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Northern Spark will give you a chance to explore Union Depot

This column is a primer on the Depot, and what to see inside, wandering between events and various wonders.

Much of the programming for this year's Northern Spark festival is focused in and around Union Depot.
Courtesy of Northern Spark

Note: Sorry there’s no hand-drawn map this week, readers — there was scanner trouble at Stroll HQ. The maps will be back next week.

The Northern Spark festival begins this Saturday at 8:58 p.m. in Lowertown St. Paul, and it goes all night. For the third year, the festival will consist of dusk-to-dawn public art events, programs, performances, freak-outs and other nocturnal occurrences. The first year, it was stretched all across the Twin Cities, from Northeast to downtown St. Paul. Last year, it was focused on a few spots around Minneapolis. This year, everything will be jam-packed into the Lowertown neighborhood, giving the event a concentration and density probably not seen in past years.

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I am sure, being a savvy reader of the Stroll, you’ve already made plans to attend. If not, you should. Attending Northern Spark can serve a great many functions in your cultural life: It marks the official start of Real Summer (hopefully); it’s a good sampler of contemporary and public art practices in the region; and it gives you an opportunity to meet every artist in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Really, all of them will be out there. If there’s one you’ve been dying to run into, you probably can Saturday night.

Most important, it can give you an opportunity to do what I try to do every week here: wander around and look at things.

Specifically, it gives you a chance to wander around the great Union Depot in Lowertown. Much of the programming is focused in an around the Depot, which has only been open to the public for a few months. This column is a primer on the Depot, and what to see inside, wandering between events and various wonders.

union depot interior
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Union Depot was the second downtown St. Paul rail depot.

The basics first: it was the second downtown rail depot, with construction beginning in 1917 and ending in 1923. It closed in 1971, then opened again last year. No trains in there yet, but Amtrak will begin service soon, and the METRO Green Line will begin operation just outside next year. The Depot is generally regarded to be an architectural gem.

A few weeks ago, David Levinson at made the contentious assertion that Union Depot isn’t much of an architectural gem at all, coming at “the nadir of American railway architecture, missing both the Belle Epoque ornamentation of the 19th century, and the Art Deco of just a few years later.” I don’t really agree with the first part, as a walk through the concourse under those ceilings and on that buffed floor dispels any sense that it is not a truly great public space that imparts, at the very least, a sense of awe. But Levinson’s second point about the station being caught in that interstitial period between great two eras is a smart one, and not entirely unfair. As grand and opulent a space as it is, there’s also something sort of severe about it. Severe, and even tentative, as if the designers were uncomfortable with the City Beautiful-crazed excesses of the 19th century, but unsure what to do instead, and history hadn’t yet provided them with an answer.

I often walk through Union Depot wishing for more ornamentation, for more hidden details and wild, Beaux-Arts flourishes you find in the Cathedral or State Capitol. Or, alternatively, for the sort of fluid art deco lines and WPA-style murals I associate with the great train depot of my youth, Cincinnati’s 1933 Union Terminal, now a science museum and popular Sturdevant family destination as a child. I also wish the original designers had opted not to go with a sickly yellow mustard paint for much of the interior. But now I’m just being nitpicky. You’d be heartless to walk through Union Depot and not gawk in wonder at the scale.

Scale is the key to Union Depot’s success as a public space, and one of the best reasons to go to Northern Spark is to see it filled with people, as it was meant to be — throngs of people who soften and fill out the space considerably. Walking through the concourse at Union Depot on most days remains a somewhat eerie activity. The space was built to handle upwards of 140 trains daily, and at its peak, 20,000 passengers a day were streaming through that concourse.

When Amtrak moves the Empire Builder from their present dump in the Midway next year, and as planned commuter lines like the Red Rock Corridor begin service, there’ll eventually be more people in there. It’s unlikely we’ll see the likes of 20,000 for a while, if ever — even the twice-a-day Empire Builder only averages about 375 daily passengers — but the next few decades will see the Depot used more and more, especially if there’s high-speed rail service to Chicago added at some point. Union Depot is a space that is meant to be filled with people, and Saturday night it will be. It will be enjoyable to think more people will be traveling through the space during Northern Spark than at any point since probably the 1950s. Just imagine them all wearing fedoras or cocktail hats. 

train frieze
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The dominance of train travel in the era in which Union Depot was built is reflected beautifully and poignantly in the frieze that lines the ceiling of the concourse.

There are many wonderful small details to be seen, if you look closely. The dominance of train travel in the era in which Union Depot was built is reflected beautifully and poignantly in the frieze that lines the ceiling of the concourse. It depicts progression of travel in America: first, a wretched-looking rustic-type trying to pull a stubborn ox and cart along, and then a splendid, old-fashioned steam train, pulling passenger cars, and finally, a sleek, contemporary (as of the 1920s) engine. In just a few years, some of those trains would be traveling well over 100 miles an hour, getting passengers to Chicago in mere hours. The progress in these friezes ends there, with the electric train; it’s impossible, from the perspective of the sculptor, to imagine a mode of efficient more speedy, efficient, and modern.

nra membership sticker
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The restaurant that once sat behind these
wooden-paneled doors is now gone.

There are some really wonderful, subtle artifacts preserved from the station’s oldest days, too. One nice detail are some red, gold, and black decals on the Rail Authority’s office windows boasting memberships in the National Restaurant Association and the Minnesota Restaurant Association, both dating from the 1950s. The restaurant that once sat behind these wooden-paneled doors is now gone, but Christo’s Greek restaurant, located in the lobby, is presumably a member of both of these still-extant organizations.

Outside the concourse are some beautiful examples of early 20th century sign-painting that have been preserved on an old staircase housing that has been connected to the rest of the structure. My favorite is the manicule (also known as an “index” or “old-timey pointy finger symbol”) on the brick wall that directs passengers “TO STATION.” You can also find signage over the door that says the same thing, in two handsome serif typefaces faded atop one another. I’m always heartened when the work of anonymous, long-dead sign painters, whose handiwork shaped the look and feel of the city for 200 years, is preserved. 

to station sign
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
A manicule, also known as an “index” or “old-timey pointy finger symbol”

There is a small museum with some artifacts and photos, including photos of the Depot’s heyday, and some (no kidding) Schmidt beer cans from the 1970s found during renovation. I suspect the curator or someone else may have a somewhat ironic sense of humor in assembling some of the other displays – one of the featured objects under glass is a railroad employee’s handbook outlining union benefits and labeled “RELICS OF THE PAST.”

Back up in the concourse, it’s impossible to miss a large light installation by St. Paul public artist Ta-coumba Aiken (a past Stroll contributor). His piece is the largest Lite-Brite installation ever created, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records. It’ll be on all night, as well.

So that’s Union Depot. There’ll be plenty of time from 8:58 p.m. to 5:26 a.m. to take in the work (I’m personally very excited about Brooklyn-based, Wisconsin-trained artist Patrick Gantert’s historic narrative performances on the half-hour between 10:30 and midnight). In between those, walk around this so-called “living room of St. Paul,” and find the things about it that you like, don’t like, and are awed by. You don’t need to wait for Northern Spark to do that, of course, but you’ll already be in the mode of walking and looking, so you might as well make the most of it.