The Stories Buildings Tell Us: A Mini-Lesson

I cannot tell you how many times I was rushed along by an exasperated friend or relative as I was looking through the entrance of a building on a busy street, or walking slowly, with my head up, taking in the fresco on its ceiling. It used to drive me nuts that I did not get to enjoy a city in the way I wanted! And as much as I like solo traveling, I prefer to be able to share my experiences with someone else. So I would grumpily squash my unsatisfied curiosity and move on. But it kept happening! So I started wondering why so many people looked, while I marveled.

You see, as a kid, I was really lucky to have a father who was (and still is, at 79 years old!) incredibly curious, and a mother who was a social studies teacher and a true extrovert. So, for as long as I can remember, my school breaks always included excursions to museums and historical sites.

Here is how it went: my dad would find the place and my mom would bring it to life. It wasn’t that she knew all the stories behind stuff we would encounter; but whenever she didn’t, we would try to figure things out together by reading or asking people. The latter being her favorite way – not mine or dad’s… we just listened quietly. With the new information, we would look again,  discuss what we saw… and we would imagine! Now that was my favorite part.

For a very long time, it never occurred to me that not everyone had that experience with their family. I never even considered that most people don’t really know how to look! And when I say look, I don’t mean stare. I mean contemplate. Taking in whatever you are in front of. With as many senses as possible. And doing it slowly, patiently, until it starts making sense, and it starts talking to you. That’s what we did back then – mom, dad, and I.

Now that I get to do this with Live It Learn It’s students during the field experience portion of our units, I know it definitely takes a special kind of looking to gain interest in these kinds of things! You can only develop that interest if you start somewhere and put in a bit of effort. It pays off, I guarantee.

Buildings, besides their functionality, are the keepers of stories. They host the potential to help us learn about the city in which we live! The walls, ceilings, materials, and decoration of a particular structure speak about the values and ideas behind their design, as well as about the lives of those who imagined and built it. After all, buildings are artifacts created in the past. And like any artifact, they help us understand the lives of people who lived before us. But buildings also transform with time. New generations alter the structures, add spaces, and change them. Being able to identify this gives us insight into how people’s preferences change and how the city as a whole evolves.

So, as a very curious experiential educator, I am writing this post as a way to encourage you to question the way you look at buildings. And maybe, like me, you will start scoping your surroundings to uncover a few of the stories they are dying to share with us.

With all this said, I hope this mini unit will guide you as you discover some of the stories behind Union Station and its magnificent architecture.


Goal: Analyze the architectural details of Union Station to learn about DC in the early 1900s.

Things youll do:

  • Practice perspective taking
  • Analyze sculptures and murals
  • Practice sketching/drawing/painting
  • Make historical connections

Recommended Reading

When you know a little something about what you are about to encounter, chances are, you will enjoy it more. So here are a couple of options you can check out ahead to enhance your understanding of the sculptures you will find at Union Station.

When it comes to Greek gods, my go to book is: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingrid D’Aulaire and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire 

For books on Roman centurions, follow this link:

Materials: You will need sketch paper, a 2H pencil or art media of choice, an envelope, a stamp and a friend’s address. But please DO improvise if you do not have access to all of these.

Disclosure: This unit is meant to be enjoyed by kids ages 8 and up… that means grown up kids too – wink wink. Also, this experience is better enjoyed when arriving to Union Station by train or metro. Let’s get started!

Read upon arrival to get in character:

Travel back in time to the beginning of the 20th century! The time is 6:50 am on October 27, 1907. You are arriving from Pittsburgh, on the first train ever, to Washington DC’s Union Station. You don’t know what awaits you, but you have heard numerous rumors… Some people gossiped about the impossibility of building a station in a “swampoodle” (boggy ground with interspersed slum dwellings); others were talking about the millions it was costing to build because of the expensive materials being used. But what had really inspired you to get a ticket was that your friend’s uncle (who was in construction, so he had to know), said it would be the most fantastic terminal ever built in America. So you couldn’t wait to see for yourself! Three months ago, you had gotten your ticket, and today the big day has finally come.

As you get off the train, you are welcomed by camera flashlights from journalists that have come to report on the opening. You then walk into the main waiting room and stare in awe at the beautiful ceiling. You immediately wish you had a camera to capture the moment, but there is no way a regular person would have a camera unless s/he were very wealthy. So instead, you decide to sit on one of the benches and sketch the different details, with little notes about each one, which you will send to your friend as soon as you find the Post Office.

With all the buildings going up in DC, New York, and Philly, the two of you have been talking about going into construction! You are pretty young, but you’ve heard from kids around the neighborhood that they will take you in as early as 13. So you want to be ready. Plus, ever since you heard about the Station opening, you couldn’t wait!


  1. Take it in 

Walk around the building (main gallery and side galleries) and take in the different things you notice.

  1. Describe

Use your materials to sketch objects you find interesting. This helps you slow down, zoom in, and notice more details!

  1. Wonder

Ask questions, interact with what you’re looking at! You can use the Fun Facts and What to Look For guide as well as the guiding questions list to analyze the architecture, sculptures, and murals.

Fun Facts and What to Look For

  • Materials used: gold leaf (23 karat, 18 gram), marble, and granite.
  • Completed in 1908, Union Station was the largest train station in the world! It covered more ground than any other building in the US.
  • It finally united the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (the 2 main railroads of the time).
  • It is considered the finest example of the American Beaux Arts style, drawing inspiration from the Arch of Constantine and the Baths of Diocletian.
  • In its interior, there are 36 statues of Roman centurions. Originally, Louis St. Gardens’ statues were naked from the waist down, following Roman tradition, but after receiving push-back from conservative eyes, they were given shields to cover their nether regions!
  • In addition to the Roman centurions, there are also six statues called “The Progress of Railroading.” These represent Greek gods and demigods: Prometheus (fire), Apollo (imagination and inspiration), Ceres (agriculture), Themis (freedom and justice), and Thales (electricity), as well as Archimedes (mechanics). For more details click here.
  • During its heyday, the train station hosted dining rooms, a presidential suite, barber shops, and even a mortuary!

Guiding Questions:

  • What does the building’s size and decor tell you about transportation during that time?
  • Union Station is inspired by great Greek and Roman characters and buildings. Why do you think Daniel Burnham (the architect) went for that design?
  • Why do you think Louis St. Gardens chose those specific gods for his statues and not others?
  • Based on this, what do you think people of the time thought was most important?
  • If you could be a guide to your friend in Union Station, what would you tell them about it?
  1. Share 

Identify one to three objects you have explored so far that you want to share with someone. Find the right angle to look at each of them from and sit down. Use your materials to sketch/draw/paint them.

Once you’re done, write a letter to a friend back home telling them about your artwork and mail it from the USPS site (accessible from the side, on the outside of the building).

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