and it’s got many tables for enjoying both lunch and the view of the fountain.

This detail clearly shows the scale-like tiles set in a snaky pattern. Each tile’s slightly rounded edge adds to the reptilian effect and the color choices lend it a vibrant visual movement.

At the end of the same courtyard, a semi-circular fountain is filled with koi and water plants. The upper, inner, part of the fountain is a mosaic of broken terra cotta tiles and it’s a rough contrast to all the colorful, smooth tiles used elsewhere. It’s a pretty spot to wait for your train, although you have to watch out for smokers and their cast-offs.

On the rear side of the station, at what is known as the MTA Gateway, are more recent tile fountains, sculpture and seating, all installed in 1995. This fountain by Roberto Gil de Montes is alive with an array of hand-done ceramic pieces. The swirling nature of the artwork, and the lively colors, instantly remind me of Mexican folk art. The head floating above the door-like fountain is surrounded by abstract patterns that seem to refer to nature and the elements. It’s hard not to reach and touch these pieces; to make contact with them beyond merely looking.

Another striking tile piece is this towering fountain by Elsa Flores. Using mosaic tiles, hand cut and glazed sculptural pieces, metal, and a glass bleeding heart of Christ, this looming piece is a tribute to the cultural influences of the artist and is completely Mexican. My favorite elements are the masked cat-like face spouts at the bottom ends of the fountain …

Just once I’d love to catch the mysteriously playful cat masks with water spitting from their pursed lips. The water lily-foliage decoration at the base of the fountain is really quite beautiful and lends an art nouveau feel.

This spacey fountain is by one of my favorite Los Angeles artists, Peter Shire. It perfectly depicts the style of work he was doing in the 90s. Definitely a funky, Memphis-y, whatchamacallit presence as you walk up the steps to the MTA Gateway. You may (or may not) recall that this area boasts the awesome dragon trees of an earlier post of mine (see it here) and I must say these colorful 90s pieces really complement them.

Another Shire piece, this bench near the bus zone, mixes brightly colored tiles set in an abstract pattern against tiles featuring undulating leaf shapes in black and white. Its clashing mix of color and imagery seems perfectly suited to a busy corner where dozens of people are expectantly looking for that big ride. Union Station and the surrounding building’s courtyards are really too interesting and beautiful to rush through every day. In spite of the urban messiness that can intrude on my sightseeing, it’s still worth it to slow down and take a look. Those camera hoisting tourists in the station shouldn’t be the only ones enjoying the sights, right?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy Rivera Brooks permalink
    April 2, 2010 11:33 pm

    Great tour. What kind of camera did you use?

    • reubix1 permalink*
      April 2, 2010 11:46 pm

      Hi, Nancy… my camera’s just a plain ol’ point-and-shoot digital camera. Nothing great, believe me!

  2. faroutflora permalink
    April 5, 2010 5:04 am

    Amazing tile work! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  3. Bonnie Reynolds permalink
    April 22, 2010 1:52 am

    I have never been to Union Station but have wanted to visit to view the work done during the depression – most of it was WPA, I think. I really liked all the tilework in your photos but have a soft spot for the old stuff.

  4. October 20, 2010 5:40 am

    Nice information about Moorish tiles.

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