This weekend, St. Paul is getting its old living room back.

The Union Depot, which closed two generations ago to train traffic after nearly 50 years as the city's grand entry, will reopen Saturday as a new Lowertown transit hub that eventually will handle buses, light rail, taxis, bicycles -- and passenger trains next year.

The $243 million project to retool the Roaring '20s structure for the demands of 21st-century travel -- led by Ramsey County and funded in large part by the federal government -- gives the east metro a hub that can adapt to various transit uses for years to come, officials said.

Those possibilities include high-speed rail to Chicago, as well as additional light-rail and bus rapid-transit lines.

And when Central Corridor light-rail trains start arriving from downtown Minneapolis in 2014, the terminal station in St. Paul will be on the plaza outside Union Depot.

"It's all about a bright future," said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, who chairs the county's Regional Railroad Authority.

Events to mark Saturday's reopening will include a dedication ceremony in the morning, family-friendly activities throughout the day and movies in the late afternoon.

But probably the most important event will occur about 7 a.m., when Metro Transit buses begin service at the depot that will include a weekday schedule of 300 arrivals and departures.

Next month, Jefferson Regional Bus Lines will open at the depot. It will be joined later in the year by Amtrak, which will move its Twin Cities service to Union Depot from the Midway area.

Even so, the depot means much more to St. Paul than simply a place to catch a train, said McDonough. It's a part of the city's fabric, a legacy of the Empire Builder himself, he said.

"For a city of St. Paul's size, James J. Hill built a very magnificent depot and that was a part of his original vision," McDonough said. "That was something that we needed to continue when we invested to bring that building back to life."

Building has good bones

The neoclassical building, designed by Chicago architect Charles Forst and fronted by a row of Doric columns, has been a St. Paul landmark since it opened for passenger travel in 1923. It's on the National Register of Historic Places.

A long-running, sustainable use for the facility has been difficult to find since the last train pulled out in 1971. Developers renovated it in 1983, but tenants closed for lack of business. Another group of developers defaulted on a loan.

The refurbished depot not only includes the impressive head house, which has remained open for years as a home to Christos and other restaurants, but the long-closed waiting room where hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans for decades waved goodbye, hugged hello, left for vacation or returned from war.

Both rooms have been repainted in golden tones to reflect their appearance in 1924. The waiting room includes the carved frieze recalled by generations of kids that shows the state's transportation evolution from ox carts to railroads.

Several pieces of public art are in the works, including murals in the waiting room, Collins said, making it more like it was once considered: "The living room of St Paul."

Until recently, the waiting room's curved-glass skylights were still blackened per World War II orders and coated with pigeon dung. Now they're clear, lighting the way for passengers who will use the room again to wait for their train or bus to pull up below.

Plans for Union Depot include commercial tenants in addition to Christos, the Greek restaurant near the old ticket counter.

The county has contracted with Jones Lang LaSalle, a Chicago firm that runs Grand Central Station in New York City and Union Station in Washington, D.C., to handle retail operations and event planning for Union Depot.

The firm's involvement, said rail authority spokesman Josh Collins, "speaks to the potential of the site."

Mark Hunter, who heads the Midwest retail division for Jones Lang LaSalle, said the firm has already conducted leasing tours and meetings with prospective merchants. "We want to be careful to do it in a methodical way" and build on community use of the depot, he said.

One on One Bicycle Studio of Minneapolis is preparing a bike retail and repair center on Union Depot's street level, complete with bike storage, showers and lockers.

Footing the bill

The project was funded mostly by Ramsey County and the federal government, with some state help. With the strong backing of former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a House leader on transportation issues, and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of St. Paul, Union Depot received $124.3 million in transit and stimulus funds.

The state kicked in $13.7 million in bonding. The county rail authority is covering the balance, which officials expect to come in at less than $105 million.

Restoration and construction work, which took two years and was finished in October, cost $148 million. The project created an estimated 4,400 jobs, including more than 2,200 on site.

The remaining $95 million went for acquisition, environmental work, railroad work and site improvements.

The whole of the 35-acre site is owned by the county railroad authority, save for 39 condos in the head house.

Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said that some people probably will make unfavorable comparisons between the price tag and transit services currently provided.

"But we're not building it for 2012, we're building it for the next 90 years," he said.

Besides, he added, for people who don't often get to downtown St. Paul, Union Depot will once and for all put Lowertown on the map.

"Spring of 2015, when the regional [Saints] ballpark opens, you're going to see a huge percentage of people arriving on light rail and they're going to get off in front of this impressive building," he said.

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035