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Reborn station evokes ghosts of art deco past

FORT WORTH - Ramona Robertson's job sounds like a set piece for a horror movie. She walks the night security beat in the empty, cavernous Texas and Pacific train station, the echo of her own footsteps disappearing in the shadows down the dark tunnels and walkways.

She doesn't mind. If the old T&P is haunted, the occupants are kindly, comforting ghosts: jovial porters and kids greeting Grandma and soldiers coming home at long last. Those are the passengers Mrs. Robertson sees when she paces the big, empty terminal at midnight.

"I came here when I was 5 years old," a child sent cross-country to her grandmother with no precautions needed but a note with her name and destination pinned to her coat, she said. "You could put a little girl with a little tag on her on the train, and she arrived safely."

It may be that sentimental fondness, as much as anything else, that kept the splendid old terminal more or less intact for 30 years after the last train came through. The station, easily one of Texas' most spectacular art deco landmarks, has escaped the scourges of demolition, vandalism, highway expansion and boneheaded redevelopment schemes. Stepping into the building is like walking into a Cornell Woolrich novel, circa 1940.

Returned to old glory

A coalition of transportation agencies and the city of Fort Worth proudly showed off a $1.4 million restoration of the terminal's public spaces this week. The makeover is preparatory to its future use as the west-end station for the Trinity Railway Express, a Dallas-to-Fort Worth commuter service that should start next year.

That would be a lot of money at my house, but it's chump change when you're doing historic restoration of 70-year-old train stations. The fact that the T&P looks so fabulous on what was a comparatively slender budget testifies to the care the building got during its long slumber.

It was in trouble in the late 1960s, when the Texas and Pacific line discontinued passenger service, and again in the early '70s, when it went up for sale to anybody who wanted to chop it up for offices or even tear it down altogether.

Ironically, it may have been the spectacularly hideous Interstate 30 overpass that helped spare the building. The widely reviled highway project chopped off downtown's southern end, marooning the T&P building and its neighbors in a no man's land where nobody was much interested in building office towers.

A quixotic developer snapped up the building at a fire-sale price in 1977 and managed to find a big tenant with a long lease - the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - to occupy the upper floors and keep the building occupied. Nothing kills old buildings faster than disuse.

The years clicked by and the building stood silent, like a movie set waiting for the klieg lights to come back on.

Beyond description

Now that it's going to be a train station again, it's slowly waking up. I hauled out an architecture book to try to describe the T&P's interior, but the terms - "nonstructural corbels," "chevrons and ziggurats," "cast-plaster ceiling" - don't describe the feeling it gives you: That FDR could still be in the White House and that you could take in a Bogey movie downtown tonight, that just outside the door, there could be a Hudson parked at the curb.

Going into the T&P makes me nostalgic for things I never even knew, like White Castle burgers and The Shadow on the radio and trains with names like Century and Eagle and Limited. It's that authentic.

Maybe that's why Ramona Robertson never gets spooked, even when it's late and dark and quiet as the grave.

"Maybe I just remember it like it was, when it was so busy," she said. "Even when I'm here by myself, it feels like this building is alive. It's got happiness, it's got sadness. It's got "Gee, I'm glad to be home.' I love being in here."

The Dallas Morning News
Jacquielynn Floyd