Restoring Sunset Station
Sunset Station Restoration
A working drawing of the depot's window, re-created by Cavallini Company, Inc., of San Antonio.
Sunset Station opened to the public of San Antonio on February 1 of 1903. It replaced the smaller depot in use since 1877. There was great hoopla involved, as you can imagine. In 1906, the International & Great Northern opened a grand new station as well, replacing their first depot. When the Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad first came to San Antonio it used the Sunset Depot and you come across an occasional reference to the depot as Union Station. In 1917, the MKT opened their own depot. Neither of the other two depots, grand as they were, ever eclipsed the Sunset Station. The SP's building inspired an entire architectural style called Mission Revival. Not bad bearing in mind it was an in-house design from the company's own bureau in San Francisco, California.
Business Men's Club Banquets in Sunset Station, 2/1/1903. This club, now the Chamber Of Commerce, were major boosters of the new station.
Original seating arrangements in Sunset Station, San Antonio
AMTRAK employee on Sunset Station's grand stair case 1971.
Sunset Station in the last days of AMTRAK.
The MKT's station was demolished in 1969. The Missouri Pacific abandoned their station in 1970 and it languished, abandoned, for almost eighteen years until the San Antonio City Employees Credit Union salvaged it and brought it back into public use. Meanwhile, the grand old Sunset Station soldiered on. When Southern Pacific also got out of the passenger business in 1970, the station passed into the hands of AMTRAK, and the building was kept in public use as San Antonio's only train station.
AMTRAK's ticket office in Sunset Station, San Antonio
There was still a lot of grandeur in Sunset Station, San Antonio during AMTRAK's control
Interior of Sunset Station, San Antonio, 1995
No more rail passengers at Sunset Station, San Antonio
Over time, significant alterations were made to the building. The most noticeable from the outside was the removal of the magnificent Southern Pacific stained glass window. It was replaced by an AMTRAK symbol on a background the same color as the rest of the building. What happened to the original window remains a mystery. Maybe it is in storage, or it is on private display somewhere. This author believes it was simply destroyed, as so many wonderful artifacts were. It is the most expedient, cheapest and short sighted option, which would be in keeping with the spirit of the times back then.
Arch work, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Restoration within Sunset Station, San Antonio
Restoration within Sunset Station, San Antonio
Upper level, towards rear, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Inside the main entrance doors to Commerce Street, a mezzanine office and mechanical area was constructed. This involved the removal of the original upper level bannisters, which were repositioned further into the building, to allow room for the additions. While in buildings of this size, there is a great deal of unusable space, the main reason for the addition seems to have been to accommodate modern air conditioning equipment, which was not around when the building was built. The addition does not appear to have been installed badly and the building was able to function much as it had always done.
Looking at the ravages of time within Sunset Station, San Antonio
Upper level room, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Looking towards rear window, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Looking to the side, Sunset Station, San Antonio
The fate of the depot came into question for two main reasons. The facility was altogether too large for AMTRAK's relatively small needs. Furthermore, all buildings require maintenance, but an almost one hundred year old structure as ornate and complex as the Sunset depot posed a financial burden beyond AMTRAK's capacity to maintain. AMTRAK has always been a cash strapped organization and they are not really in the historic building preservation business.
Balcony prep, close up, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Balcony restoration, Sunset Station, San Antonio
A rare picture of the mezzanine room built behind the front wall of Sunset Station, San Antonio. AMTRAK installed the inner wall several yards into the interior of the building to accommodate A/C. This has now been removed.
Mezzanine office stripped out, Sunset Station, San Antonio. The boarded up hole is where the original stained glass Southern Pacific logo was torn out. An amazing reproduction was created and installed during the restoration
More significantly, the adjacent Alamo Iron Works site was chosen as the place where the brand new Alamodome would be built. The station became part of the deal and a private consortium evolved that volunteered to refurbish the building which was already on many historic building lists. In order to make this cost effective and to assure that the building would have a viable, self sustaining future and still be in use by the public, it was suggested that there would be a wholesale change of use and that the train station would become an entertainment complex.
The remains of the original balcony, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Prepping to install the reconstructed window, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Looking towards front, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Installing reproduction stained glass window, Sunset Station, San Antonio.
