The Unexpected Arrival – Lviv’s Railway Station: A Palace Of Transport

Ukraine is supposed to be poor and relative to the rest of Eastern Europe that is certainly true. Compare it for instance to Poland, a nation it is close to, both geographically and historically. In the early 1990’s, the average GDP per person in Poland was the same as in Ukraine. Twenty-five years later, Poland’s GDP per person is three times greater. And Poland is not even the most prosperous of Eastern Europe’s nations though it is getting there. Most western visitors to Ukraine must first travel through Poland. Once across the border they expect to be greeted by gutted factories and wooden plows, a place where wagon carts outnumber automobiles and peasant headscarves are still in fashion. To be sure there is some of that, but less so in western Ukraine. Visitors to that part of the nation are pleasantly surprised. Most of them first stop at what is widely considered Ukraine’s most beautiful and historic urban environment, its cultural capital and most westernized city, Lviv. If first impressions really are everything, than Lviv certainly knows how to make a good one. It all starts at the main point of arrival for visitors, the city’s magnificent Art Nouveau Railway Station. The structure brings together the best of Austro-Hungarian architectural eclecticism with a touch of eastern exoticism.

The exterior facade of the Lviv Railway Station

The exterior facade of the Lviv Railway Station – a magnificent restoration (Credit: benhamburg)

A City & Its Station – Reflections Of Grandeur
In transport and commerce location is literally everything, the same holds true for tourism today. Regarding railways, Lviv or as it was known in the mid-19th century, Lemberg (the city’s German name) was chosen to host the first railway line constructed in what is now Ukraine. Lemberg was in the right geographic place at the right time. It was a hub for multiple trade routes across the region and was a major city in the Austrian ruled province of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. The Habsburgs wanted to further cement their control over their eastern frontier. The best way of doing this was to bind Lemberg into the empire’s burgeoning railway network. One of the main tentacles of control in those days was railway lines that could reach into the empire’s most distant outposts. A city like Lemberg would not only need a large rail yard, but a station to match. In 1861 as the line between Lemberg and Przemysl was completed, a Neo-Gothic style station was also erected. While the architectural style was appealing, contemporary photographs show what looks like an extended manor house.

Lemberg's (Lviv's) first train station - more like a rambling manor house than a hub for transport

Lemberg’s (Lviv’s) first train station – more like a rambling manor house than a hub for transport

The station worked well for a time, but was ill-suited to deal with the booming growth that Lemberg experienced in the late 19th century. In the forty-three years between the building of the first station and a newer one, the city’s population doubled to 160,000. It would become the 4th largest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A station to match its growth and importance was needed. This is exactly what would happen with the design and construction of a new station that would be opened in 1904. The man selected to design the new station was an ethnic Pole, Wladyslaw Sadlowski, an architect who had graduated from Lemberg’s Technical Academy. His vision was a grand design that would be a sort of palace for mass transport. It soon became known as the Dvirets, which means palace in Polish. A large main hall was placed on a horizontal axis and topped with a steel and stained glass dome. This spectacular entrance fronted two rail yards which were covered with a glass and steel landing built by Czech masters.

Lemberg Railway Station - historic postcard

Lemberg Railway Station – historic postcard

The Class System In Miniature
Among other things the station included first, second and third class waiting areas which were a microcosm of the existing class system in Austria-Hungary. The first class area included luxuriant Viennese furniture and was modelled after an English gentleman’s club. Second class was styled after the interior of German burghers (merchants) homes in Galicia and the third class was the most basic, with wooden furniture. Anyone with a third class ticket was also not allowed entry through the station’s front portal. Those who wanted to wait for arrivals on the platform had to pay a fee. Then there was an area for royalty and VIP’s. A description of this comes down to us from the American war correspondent Stanley Washburn who visited the room after the Battle of Lemberg at the beginning of the Great War. Washburn called it, “a suite equal in every way to the Emperor’s private apartments in his own palace. Heavy carpets, richly tapestried walls, daintily concealed electric lights, and rich and heavy furniture, completed as luxurious an apartment as any potentate could desire. A hundred feet away beyond the partition lay the soiled and dingy figures of the wounded men who pay the price of empire.”

The end of the empire in 1918 meant that the once luxurious station became a battle zone for control of the city between Ukrainian and Polish nationalists. The Poles won out, but the station suffered badly, it was not until 1930 that it was completely repaired. This was followed by a brief, peaceful respite until the morning of September 1st, 1939 when the sound of the Luftwaffe bombers filled the air above Lwow (the Polish name for Lviv). This was the beginning of the Second World War. The railway station was a prime target, bombs exploded on and around it. This inflicted massive damage, as did the later period of the war when the Soviets and Germans fought for control of it in 1944. By the end of the war, much of the station was a semi-ruin. The question became whether to gut and totally rebuild it or salvage what was left. Photos from that time show rubble strewn about. All that remained of the beautiful bolted steel dome that had once crowned the entrance hall was its bent frame. The station was only saved due to a concerted effort by the locals. It would not survive the onset of Soviet totalitarianism unscathed though. The interior was redecorated in Stalinist Empire Style. The three class system represented by different waiting rooms was gone, in favor of a style and system whereby the individual was crushed by an all controlling state. The railway station’s interior was representative of the changes that Lvov (the Russian name for the city) was undergoing.

Lviv Railway Station's platforms

Lviv Railway Station’s platforms – a spectacular point of arrival (Credit Tomasz Kuran)

Everything Has Changed & Nothing Has Changed
Like every other empire in the city’s tumultuous history, Soviet control eventually vanished. The railway station was all the better for it. For its one hundredth anniversary in 2004, it underwent a restoration that dismantled the Stalinist style and recreated much of the stations former grandeur. To visitors arriving at the station it might appear that not much has changed from the glory days of Austria-Hungary in the early 20th century. Like everything else that is part of Lviv’s past this is deceptive. A scaffolding of the past has been resurrected, a city and its most prominent point of arrival born again. What the station went through to arrive at this point is lost on new arrivals, but that makes it no less instructive as to the nature of Ukraine as it exists today.

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