Greyhound’s recent move to abandon its bleak NoMa digs at 1005 First St. NE for a consolidated terminal at Union Station is a poignant reminder of the bus line’s old Art Deco digs.
The ’Hound abandoned its architectural masterpiece at 1100 New York Ave. NW in the dark days of the 1970s in favor of the Trailways terminal, a building with all the charm of Eastern bloc Stalinism that will soon meet the wrecking ball. Inhabitants of NoMa’s rapidly expanding business district likely won’t miss that structure, with its shabby concrete facade, strange smells and atmosphere of urban decay.
Perseus Realty purchased the property from Greyhound for $46.75 million last year and plans to replace it with mixed-use development.
This latest chapter in the Greyhound terminal’s saga only makes the history of its predecessor all the more sad. The old Art Deco gem opened with much fanfare in March 1940 on New York Avenue. “25,000 gawkers filed in, admiring the stylish decor, all the leather and aluminum. A swing band played,” local historian John DeFerrari writes at his blog, Streets of Washington.
The station became known as the Ellis Island of Washington and was bustling with metropolitan flair. But demographic shifts and urban decline took a toll, and by the mid-1970s the station had become a tarnished souvenir of a bygone era left to rot in a rough neighborhood.
In a brief, misguided attempt to modernize, the building’s curved facade was shrouded in 1976 by a boxy mansard roof and asbestos panels.
In 1983, Greyhound announced plans to sell the property, relocating in 1985 to the Trailways terminal, the now-abandoned NoMa eyesore.
Recognizing the potential obscured by urban decline and that cringe-inducing mansard roof, the Art Deco Society of Washington waged a long battle to preserve the old building. In the ’80s, it filed an application for historic landmark status for the property.
Thus ensued the Great Greyhound Debate. Redevelopment endured fits and starts as various plans were submitted and rejected by the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board, sometimes accompanied by colorful criticism.
The coalition that rallied to save the old station (the DC Preservation League, the Art Deco Society of Washington and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City) decried one plan as an attempt to turn the building into a “Disneyland facade” or a “hood ornament,” according to a 1988 Washington Post report.
The same article quotes Post architecture critic Wolf von Eckardt skewering one plan as a “case of macho, lewd showmanship” that resembled “the grinning mouth of a giant spitting out a fly.”
Eventually a plan was approved, and the renovated terminal reopened in 1991 as the entrance pavilion for the high rise that occupies the space now.
As if to punctuate the differences in the two buildings, the response to Greyhound’s latest move has largely been mute, a deafening silence for an ugly relic.