Not everyone was happy with the proposal, but there were certain facts that had to be faced. The condition of the building had begun to seriously deteriorate both inside and out. Such damage usually accelerates if left unattended. AMTRAK simply did not need such a large building and could not justify the enormous amount of money that would be required to restore the building back to its original condition. Furthermore, no one wanted to see a repeat of what happened to the former Missouri Pacific depot, which languished unused for almost eighteen years. It was also hoped that an entertainment complex, situated in historically significant buildings, in between the new Alamodome and the Riverwalk, the state's number one tourist attraction, would prove to be popular with both locals and visitors.
There is an entire web site devoted to the restoration of this window at Sunset Station, San Antonio. For you non-Latin scholars out there, the numerals say 1902. (M = 1,000, D = 500, C = 100, I = 1).
Newly installed stained glass window, Sunset Station, San Antonio.
The lights are original to the building. Sunset Station, San Antonio was often called the "Building of 1,000 lights. The early wiring may have led to the major fire in 1907.
Night time close up, Sunset Station, San Antonio
The Sunset Station Group, L.L.C. was formed in 1995. The company was formed by several people and organizations, including some very heavy San Antonio hitters, including Red McCombs, of car dealerships fame, although this is only one of his accomplishments and local construction giant, H.B. Zachry, among others. An initial report was created from an inspection made on 8/24/1995. The report is highly detailed. The most pleasing conclusion it that the depot, completed in 1902, was essentially structurally sound.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, around 1995.
No one seems to know why one of the front arches at Sunset Station, San Antonio is bricked up. The main front doors are also gone.
Unrestored close up of the front of Sunset Station, San Antonio
Long gone light fitting, Sunset Station, San Antonio, prior to restoration
The sturdiness of the original construction had been proven once before, in 1907, four years after the station was opened to the public. A major fire had destroyed the main building's roof but had left the massive brick walls intact. The solidness of the building's foundation and construction, plus the high quality of the original materials used, were still proving their worth ninety years later. Though there was a great deal to report on the condition of the external and internal appearance of the main building, the warehouses and the last major addition, the old Wells Fargo building, which was doubled in size some time in the 1920s and occupies the space at the far end of the complex, it must have come as some relief that the overall condition of the buildings was good.
Front tower window, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Close up of an identical window, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Close up of molding damage., Sunset Station, San Antonio
Sunset Station, San Antonio architectural detail removed for restoration.
With VIA Metropolitan Transport as the new landlord, one era came to an end. AMTRAK vacated the building some time in 1996, moving first into a temporary building but ultimately into a brand new depot located adjacent to the Sunset station. This building was built to resemble the style of the old passenger complex, and is more suited to the more modest passenger traffic requirements of modern railroading. The old station, having served countless millions of passengers for 93 years, now stood empty. Empty, but not alone and certainly not abandoned. Over the next few years it would experience something of a re-birth, a new purpose and new popularity.
Sunset Station, San Antonio front door during the AMTRAK era
Side of main building, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Sunset Station, San Antonio
Water damage on the track side of Sunset Station, San Antonio
It is worth mentioning that all the restoration and renovations were funded privately. Sunset Station Group, L.L.C. is entirely self sufficient. They get no money from the city, county, state or federal government. And whereas it took almost twenty years for the old Missouri Pacific depot to find a new tenant and a new purpose, the Sunset Depot was returned to its former glory and opened for public use once again without the building first having been allowed to get to the edge of collapse from neglect and decay. The depot is a part of the city's desire to see the whole of the Saint Paul's Square district undergo urban renewal, and much has been done throughout the area to renovate and improve all of the area's historic architecture and ambiance. The area is very close to Rivercenter Mall and the river walk and though it has yet to reach it's full potential, the area has been markedly improved and new businesses, like the Best Western hotel, and Ruth's Chris Steak House, have creatively incorporated some of the old structures into their modern operations without harming the original appearance of the square.
Rear of main building, Sunset Station, San Antonio, 1995.
Sunset Station, San Antonio
Rear window detail, Sunset Station, San Antonio. It's the Great Seal of Texas.
Rear window, Sunset Station, San Antonio, restored.
Two elements of the restoration would be most noticeable to anyone familiar with the station in its last years as an actual passenger facility. The AMTRAK logo on the front of the building has been replaced and a recreation of the illustrious Southern Pacific Sunset window has been installed. At the same time the mezzanine structure installed immediately inside the main front area of the building was also removed. There were two architectural firms involved in the restoration of the complex. Ford, Powell & Carson, Inc., now conveniently located in one of the renovated buildings in St. Paul's Square, were given the responsibility for the restoration of the buildings' exteriors, cast stone ornaments and the stained glass. They were also the project's historians including, of course, a complete paint color survey. Kell, Munoz, Wigodsky, also of San Antonio, were in charge of the interior restoration and new construction, which includes the new pavilion, outbuildings, the plaza and landscaping.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, warehouse from the street.
