The exquisitely restored Union Depot in downtown St. Paul may be a 1920s-era neoclassical building, but it sure isn’t decorated like one.
Walk in the front door and you’ll see hundreds of twinkling, suspended glass squares shedding a palette of colors. Go down to the carriageway, and there’s a long mural in tile and glass offering glimpses of St. Paul’s storied railroad past.
In the waiting room, you’ll find a table covered by a collage set in resin, with tiny cutouts of Minnesota faces and places — Garrison Keillor, Itasca State Park, Spam, the Vikings — forming an impressionist map of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Next to it is a steel ping-pong table that makes music.
While the Union Depot awaits the arrival of Amtrak service (officials are hoping next month), the Lowertown landmark is being hung and fitted out with several pieces of public art commissioned last year with $1.25 million in grants, most of it money from the Federal Transit Administration.
It’s all part of striking a balance between the depot as a historic building in its own right and as a 21st-century transit hub capable of handling light rail, buses, taxis and bicycles as well as passenger trains, said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, who chairs the Regional Railroad Authority that directed the depot’s $243 million renovation.
The art helps establish the Union Depot as “a living, breathing, functioning building that takes our community into the future,” McDonough said. “It adds a lot of value to the project.”
The focus on art also cements the depot’s ties to its Lowertown neighborhood, one of the Twin Cities’ foremost art enclaves, said rail authority spokeswoman Deborah Carter McCoy.
“There’s been a lot of very positive responses,” she said.
Nearly 250 artists competed to win 10 commissions for the depot. Because most of the funding came from the federal government, no preference could be shown Twin Cities artists for the five large permanent works (who nevertheless got two of the commissions):
• Ray King’s “Twin Waves,” a glass sculpture that hangs in two sections above the depot’s entry off E. 4th Street, was installed a couple of weeks ago. It can be seen from outside the depot and inside from the head house, now called the Great Hall. King, an internationally known artist from Philadelphia, received $200,000 for the work.
• The first piece to be installed at the depot this summer, another $200,000 commission, was “Side Track,” a kinetic sculpture of aluminum tubes by Connecticut artist Tim Prentice that sways gently above an escalator in the new Kellogg Entry building.
• In September, “Trainscape” by Minneapolis artists Amy Baur and Brian Boldon went up in the carriageway. The 146-foot long mural, a $150,000 commission, was created by digitally printing ceramic tile and glass. Each tile has a center glass prism that captures light and movement.
• Coming soon are two commissions for the waiting room — a $500,000 interactive multimedia project directed by Minneapolis artist Steve Dietz of Northern Lights.mn that will include radio-generating furniture and a scattered-light sculpture, and six murals for $150,000 depicting historic and multicultural depot scenes by Atlanta painter Ralph Gilbert.
Local artists were selected for five smaller pieces ranging in cost from $7,000 to $14,000.
Josie Lewis’ “Ode to Minnesota” collage table and “Union Table,” the ping-pong homage by Andrew MacGuffie, Noah Keesecker and Peter Haakon Thompson, are already installed. The next month will bring a fossil-like wall sculpture by Lowertown artist Michael Bahl, three stylized train sculptures by Minneapolis artist Kyle Fokken and four ceramic sculptures of St. Paul by Minneapolis artist Aldo Moroni.
Commissioner McDonough, who admits to having “no artistic ability whatsoever,” said he liked what he was seeing. “I tend to be impressed really easily, but I have to tell you, I’m really happy.”