Thursday Doors: Santa Fe Train Depot

Anyone who has lived anywhere any length of time probably knows that feeling of sadness and loss when a beautiful but outdated structure is destroyed in the name of progress. The old building probably wasn’t up to modern codes and, often, the shiny new structure built in its place is bigger, taller, and capable of generating more tax dollars than the previous one.

Fortunately, though, sometimes a building is just too beautiful, too beloved, and has too much local historical significance to be touched by a wrecking ball. The Santa Fe Train Depot in downtown San Diego is such a structure. It is a jewel of a building surrounded by glass and steel high rises.

The structure draws heavily from the architecturally distinctive Spanish, Moorish, and Mexican styles.
The size and grandeur far surpassed anything the Santa Fe had ever built in the West.

The station was officially opened in 1915, to welcome visitors to the Panama-California Exposition. The Depot’s Spanish Colonial Revival architecture was the same style as was used for the buildings at the Exposition.

The massive arch of the front entrance is flanked by twin campaniles, each topped by a colorful tile-covered dome and displaying Santa Fe’s blue “cross” emblem on all four sides.
From the outside in.
From the inside out.
The grand interior space of the depot features natural redwood beam ceilings, highlighted by walls covered with a brightly colored ceramic tile wainscot.
All of the tiles were manufactured locally.
Your train is waiting.
Welcome to San Diego!
Doors within doors within doors.

Although the city lost its early battle to become the West Coast terminus of the Santa Fe Railway system’s transcontinental railroad to much larger Los Angeles, in its heyday, the facility handled Santa Fe train traffic and that of the San Diego and Arizona Railways. The Depot is still an active transportation center, providing not only train service but also service to the trolley and bus systems.

Out with the old, in with the new.

Oh, and speaking of structures being destroyed in the name of progress, the original train depot that had served San Diego for nearly three decades, was razed when the “modern” Santa Fe Depot opened for business. The old clock tower was pulled to the ground by a steel cable attached to two locomotives as part of the grand opening celebration on March 7, 1915.

Since the first National Train Day was held ten years ago today, on May 10, 2008, I thought it fitting to feature the Santa Fe Train Depot in my Thursday Doors post. To see other beautiful doors, choo-choo on over to Norm’s station and click on the ah-door-able blue frog.

Author: Janis @

My blog is about travel, relationships, photography, and whatever else pops into my head (even, sometimes, issues surrounding retirement and aging).

84 thoughts on “Thursday Doors: Santa Fe Train Depot”

  1. Hi, Janis – I never knew that it was ‘National Train Day’…actually, I never knew that such a day existed. Thank you for sharing these stunning photos. The doors do seem very welcoming….and have made me want to visit San Diego again soon! 🙂 The photo of the old clock tower being pulled to the ground is quite dramatic and also speaks volumes.

      1. 🙂 I will definitely be in Southern California this October. So looking forward to seeing you then!

  2. I love seeing the people who have combined National Train Day with Thursday Doors this week. I can’t think of better doors to feature . I am so glad the depot was saved. Interesting way to pull down the clock tower – destruction by locomotive – excellent!

  3. Yowzer, beautiful building. The redwood beam ceilings, the tiles, the arched doors and windows….all stunning. I might just walk around all day soaking it all up and never boarding a train! 😳😳

    Thanks for sharing these photos as well as the interesting history. BTW, does your brain hurt from thinking up “ah door able”?!! Lol.
    🔹 Ginger 🔹

  4. The arch with the Waiting Room doors calls to me. Both aesthetically and as a wonderful glimpse into a more elegant lifestyle long gone. San Diego is such a cool city now– and way back when, too.

    1. I love all the arches too! Train travel can be so elegant even now: no stress of traffic, interesting views. Anytime you want to visit San Diego, let me know (and, if you come by train, I’ll pick you up)!

  5. I was loving this post and all your gorgeous photos (all those amazing backlit door shots!!) … and then I gasped at the end with the photo of the clock tower being pulled down. Noooooo! … not a clock tower!!! {sigh}

      1. It’s sad that someone at the time didn’t have the vision of how to incorporate the old with the new. I glad to see more of those kinds of construction now.

  6. I am also saddened when an old venerable structure is being destroyed in the name of progress. Great post with amazing photos!

