Denver’s Living Room: Union Station

The new heart of this city beats inside a historic transportation hub.

Union Station’s grand hall was once a passageway in and out of the city for millions of travelers during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The train station, opened in July of 1881, reached its peak near the end of WWII before seeing its decline with the rise of automobile and commercial plane travel. For the past several decades, the station sat in limited use, most often acknowledged for its holiday light trimmings.

Efforts to protect Union Station commenced in the ’70s, with local preservationist Dana Crawford at the forefront. Crawford and her group called S.O.S.—Save our Station—collected signatures on a petition to stop demolition plans. The site went on to gain national historic status in 1974, and in 2002, a redevelopment plan was in the works.

“The biggest challenge was working with a historic building—we didn’t really know what we were going to find until we started,” says Chad McWhinney, CEO of McWhinney, a real estate development firm, and member of the Union Station Alliance.

“Dana Crawford has long envisioned the great hall serving as ‘Denver’s living room,’ and everyone worked hard to achieve and exceed that goal,” McWhinney explains.

Union Station
A look inside Denver’s “living room.” (©James Ray Spahn)

In July 2014, Union Station opened to the public once again. Inside Crawford’s “living room,” travelers and locals alike settle into plush couches and chairs, pull out laptops at community tables and slide onto barstools at the Terminal Bar. The station’s original ticket windows act as the bar’s partition from the community space, and a lineup of 30 Colorado craft brews are displayed in slot holders reminiscent of a departures board.

Union Station
Union Station’s Terminal Bar features a craft beer list in the ticket window’s slot holders. (Courtesy Denver Union Station)

The station is home to 13 locally owned shops and restaurants, including Tattered Cover Bookstore, Milkbox Ice Creamery, seafood spot Stoic & Genuine and a New American eatery and market called Mercantile Dining & Provision.

In the evening, high-end cocktails are served at The Cooper Lounge on the second floor. It’s a perfect perch from which to peer down into the living room, or above at the elegantly carved columbine flowers adorning the archways and the grand chandeliers, which are larger replicas of the originals.

Union Station
The grand chandeliers inside Union Station are are larger replicas of the originals. (©Ellen Jaskol)

On-site, The Crawford Hotel offers 112 uniquely decorated Pullman-style rooms. And more hints of past railroad days are found throughout the station, including original blueprints framed along a hallway wall.

Perhaps most importantly, Union Station has once again become a vital transportation hub, now accommodating Amtrak, the Ski Train, 16th Street Mall Shuttles, regional buses and the light rail. In 2016, expansion of the light rail’s A Line was completed to reach Denver International Airport—a smooth 37-minute ride from the airport brings travelers directly to the beating heart of the city. 

Union Station
Union Station is, once again, a highlight of the city. (©Ellen Jaskol)