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Miracle on East Main Street 

The $16 million makeover of Main Street Station has restored the gateway to downtown.

But mostly the 1901 structure has been forgotten and forlorn since 1975, when it closed to train passengers and fell victim to fire, high water, old age and a brief stint as a shopping mall. But the glorious and peculiar Italian-Renaissance-meets-French-Chateau-style head house, designed by the Philadelphia firm of Wilson, Harris & Richards, reopens this month after a meticulous renovation. And Amtrak will begin stopping there once again — four trains every weekday. (The Staples Mill Road station will maintain its full schedule; the four Main Street trains — to and from Newport News and New York City — will also stop at Staples Mill.)

The head building has received an intelligent and scholarly $16 million makeover and reconfiguration. This is the first phase of an eventual $51.6 million redo, including a pedestrian plaza and passenger drop-off directly across Main Street; a reconfigured 15th Street to better align the Interstate 95 Franklin Street exit ramp along 15th Street to Main Street; and a 1,500-vehicle parking garage, of which 350 spaces will be designated for station use.

Spearheaded by the city of Richmond with its architect, URS, this complex project has been done right. A century’s worth of alterations have been removed or corrected. Careful research into original colors and finishes have resulted in luminous architectural and decorative re-creations, and a level of design detail and style that recalls the glory days of passenger rail travel locally.

Main Street Station will once again be a spectacular gateway to downtown. This is what it was designed to be. Unlike airports, which need sprawling tracts of land, train stations were built in the center of towns and cities — the closer, more prominent the location, the better. And since Main Street has been a prominent Richmond thoroughfare since the 1700s — from wilderness trading-post days to the skyscraper and coffeehouse era — its location still makes sense.

Departing passengers will now enter from Main Street, ascend a steep flight of steps and enter a large room. This space recalls the living halls of great manor houses rather than the echoing concourses of many other train stations. From here, a grand staircase leads to another great room on the second level. This salon opens into a waiting concourse which opens onto the open-air train platform.

Those who remember the station from pre-1975 days, remember soot, grime and drafts. But restored, the station is light and bright. The brown, ceramic tiles on the first floor gleam. Three large Stephen Fox paintings of downtown Richmond, a product of the city’s public arts program, add local color, texture and a hint of the contemporary to the space.

Upstairs, the great waiting room has been painted a warm, pumpkin color. The glorious coffer ceiling is now a shade of gray-green, the classical egg and dart, and the ocean-wave pattern are fully restored. Five dramatic, arched windows face south and open onto a large balcony overlooking Main Street. At each end of this room, two handsomely furnished waiting rooms boast cove ceilings where the central, recessed panels have been painted a midnight blue and sprinkled with gold stars recalling ceilings of Italian Gothic buildings. Here, and throughout the building, meticulous faux-graining of woodwork and marbling adds fleshy warmth to the building’s already good bones.

And so Main Street Station, unlike dozens of stations in other cities, has miraculously survived for a second run at public service. The city of Richmond, the commonwealth, the federal government, Amtrak, the architects, contractors and artisans have pulled off a complex miracle in this brilliant rehabilitation. Similarly exciting is the revived downtown district into which travelers will step when they arrive at Shockoe Bottom — the place is gaining momentum with each new apartment unit, with each new coffeehouse. Those who moan and groan about downtown should visit the River District where a new downtown is fast evolving with historic preservation as the common denominator. Main Street Station is the elusive Garbo no more. This diva is ready to speak words of welcome to each stopping train. S

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