  7. This would be a tragedy if the tore down this beautiful building. The interior is just gorgeous and the tiles are beautiful. How could you even think of destroying this? The photos are lovely and I remember I was impressed when we visited LA and the interior of the Central Station which was art deco – just beautiful x

    1. Fortunately, the depot is listed in the National Register of Historic Places so hopefully, it’s safe (also because the city’s citizens would revolt). Union Station in L.A. is gorgeous too. I love the how they combined Art Deco, Mission Revival, and Streamline Modern in one building.

  8. Thanks, Janis, for sharing beautiful photos of the Santa Fe train station. In Toronto, with some new developments, the developers keep the old facade and build modern interiors. They also keep some old artifacts and display them inside the new building as part of the interior design. I like this blended approach.

    1. I like that blended approach too IF they can’t save the whole structure. I remember seeing a few buildings (in Toronto or Montreal… or maybe just outside of Quebec City) that had a modern structure just beyond an old facade.

  9. Thanks for taking me back in time! For a while when we lived in San Diego 35 years ago my Hubby would take the train to LA each week to go to work & grad school. He couch surfed and then came back after 4 days. I spent a fair amount of time waiting in that train station to pick him up at the end of the week.

  10. Through your post it has become so obvious to me that I missed way too much the one time I was in San Diego. If I hadn’t been speaking at the conference there, I hope I would have taken in more but as it is, all I remember is the waterfront, very wide streets in the downtown, excellent restaurants and a good zoo. How could I have missed the Santa Fe train station?? I’m going to have to make a return visit so that I can really claim to have been to San Diego.

  11. This is such a beautiful station. We love train travel and have been in that station many times. Architecturally it fits in so nicely with San Diego’s heritage and it’s a wonder that somehow it hasn’t been dramatically altered in all these years. Perfect for National Train Day. I missed that designation and wish I’d booked a trip! 🙂 Lovely photos!

    1. Now that I’m not working (I used to take the train up to L.A. now and then for work), I usually get to the station via the trolley. I love how they’ve combined the train and trolley services there. I’d much rather take public transportation downtown than to deal with the traffic or parking.

  12. What a beautiful, beautiful building! Santa Fe is calling to both of us to come visit…you’re just pushing us in that direction, and because we both love all things architecture – we’ll probably visit sooner rather than later. ~ Lynn

  13. Beautiful doors, Janis! I haven’t been to that part of downtown SD for a while. My dad and step-mom like to travel by train from up here so I imagine they’ve stopped there.

  14. This is one amazing train station. The Spanish Colonial Revival architecture is truly lovely inside and out. I love the arches with the glass, the light fixtures, and especially the wooden benches. It definitely reflects a more refined time. Our local stations are definitely not anywhere in the same realm of beauty as this. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful historic building. 🙂

  15. It is simply beautiful, I can barely remember being in a large train station as a child. My grandfather, was an Engineer on the L&N Railroad.

      1. You’re welcome – I think it is beautiful too – they have restored the outside of it because it was in a horrible state of disrepair, and, in doing so, they realized the inside was still salvageable for mixed use. I hope they do follow through. Glad you liked the story.

  16. I’ve been to that station, it is really beautiful, so glad they have kept it. I would much rather see something renovated than torn down. We recently visited a newly remodeled train station in a small town nearby. It was rotting away under private ownership and the town was able to purchase and re-purpose. It is now a beautiful museum that is rented out for events. The curator told us that in the six months its been open, they have an event almost every other day. They ask for a $150 deposit which is fully refunded – however, most people donate some or all of that back to the museum.

  17. Beautiful post, building, and doors. I can’t believe we didn’t visit the Train Depot when we were there for three months! Next time… You instill confidence again for when we take our cross country train ride with Amtrak in June. 🙂

  18. Janis – The station just looks like it belongs in San Diego. Absolutely gorgeous. (BTW – I accidentally deleted your comment on my post, and have no understanding how it happened!! All of a sudden there was a thick red line, and -bang- you were gone. So sorry, I beg your pardon :))) – Susan

  19. I’m glad they saved the newer depot, and it’s a pity they couldn’t have saved the old one as well. Here in St. Louis, where we tear down far to many historical buildings, they have also preserved our Union Station. It’s a fascinating bit of history, and great to see it still being used, even if the trains no longer go there.

    1. I think I’ve been to the old depot in St. Louis… is it a large building that now (or, at least it did many years ago) houses a bunch of retail and eating establishments? It was fun to poke around and learn about its history.

