Story by Jenny Paulson / Photos by Chris Osorio – The historic Union Depot, a downtown Pueblo landmark, considered the center of attraction in Pueblo’s Historic Union Avenue Historic District, is still shining over 120 years after it was built, with ups and downs that have reflected the city of Pueblo’s struggles and eventual recovery from floods and economic downturns. The Union Depot, was designed in Romanesque style in 1889 by Chicago architect Frank Sprague of the firm Sprague and Newell, who planned the building with the beautiful Manitou Red sandstone that has helped it the test of time. It was built under the supervision of James McGonigle. In the golden age of passenger trains from the 1920s to the 1950s, the Union Depot was considered to be one of the finest railroad depots west of the Mississippi, and served an average of 160,000 passengers a year.
Pueblo’s civic fathers, including our 1887 mayor, Chas Henkel, lobbied on Pueblo’s behalf to bring the competing Missouri Southern Railroad to Pueblo, which forced the Gen. Wm. Palmer’s Denver and Rio Grande Railroad into competitive shipping rates. Henkel served as mayor again in 1890, when the Union Depot was dedicated. The Union Depot once served as many as forty trains a day. The glorious era, when the Union Depot was bustling with activity, ended when passenger train service discontinued in Pueblo in 1971. The building deteriorated for years until it was restored in the 1990s back to its glory days through a series of renovations that transformed it into an events center with office buildings and luxury apartments.
Today’s proud owners of the Union Depot, located at 132 W. “B” Street, Joseph and James Koncilja, two brothers and prominent members of the Pueblo community, under the direction of Tallie Koncilja, maintain the landmark Union Depot as close to its original luxurious status as possible, with its mosaic flooring, richly polishing wainscoting, stained glass windows and ornate chandeliers throughout the building. Today, the Koncilja brothers share the Union Depot with the community, providing offices, space for businesses, and luxury apartment rentals, with their staff serving custom catering for local events, business meetings and weddings. The Main Hall, which was once the waiting room for railroad patrons, now serves as an elaborate banquet hall, that seats up to 500 people. It has a staging area, a historic bar with immaculate woodwork and decor, plus the original mosaic flooring. The Loft, on the second floor, seats up to 100 people and has unique historic ceilings with beautiful wood beams and its own bar. Several stories offer Manhatten style apartment living. The Union Depot is also a venue that the Koncilja’s, prominent members of the local Democratic party, use for political events.
The Union Depot is located within the over century-old Union Avenue Historic Commercial District. The Union Depot is the shining star of 83 buildings in the 27 acre District on the National Historic Register. The Union Depot is located at one end of this historic District, with the Riverwalk, Pueblo Downtown’s main modern attraction located at the other end, with many unique shops, antique stores, restaurants, boutiques and venues inbetween for locals and visitors to stroll through. Other prominent historic buildings in the District include the Vail Hotel and the recently renovated Pueblo City Hall and exquisite Memorial Hall that hosts theaters and musical events throughout the year. The historic area of Downtown Pueblo was once located within two small cities, South Pueblo and Central Pueblo, which incorporated with Pueblo and Bessemer into one municipality. According to historic maps of Pueblo, Union Avenue, which intersects with the street the Union Depot is on, was first referred to in 1880.
During the golden era of the Union Depot, Pueblo was considered the leading economic center of Southern Colorado. Initially the train station was served by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, the Atchinson Topeka & Sante Fe Railway, the Colorado & Southern Railway, the Missouri Pacific Railroad and the Chicago Rock Island & Pacific Railroad.Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Union Depot, as did Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden and Presidential candidate John Kerry. Today the Union Pacific Railroad and the BNSF Railroad share use of the tracks. Regular passenger train service no longer exists but proposals include reviving passenger service with a Front Range Commuter Rail, which would provide service to Denver and Colorado Springs. In addition, the Union Depot may soon be included on the route of the Southwest Chief.
Pueblo’s largest 1921 flood nearly destroyed Downtown, and set back the City’s economy, killing over 1,500 people. The damage throughout the District and the city was described in a news article: “Conditions are beyond description. Virtually every building from the postoffice to the square beyond the Union station on Union avenue were completely wiped out” with flood waters as deep as 18 feet. The Union Depot’s original clock towner that rose 150 feet skyward with foot high numerals, and three foot bronze hands, was cracked and was lowered thirty feet a few years later to correct the damage.
After train service shut down, and while Pueblo in the 1980s suffered a large recession, the Union Depot building deteriorated. It began being brought back when, in 1990, a group of investors pooled their funds and refurbished the outside of the building, refinishing the red sandstone exterior, sanding and repainting original wood window frames and restoring beautiful stained glass windows that grace the front of the building and finishing the first floor. The building was immaculately landscaped and the new era of the Union Depot began in 1991, when it was offered office spaces, luxury apartments, with the Main Hall and Loft reserved for local events.
By 1992, the entire first floor of the building was leased by shops including a candy store, retail clothing stores and speciality gift shops. The investors continued construction and mass demo’d then restored the second floors for offices and turned the third and fourth floors into luxury loft apartments which feature oak window frames, open beam ceilings and the original brick walls. The Express Building, formerly the baggage area of the original train station, was then restored and tenants moved in to fill the entire building since. The Union Depot investors led the way, and are credited for encouraging others to invest in the renovation of surrounding buildings in the District which had also decayed through the years.
In 1996, voters approved a project to renew what was called an “unsightly” district as a catalyst for cultural and economic grown. The Historic Arkansas River Project worked to restore the Arkansas River to its original path. By 2001, the Riverwalk was built, adding a huge boost to the revitalization of Pueblo, helping the distressed city recover from a decade long recession, due to the CF&I Steel company lay offs of ,800 workers. Today the Union Depot and the Avenue Historic Commercial District area is commonly used for community events.
The Union Depot is one of the buildings that Pueblo is proud of. It’s renovation led the way to Pueblo’s continual path as an up and coming city in the Front Range. Pueblo’s city has withstood days of glamour and days of economic despair, and the Union Depot is symbolic of this, and exemplifies, that through it all, locals can restore it’s city to health.
Photos courtesy Pueblo Union Depot except cover photo by Roma Pena as featured on the Facebook group Now That is Pueblo For You! sponsored by Pueblo Magazine. For over three decades, Joe and James Koncilja have been investing in Pueblo and working to beautify the city and and improve their hometown’s civic life.
Photos of the Depot by Chris Osorio.