The Dome-Observation Car

The round-tailed observation car of the California Zephyr was supposed to be the pièce de résistance. In some respects, the car was magnificent. In others, it was surprisingly plain.

As shown in the cutaway diagram on the brochure below, which dates from before the train’s inaugural run, the car include three distinct non-revenue spaces–the observation room behind the dome, a lounge beneath the dome, and the dome itself–as well as three bedrooms and a drawing room that featured what may have been the only shower on a streamlined train in the West.

Click image to download a 2.1-MB PDF of this small brochure advertising the California Zephyr.

The lounges beneath the dome were decorated by two different artists. Pierre Bourdelle painted and carved linoleum decorations in front of the bar in the back of the room. Bourdelle, of course, also did linoleum carvings and paintings throughout the buffet lounge.

Pierre Bourdelle’s artwork in the Silver Crescent, a car now located in the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami. Click image to see a larger view of this Flickr photo by Gloucester.

The front walls of the lounges were painted with large murals that wrapped around to the window side. Unlike the buffet car, the paintings were not by Bourdelle but by Russell Patterson–the same artist who drew the picture of the Exposition Flyer on the cover of the 1948 brochure that announced the California Zephyr. Unlike most of the other artists who worked on Budd-built trains, as far as I know, Patterson didn’t live in Philadelphia.

Russell Patterson painted the murals in the lounges under the domes. The murals were different in each of the six observation cars.

Compared with the highly decorated lounge, the observation room behind the lounge was very plain. Painted yellow–a rather sickly shade of yellow if photographs are any indication–the room had almost no decorations.

As built, the observation lounge was almost completely bareft of decoration.

In 1960, when the buffet was redecorated into the Cable Car room, plans were drawn up to redecorate the observation as a Golden Gate room. Penny pinchers prevailed and the only redecoration was a photo of the bridge on the bulkhead above the writing desk behind the dome.

In the 1960 upgrade, a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge was added to the lounge.

THe dome was the best place to watch the train snake around the curves in Colorado and California canyons. Yet I always felt cheated in the observation domes because the rear windows were significantly smaller than the front or rear windows of any of the other domes. The car’s specifications say that the roof behind the dome was a foot higher than the roof in front.

The rear windows of the observation dome are clearly smaller than the other dome windows. Note the “foreign” cars in front of the observation car. Non-CZ cars were usually put in front of the observation car so that the PA system, which was unique to the CZ, would still reach all cars except the obs.

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