There was once a time in Shreveport’s history when the railroads hailed supreme. Four railroad companies operated out of the city and with them came people and thriving businesses, especially for downtown. Shreveport became a hub for travelers with passenger lines coming and going from both the East to West Coast line and the North to Gulf Coast line. In response to this growing industry, the Kansas City Southern and Shreveport and Gulf Terminal Co. built Shreveport Union Station in 1897. Union Station served a number of different passenger lines over the years with its most memorable being the Southern Belle beginning in 1940. Facing east on Louisiana Avenue, the busy Union Depot would sometimes see up to 35 trains a day. Passengers would stop and spend the night on their journeys, staying at railway hotels like the Jefferson Hotel right across the street and having a bite to eat at what is commonly referred to as the KCS Restaurant.
Upon arrival at Union Station no one would have been able to miss the giant, glowing, graphic billboard of the KCS Southern Belle sitting atop a small triangular building on the north side of the station. Tucked between three railroad tracks on Louisiana Avenue sits a small café built in 1922. Opened in 1923 as the Queen Café because of the nearby Queen and Crescent Route, the café changed names several times until 1945 when it became Fox’s KCS Restaurant.
“I can still remember the smell coming from the café was heavenly,” recalled artist Glen Weber, “hamburger and onions, maybe.” The artist has since moved to New Orleans, but has fond memories of his childhood in Shreveport when his dad would take him to Union Station to watch the trains. He says after Katrina happened in 2005 he began having dreams about Shreveport and his childhood. “I felt this desire to relive the happy memories of my past,” he said.
After months of research and help from some other railroad enthusiasts, Weber recreated the KCS Restaurant from his childhood in a painting. Weber paid close attention to as many details as he could, including its orientation to the night sky. Memories about the restaurant’s ice cream and cantaloupe, freshly cut steak dinners, and homemade pies and cakes can still fondly be recalled. The café was a little taste of Shreveport many have not forgotten.
Eventually railroad transportation began to decline and the grand Union Station closed its doors. November 3, 1969 was the last day of operation for the depot and two days later a fire broke out in the station’s basement. The station was soon demolished leaving nothing but a concrete slab, a few ceramic tiles and steps that lead up to where the watchtower once looked over downtown Shreveport. Without the station to sustain business, the KCS Restaurant closed its doors only a few years later in 1971. The building has stood vacant now for nearly 45 years.
KCS Restaurant is not the only building in downtown to succumb to the fate of vacancy and disrepair over the years. You need not walk for too long in downtown Shreveport without coming across a building with historical significance. Fortunately, new life is beginning to take root for some of these historical landmarks.
One man in Shreveport-Bossier City is making it his goal to revitalize historical buildings and investing in his community. Greg Solomon, owner of Solomon Construction, Inc. has taken on quite a few projects over the past several years. Solomon has renovated a building he now leases at 1618 Marshall St, loft apartments at 716 and 718 Edwards St., the Short Line Food Court on the corner lot of Marshall and Fairfield, and now he has brought life back to the KCS Restaurant.
“It was a mess when I first bought it,” says Solomon. “There was trash everywhere, spray paint, and leaks had washed a lot of the plaster away.” Solomon bought the building in 2013 and began renovations in 2015. Utilizing old photographs of the café in its glory days, Solomon and his team were able to recreate most of the original elements of the building that had been lost to time and disrepair. You can still see the ghost writing on the side of the building, and the round vent from the kitchen. Chandeliers now hang down from the original ceiling tins and authentic blue bottle glass windowpanes can still be seen in the top row of windows.
He was able to restore the original plaster walls of the building whose north wall curves along with the railroad tracks beside it. “You can still see the holes in the floor from where the bar stools once stood,” Solomon points out. One of the café’s unique features is the tile mosaic in the entryway that reads Ablon’s, one of the restaurant’s many names. “It’s always been a café and it’s my hope that it will go back that way,” says Solomon.
The building is now for lease but will not stay empty long if there are no takers. Solomon plans on turning the property into an event space with a fully equipped kitchen. The Red River Valley Railroad Historical Society has expressed some interest in utilizing the building as a railroad museum. Ideally they would like to display their collection of railway equipment like a steam locomotive, caboose, diner and coach, on the old Union Station site across from the café. Things are happening in downtown Shreveport. Murals are popping up on the sides of buildings, businesses are moving in and there are events and activities that are bringing more and more people into the streets of downtown.
The KCS Restaurant is just one of the many buildings downtown receiving the care and attention many have longed to see. When a community takes pride in their city, and its history, the passion spreads and creates growth. Lasting and meaningful change takes a lot of hard work and dedicated people. It’s time to take notice of the incredible changes happening in downtown Shreveport.