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Archive for Sunday, March 17, 1996

VISTITORS CENTER RUMBLES TO LIFE AT REDEDICATION

March 17, 1996

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Bring on the tourists. The city's new visitor's center, in its old train depot, impressed visitors during Saturday's ceremony.

The earth trembled as freight trains roared east and west past the Union Pacific Depot in North Lawrence Saturday.

But inside the 1889 building, the roar of box cars and locomotives was a muffled whoosh and an almost soothing background lullaby for a celebration that featured cake, coffee and nostalgia.

"It brings back lots of memories," said Curtis Dalton, one of several hundred people who gathered at the depot for a public ceremony marking the building's rededication as a city visitor's center and public meeting space.

Dalton, 75, took passenger trains out of the station in the 1950s to Chicago and Denver.

"I think I remember the old seats the most," said his wife, Cleda Dalton, also 75, who as a teen-ager in the late 1930s took trains from the station to Kansas City.

The great wooden benches of yesteryear are gone. But the building, once marked for demolition, has been restored and refurbished to closely reflect architect Henry van Brunt's original design, including its churchlike steeple.

The original steeple buckled and was torn down after a flood in 1903. Lawrence architect John Lee designed a new steeple for the building, with an improved structure that, it is hoped, will not fall victim to the next flood of the nearby Kansas River.

Following government guidelines for the renovation of historic buildings, Lee preserved most exterior details, including windows and doors. The modern interior includes a visitor's center for tourists, a large meeting room that the city will rent for $20 an hour, and a smaller classroom that eventually will feature a film about Lawrence history. It also has some offices.

Still to come: landscaping of the depot grounds, additional parking and a $30,000 art project.

Lee Zimmerman of Lawrence took trains in and out of the depot half a dozen times during World War II, when he was in the Merchant Marines.

Now 70, Zimmerman recalled his trips west through Colorado and Utah, where a Southern Pacific engine took over for the Union Pacific in Ogden to haul the train into Oakland, Calif., then a ferry ride away from San Francisco.

It was a five-day trip.

"The trains were extremely crowded and ill-equipped," he said. The nation's great passenger railroading era was then coming to an end. It started in 1869, when the transcontinental railway was completed. It ended after World War II, when the American dream included not one but two cars for each home, with a garage to store them.

Passenger service at the old Lawrence depot ended in 1971, and freight service ended in 1984, when Union Pacific officials announced plans to demolish the dilapidated building at 402 N. Second.

But a consortium of city officials and preservationists joined forces to save the building and restore it. The 11-year project cost more than $1 million, most of it provided by federal grants.

"Hopefully the depot now stands as a symbol of what a community can do and what a community can be," said Mayor Bob Moody, who was among the original group that proposed saving the building 12 years ago.

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