  20. The zinger at the end (clock tower torn down in name of progress, 1915) is quite the equalizer.
    The Santa Fe train depot holds its own against the backdrop of 21st century San Diego, I’d say!

  21. That’s a beautiful station. I somehow missed on my visits to San Diego. Not the outside, of course, but the inside reminds me a little of Philadelphia’s 30th Street station. Those old benches are really wonderful.

  22. Magnificent architecture and particularly love the tiles. The colors are great. I have been to San Diego once, but we were there with one of our kids who was passionate about pandas at the time. So our destination was the zoo! Ah well, always good to know, for next time.


  23. Happy train day!
    I loved this post right up until the last shot…NOOOOOOOO! They pulled down the tower: savages!
    Some seriously pretty shots in this set. That shot of the blue and yellow wall tiles is my fave of the bunch.
    Here’s to saving old train stations 🙂

    1. Those tiles are amazing and I think they – at least most of them – are original. I was sorry that they destroyed the older station too, but the “new” (circa 1915) station is such a beauty it’s hard to remain too sad.

  24. The rail system was incredibly important to opening up western Canada. In my childhood, there were quaint little train stations every 25 miles or so along the tracks. Many communities have gone to great lengths to preserve the train stations, turning them into tourist information centres, community museums, ice cream shops, and the like. Of course, these were small buildings, not like the elegant Santa Fe Train Depot that you have photographed.


    1. I’ve always wanted to take a trans-Canada train ride. My parents did it years ago and absolutely loved it. I love when communities are able to repurpose buildings that are no longer needed for their original use but are historically significant (or, even just really pretty).

  25. I’ve seen that beautiful depot. Thank god it still stands. Many western train depots employed the Spanish style, even as far north as Boise. Ours also still stands, but no longer functions as a train depot as we have no passenger service through here anymore. But the city has spruced up the building and it is used as a venue for public and private gatherings.

    It’s too bad that we are so quick to toss out the old and build something shiny and new. I know the line is always that it is more economical to start from scratch in modernizing buildings. However, the downtown core of most European cities is filled with centuries-old buildings that have been renovated to accommodate modern uses. Same is true of European schools and campuses. They value history more intensely than we do, I suppose.

    1. It does seem that Europe (and Canada) appreciates the historical significance of old structures more. Maybe because we were such a new country, the powers that be were anxious to modernize. As Joni Mitchel wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

  26. I am gaga for train travel and adore that station. I took very few pictures on my last visit to San Diego over a decade ago, so I delighted to see it again now through your lens. And that last out with ‘the old’ in with the new is also great

  27. What a wonderful post, Janis! I love the photo of the grand interior – it makes me feel like I’m standing in yesteryear. What a gorgeous building!

    In the small city in which I grew up, the main Post Office was a beautiful old building that was designed almost like a domed courthouse. I remember walking there with my Mom to buy stamps when I was little and I loved the place even then. I can recall the smooth marble floors and all of the old Post Office boxes that had doors of brass with tiny windows and fine brass knobs – just lovely, all of it. Then someone or a group of someones had the brilliant idea that it was getting old (imagine that!) and it was torn down only to be replaced by a fast food restaurant. I kid you not. It was heartbreaking then and it still is after all these years. I’m happy to know that the Santa Fe Train Depot is already on the National Register of Historic Places!

    1. Your comment prompted me to look up information about our old downtown post office… and it’s still there! It was built in the mid- to late-thirties using New Deal funds so it has some lovely Art Deco adornments. Thank goodness they haven’t replaced it with a fast food restaurant! The pictures I found online (I really need to get down there one of these days) showed those wonderful brass mailboxes. I’m sorry that the post office of your youth is no longer standing… what a tragedy. Thanks for the prompt to do some more research!

  28. I saw that depot while on a visit to San Diego several years ago. Now, I am regretting that we didn’t take the time to go inside. San Diego overwhelms first time visitors with its beauty and charm. Love the Spanish influence and the fact that so much has been preserved. Beautiful photos.

    1. It sounds like you need to make a return visit! When I think of the various buildings that have been destroyed in the name of progress, I’m amazed that this one is still standing… and I hope it will well into the future.

  29. Janis, While my father was still alive, my brother and I used to fly into Lindbergh Field and walk to the Santa Fe Depot to catch the Coaster to Oceanside to visit him at his home. It is a wonderful station that bring back fond memories, and your pictures captivated it beautifully.

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