Sunset Station, San Antonio
Sunset Station, San Antonio
Sunset Station, San Antonio
There was a seemingly contradictory brief given to these firms. Restore as much as possible of the old structure while at the same time bring the entire complex up to modern standards. Also to change the function of the complex while keeping its old function highly visible and relevant. Not to mention adding air conditioning, modern plumbing and electrics as well as restaurant kitchens, dance floors and stages for performers. Of course, having surplus space to work with helped. To a large extent the warehouses were all but empty and there is no longer any need to maintain the old, nasty, duplication of customer facilities obligated by segregation. There are some things from the past which just ain't worth being kept!
Arch "fill-ins" removed, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Working on the arches, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Accumulated "junk," Sunset Station, San Antonio
Ancilliary room, now a restaurant, Sunset Station, San Antonio, cleared out during restoration
The center piece of the restoration is probably the recreation of the magnificent stained glass window at the front. The one at the rear, of the Great Seal of the State of Texas, was intact, so even though work was needed to renovate it, at least it was there to be worked on. When it came to the front window, the architects and window makers, Cavallini Glass of San Antonio had nothing left of the original to work with. It had been removed almost thirty years earlier. The problem was extraordinarily complex. How to decide which particular Sunset logo had been used in 1902 and how to recreate an honest replica of the "jig-saw" pattern that held all the pieces of glass in place. Most of the old records had gone up in smoke in 1906 when the earth quake in San Francisco, and resulting fires, destroyed the Southern Pacific's general office. Even more remarkably, there were almost no close up pictures, and none in color, of the window. You'd think maybe some might exist from around the time of its removal, or before, but there was very little hard evidence to go on. Also take into account that the logo continued to change and evolve over time. It was adopted by the company in July of 1890. Fortunately, the Southern Pacific, though in the throes of "merging" with the Union pacific during this time, was able to come up with most of the valuable clues. Of all things, an old employee newsletter was found, with reminiscences of S.P. employees from around that time, like W. C. Averil, who had been a member of the engineering staff that was rebuilding(!) old Texas & New Orleans lines in the 1870s.
Side of rear building, Sunset Station, San Antonio
End of rear building, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Molding, just removed, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Sunset Station molding, restored. Note damaged molding beside it waiting its turn.
Unlike the company that restored the old I & G.N. windows in the Missouri Pacific station, who were able to find shards of glass shattered among the rest of the accumulated detritus in that building, Cavallini Glass and the architects, Ford, Powell & Carson, Inc., had to go strictly on historical research to recreate the window for Sunset Station. Everyone agrees that a truly magnificent job was done, which was the result of countless hours of research and preparation, followed by even more hours of painstaking labor by probably the best skilled craftsmen in the business today.
Modern AMTRAK train at Sunset Station, San Antonio shed.
New AMTRAK depot behind Sunset Station, San Antonio
UP freight train passing Sunset Station.
A UP train passing Sunset Station, San Antonio in 2002.
Another element of the project that took a lot of time was trying to get the correct colors to repaint the building. This required a substantial amount of historical analysis, as the building has had several paint schemes over the years. Paint samples were taken from around the structures, not all of which were always painted the same. The old Railway Express Agency building was set apart by using complimentary but darker tones, to make it appear both separate but also part of the overall purpose of the complex. Great care was taken in choosing the places from which to remove the paint chips. They tried to take them from the least sun exposed areas wherever possible. Examining the chips is a skilled art. The report goes into some detail about this. The chips ere examined under natural north light, using a variety of magnifications. Each layer of paint was examined, much like an archeologist goes through a site, strata by strata. Reference was made to known historical records and layers and color schemes were given approximate dates. Guides, such as the "Munsell Book of Color, 'Glossy Collection'" were used. The evolution of paints being made and chemical compositions, were also taken into account. If you have ever wondered about why it sometimes takes so much time and so much money to do a correct restoration, this should be giving you a little insight into how difficult it is to get a project like this, which has won so many awards, just right.
The Tower of the Americas is on the other side of a freeway from Sunset Station, San Antonio
The 794, through an arch, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Front tower, renovated, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Sunset Station, San Antonio back to it's former glory.
