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Originally published April 24, 2013 at 9:33 PM | Page modified April 25, 2013 at 10:25 AM

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Dingy depot’s beauty reborn

After a decade of repairs and updating, Seattle reopened the 107-year-old King Street Station’s passenger waiting hall Wednesday.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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In a region divided over monorails, highway tunnels, light rail, tolls, bike lanes and parking fees, there was one transportation project in Seattle that everybody seemed to agree about: renovating Seattle’s King Street Station.

After a decade of repairs and updating, the 107-year-old depot’s passenger waiting hall reopened Wednesday as 500 people and a brass band celebrated the city’s $56 million restoration.

Amtrak passengers, who had been diverted through a storage warehouse, can again enjoy the spacious lobby, with a patched and repainted plaster ceiling, polished terrazzo floor and new chandelier.

The heights of the hall were hidden since 1963, when owners installed soft acoustical squares overhead — hung using dozens of cables and bolts that scarred the real ceiling. That mistake began an age of dingy memories for Seattleites who remember plywood blocking stairways, rooms and sunlight. The floor turned cracked and brown, and the restrooms stank.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT) began the improvements a decade ago to support the Amtrak Cascades lines. Seattle bought the station from BNSF Railway for $10 in 2008 and accelerated the work.

Mayor Mike McGinn said Seattle now has a train station as great as any. He noted how the destruction of New York’s Penn Station in the 1960s provoked a national outcry to save historic train hubs.

In the early 1970s, Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman chose to preserve Pioneer Square, rather than succumb to proposals to demolish brick buildings from the city’s earliest years. Decisions like those make cities pleasant and walkable, said McGinn.

“It’s not just about the past, but about a future where we recognize the best of the past ways of doing things,” he said.

King Street Station is one of 40 train depots that have received U.S. Department of Transportation money for a restoration, the agency said.

It is the 14th-busiest stop in the U.S., serving 672,000 arriving and departing passengers annually, said Rob Eaton, director of government affairs for Amtrak. Each day, five trains leave for Portland, two head for Vancouver, B.C., and one departs to Spokane.

In the future, its role will expand. A streetcar will pass by in 2014, and ridership is expected to grow on adjacent Sounder rail lines. A light-rail and bus station is a block away.

The project has effectively doubled the space for train riders. Two gates that were blocked have been reopened. Baggage and ticket counters were moved to previously cluttered nooks on the north side, giving customers the run of the entire hall. Meanwhile, new e-tickets by Amtrak can be scanned in the hall, instead of staff having to examine each stub at departure time.

“They can get on the trains faster, with less lines,” said Ron Pate, acting rail director for the state DOT.

Passenger Beverly Chase, of Snohomish, catching the 2:20 Amtrak Cascades to meet a friend in Eugene, Ore., was surprised to see a brighter station than what she remembered years ago. She was smitten by new green and gold jewellike tiles inlaid around the perimeter just above eye level. “It just sparkles. It’s pretty,” she said.

A few finishing touches remain. The tower clocks were restored to working order in 2008, but painting is under way inside the clock tower, so they won’t show proper time again until late next week, said city project manager Trevina Wang.

And the grand staircase, from the ground floor’s compass rose to the new Jackson Street entrance and park, won’t open for a couple of weeks while workers are moving equipment, Wang said.

A big share of the restoration is hidden from public view, especially within the 245-foot-high clock tower, where gray steel braces have been added to defend against earthquakes.

To set the braces, workers had to locate steel crossbeams that were sandwiched between layers of tower brick, and bolt the new braces into the original steel, said Wang. In all, 1,500 tons of steel were installed, she said.

The tower is based on the San Marco bell tower of Venice, Italy, and was the tallest building in Seattle when it opened May 10, 1906.

A few years ago, “the roof was leaking, we had pigeons living in here, there were rats, it was moldy, it was dark,” Wang said, walking the inner staircases.

She managed to find a cache of used clear tiles in Colorado, to replace broken ones on the spire. The edges had turned purple, from ultraviolet rays hitting manganese in the glass, she said.

The station revival enjoyed almost universal support. Seattle Times readers made it a favorite in a 2003 survey called “You Build It,” and the City Council in 2006 enthusiastically placed it on the menu of its “Bridging the Gap” ballot measure.

The only common complaint has been the duration of construction.

Funding consists of $10 million in city property taxes, $16.7 million from the Federal Railroad Administration, $18.9 million from the Federal Transit Administration, $10.1 million from Washington state, and $210,000 from the South Downtown Foundation and 4Culture. Almost half went toward seismic bracing.

Ryan Hester, chairman of the Pioneer Square Preservation Board, said, “The outright obsession of every detail in this magnificent restoration will be appreciated by all who enjoy this space for the next 100 years.”

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @mikelindblom

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