All Aboard: Reimagining Toledo & Its Union Station

From the Old Union Depot in the 1880s to the Central Union Terminal that opened in 1950 and the 1990s renovation, our current train station has undergone cycles of rising and falling. Robert Seyfang, lead architect on the renovation project, sheds light on the community’s connection to the station and challenges us to consider how we relate to our city.

A few specks of dust hang in the air of Toledo’s train station, still and silent, exposed by a light that gleams from the nearby window. “Peaceful” and “pristine” are not exactly the first words most would use to describe a train station; standing in this space of Toledo’s yesterday, we imagine the tides of people that once swept through this quiet arena where now only dust motes drift. Despite the peace, we are reminded of lost voices, of life, that once bustled through this now empty space.

Robert Seyfang, a retired architect, walks through the station; his steps echo in the grand lobby’s magnificent silence. He gestures to the mural that reads “Glass Center of the World” and lays his hands on the glass blocks. 

“This is more than a train station. It should be a catalyst for this whole Middlegrounds community, and we’re hoping that that’s what it becomes— a focal point,” Seyfang urged. “I think we’re blessed to have this down here.”

By Ruth Chang for Midstory.

As Seyfang leads us from floor to floor, he recounts his memories of the train station. A Toledoan through and through, Seyfang has seen Toledo—and the train station— rise and fall with almost comic regularity. After growing up in Toledo, and getting  a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s degree in city planning, Seyfang thought about leaving Toledo for bigger and better things. In choosing to stay, Seyfang also made his mark on Toledo. 

In 1995, he got his “dream project”: renovating the train station. 

DEPARTURE

Just shy of 70 years ago, the original Toledo Union Station opened with great splendor. On the day it officially opened, over 70,000 people visited the station. Meant to be the Midwest’s hub connecting the coasts, the train station welcomed 110 passenger trains a day in the first few years it was operating. Not only was it full of bustling activity, but it also stood as a symbol of great promise for Toledo: the hope for a big and bright future. 

“If you can imagine this space, all these spaces, with hundreds of people, all day long: it was really magnificent and the grand lobby with the ticket counter and everything. It was really exciting,” Seyfang said.

“New Central Union Terminal Dedication” c. 1950. Courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

At the time, the new station ushered in a sense of pride for Toledoans who celebrated for a week with parties, parades and pageants. The previous sign, “Don’t Judge Toledo by It’s [sic] Union Station” was changed to “Now Judge Toledo by It’s [sic] Union Station.”

Its glory days, however, were almost ironically few. Our train station, known as one of the nicest and most modern on the New York Central Line, opened just before the passenger rail industry fell. As other modes of transportation became popular, railroads were used increasingly less in the decades following the 1950s. The train station, in all its hope for vibrancy and progress, gradually fell derelict with wasted potential. In his work as an architect in Toledo, Seyfang saw this trend often repeated. 

Courtesy of LIFE Magazine, October 9, 1950. 

“Early in my career, we were in the period in the ‘50s and ‘60s of architecture. [It] got too much about doing architectural heroics, and the building was everything, and it wasn’t [about] the neighborhood that it was in or the community context,” Seyfang said. “I saw a lot of mediocrity creeping into the area. I saw a lot of projects that were accepted just because they appeared to be good for economic development, rather than good design and good planning.”

Seyfang notes the importance of foresight, highlighting the dangers when too much focus is placed on the “now.” For him, the accomplishment of one project should lead to the anticipation of the next. 

Map, c. 1916. Courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

The many years that the station sat unused led to a host of challenges during the 1995 renovation. Seyfang mentioned different hurdles: salvaging damaged Libbey-Owens-Ford vitrolite tile, repurposing spaces like dormitories and restrooms and working to retain functionality and original design elements. He, along with the State Historic Preservation Office, tried to find the right balance between preserving the original while renovating for more modern use, as the station now is also used as office and event space.

“They didn’t want us to make any changes. We were able to convince them that we really needed to repurpose that space,” Seyfang recalled.

This tough balance reflects the necessary collaboration between space and, well, us. In preserving the telephone booths that no longer house telephones or the ticket counter that no longer sells tickets, we understand the train station beyond its current context as a building for our use. We recognize a rich and complex past—a past filled with both successes and failures. 

The train station prompts us to consider how the people and the spaces of Toledo can complement each other as time goes on. It was necessary to reimagine the train station because it no longer fit the purpose for which it was created. While we updated it for our use, however, we must also ask: how can we, as a city, use our past to move into the present and into the possibilities the future offers? A thriving city, after all, is a community that fully inhabits its own potential. 

By Yashada Wagle for Midstory. Original image courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

HOME

The train station offers an opportunity to tap into that potential. It embodies a space between coming and going—between leaving and arriving, departing and returning. The train station itself has undergone cycles of rising and falling, but Seyfang has chosen to see Toledo as a place to land and call home. 

Returning to Toledo was not necessarily what Seyfang anticipated when he was younger—Boston or New York seemed to hold more promise—but he now considers it “a blessing” to have returned.

“I raised my kids expecting them to leave Toledo. That’s an almost embarrassment to me that I actually expected that, rather than planning for them to come back to the city,” he said. “That’s one thing we aren’t doing a very good job [of], as parents: hoping our kids can come back.” 

With the optimistic view to see our own value and build for the future, Seyfang founded the Toledo Design Center. The nonprofit architecture, urban planning and design group works on involving the local community more with city design projects and educating on good urban planning.

Courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

Seyfang’s vision for the future began in Toledo and continues in his work today. Perhaps, for Seyfang, the train station is the most tangible monument of that hopeful, forward-thinking mentality that destined Toledo to be a great city in the nation.

Much like the train station, Toledo has gone through periods of dormancy and rebirth. Toledo, indeed, is a place with a past, present and future. And perhaps the moments of silence—of peace—are times to remember, to reflect and to reimagine. Standing in empty space, we close our eyes and feel the hearty rumble of the station’s past. But our eyes can’t stay closed forever—the spaces around us might just be waiting for someone to disturb their silence. 

While people may currently see Toledo as a place to leave, we hope to reimagine Toledo as a place to come to, return to and stay in. Midstory’s soon-approaching annual gala, “A City in Transit,” held at the train station, recognizes a Toledo in transition Learn more here.

1 COMMENT

  1. This piece is reminder to all of us of the economic and social role that Toledo played in Ohio and the Midwest. More important it is an alert that Toledo has the potential to play the same role again. It is fortunate that Bob Seyfang, an indigenous son of Toledo, is among us, not only to tell an eyewitness story, but to inspire us, particularly the youth, to embrace our place.

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