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Utica's Union Station honors 100 years of service

Utica's Union Station has been a mainstay in the city's historic Bagg's Square neighborhood since 1914. In that time, the train station went from a bustling transit hub, to nearly being demolished in the 1970s, to a recent resurgence as a public gathering place. This weekend, Utica is celebrating the station's 100th anniversary and some of the things that make it unique.

On a recent Friday afternoon, a small group of people mill about Union Station, setting up tables and arranging wine glasses for a gala later the night. Nearby, others wait for an Amtrak train or stop for a bite to eat at the restaurant that takes up one corner of the grand concourse, a large open area lined with sky lights and solid marble columns that form a walkway from one side of the building to the other.

Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO
Large monolithic pillars are a prominent feature at Utica's Union Station. The benches are also a unique site, as they're heated by pipes running underneath them.

Utica's Union Station is one of only a handful of depots in the country that have continuously had train service throughout their history. Michael Bosak, with the landmarks Society of Greater Utica, says the others are in much bigger cities like Chicago and New York.

"Those two cities have kept their station as a station, as did Utica," Bosak said. "Just about everywhere else, it's not the case."

Utica's Union Station was designed by the architects who helped plan Grand Central Station in New York City, and Uticans like to compare the two landmarks.

Bosak says the station was part of the "White City" building movement led by Daniel Burnham, another prominent pre-World War I architect.

"His vision was a much cleaner style of architecture for public buildings and a building like this for public use," Bosak said. "Basically, what he promoted was this thing called the Beaux Art style, which is from an architectural school in France. This building, the outside looks like an Italian palace, palazzo, and the inside is modeled after the Roman baths of Caracalla."

In later years, the station experienced its share of problems. Following World War II, Bosak says train travel took a nosedive as more people traveled by car. When there was talk of demolishing the train station in the 70s, the Landmarks Society stepped in and started rehabilitating the building in 1978.

Today the building is owned by Oneida County and houses offices like the D.M.V. and Board of Elections. The county has also opened up another building at the station for farmers markets and community events. The concourse is often used for election night parties, galas and craft sales.

Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO
Leo Gilman took over the barbershop a few years ago, and offers the same services the shop would have offered 100 years ago.

The station has also managed to stay true to its early 20th century roots. The Union Station Barbershop, which is celebrating a century's worth of hair cuts, is one of three barbershops still left in train stations in the Unite States.

Leo Gilman owns the shop, and says things haven't changed much since it first opened its doors.

"If you look at the floor, the flooring is exactly what was here in 1914," Gilman said. "The wainscoting; it's Vermont White Cloud marble, and that's original to the building. The barber chairs are right from 1914. They were actually made in 1912."

Like the train station itself, business at the barbershop has gone up and down over the decades, but Gilman says his clientele has grown over the last couple years.

Gilman and Bosak both say they're happen to see the station continue to thrive as a living link to the city's past, and not become a museum or a page in a history book.