The old main building is now a comfortable bar, with a stage and dance flor at the front doors. Many of the elements of its train passenger days have been maintained or referred to in the design of the new fittings. This author is glad to report, however, that the seating is significantly more comfortable than the hard, wooden, upright benches that passengers had to use. One of the old benches is still there, for those who really want that old, nostalgic lack of comfort. The upstairs balcony areas were reconfigured to allow for through access, and the old walls creating separate offices have been removed. The old warehouses were turned into a number of different restaurants, allowing visitors to have some difficult but delightful choices to make when deciding where to dine. The old Wells Fargo building has become a dance club. It was decided that in order for the complex to do well in its new role as an entertainment complex, additional facilities would be needed. An exterior pavilion was built, in the area that fronts the old warehouses. Some other pleasant additions were made, such as a cooling water fountain. Needed shade trees were planted and just for that extra touch of mink on hot Texas days and nights, a cooling mist generator was installed to run along the edge of the old shaded walkways outside the restaurants.
VIA tram style bus timetable featuring Sunset Station, San Antonio
Sunset Station, San Antonio. View from renovated side street.
1958 Imperial outside Sunset Station, San Antonio. 1957 was the last year the Southern Pacific used steam engines.
Restored rear of main building, Sunset Station, San Antonio.
The complex has had a fair amount of success and challenges in it's new role. It's fair to say that in any other city, which is to say one that is not so rich in other tourist and entertainment opportunities, the Sunset Station would be a roaring success. It has a good blend of dining and entertainment opportunities. It can play host to all kinds of events, from wedding receptions to wrestling matches. The old depot can host all kinds of events from intimate singer / songwriter evenings to the mighty funk machine of George Clinton. Tourists, however, are somewhat conservative, so despite being so close to downtown, it is not really on their agenda, unless they are train buffs, of course. Locals, likewise, stigmatize certain areas of town and avoid them, even though the reality of the area is very far removed from their preconceived ideas. By being on the "wrong" side of HWY 281, too many people have the crazy idea they are running the gauntlet just to drive past the depot, when it is simply a gentle and nicely restored section of town which was once the focal point of the city's commercial activity.
Looking towards the old Wells Fargo building, Sunset Station, San Antonio.
Renovated interior, Sunset Station, San Antonio
TTM's garden railroad can take a mobile display to you! In this picture they are in the historic Sunset Station, San Antonio
On the bright side, the sales team are tireless in their efforts to promote the place. They have had some stunning success stories, not the least of which was being selected as the venue for the beginning of "The Great Race" in 2002. This was a phenomenal event. Not only was it well attended, it was an event televised for national distribution. This author made his first visit to the depot for this event, and was struck by the almost staggering beauty of the buildings and the very obviously high quality of the restoration work. There was plenty of parking for visitors and the atmosphere was very relaxed yet purposeful. Our museum's garden railroad division was invited to set up their mobile display within the magnificent walls of the depot itself and we were able to inform a huge audience about our collections and activities. The day went off without a hitch and anyone who was visiting the restored depot for the first time went home with a much deeper sense of appreciation for the venue and its potential.
Restored bus at the start of the "Great Race, 2002," Sunset Station, San Antonio
Old Plymouth, getting ready to go on the Great Race, 2002, Sunset Station, San Antonio
Another old Plymouth at Great Race, 2002, Sunset Station, San Antonio
1965 Studebaker Daytona convertible at Great Race, 2002, Sunset Station, San Antonio
As this is being written, in January of 2003, the depot's staff is preparing to host a world record event, the annual "Cowboy Breakfast." This is one of the kick off events for the "Stock Show & Rodeo," which will be held in the newly built SBC Center for the first time. The breakfast holds the world record for being the largest such event in the world. It was held for years at a local mall, until it was closed, and it spent one year at a cowboy themed entertainment venue last year. This will be the first time the breakfast will be held at the depot. Its location, near to downtown and the Alamodome, will now really come into play as a huge asset, with the abundance of parking and public transportation facilities. This event will help to register the Sunset Station firmly into the pantheon of well known San Antonio destinations. It cannot be lost on any local historian that 2003 is the one hundredth anniversary of the depot. It is certainly beginning its second century of public service on an awesome note. Infinitely more people will come to the Cowboy Breakfast in 2003 than attended the opening of the depot in 1903. The depot is in good hands and its future is looking bright.
Aerial shot of Sunset Station, San Antonio, before HWY 281 was bulldozed through the area
From the Tower of the Americas. You can see the new, smaller, AMTRAK depot beside Sunset Station, San Antonio.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, from the Tower of the Americas.
Sunset Station, San Antonio, from the Tower of the Americas.