Located in the center of what was then one of Richmond's principal business districts, Main Street Station was designed as the gateway to a flourishing downtown. It was built to serve as both depot and offices for the Chesapeake and Ohio and the Seaboard Air Line railroads, whose elevated tracks stretch out on viaducts and trestles in three directions from this former transportation hub. The designers, the architectural partnership of Wilson, Harris, and Richards of Philadelphia, specialized in railroad architecture. Earlier known as Wilson Brothers, it was for years headed by Joseph Wilson, an engineer as well as an architect.
The metal shed, more than 400 feet long, is itself a rare and noteworthy survivor of this type of station design. The station head house is a five-story brick building that rises from a rockfaced ashlar base. The predominant French Renaissance style of the building is enlivened by the distinctive steep red terra-cotta tile roof, pierced by ranks of dormers of varied size and decoration. Corinthian columns and terracotta details frame the clock faces on four sides of the tower and support a tiled roof crowned by a large finial 110 feet above the ground. In comparison to the richness of the exterior decoration, the interior emphasized functionality for the accommodation of passengers, freight, and the railroad administrators, housed in offices on the upper floors.
Flood damage and the decline of railroad travel led to the closing of Main Street Station as a passenger depot in 1975. A devastating fire in 1983 destroyed the entire tile roof of the main station and heavily damaged the upper floors and the clock tower. The conversion in 1985 of the station into a shopping mall entailed both the careful reconstruction of the damaged roof and the enclosure of the rail shed. The shopping mall subsequently failed, and in 1988 the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased Main Street Station for use as office space for the Department of Health. Funding is being secured to return the facility to service as a transportation center by 2003.