What Chicago Would Look Like
Union Station dresses up for company
September 23, 1993
I have long loved Chicago's Union Station, not only for itself but as an embodiment of what this country used to be capable of. I remember too well the station's concourse, demolished in 1969, and lamented its replacement all the more because of it.
They fixed it up, as the saying goes, more than twenty years later, with results I briefly describe here. The station complex has since undergone yet another round of restoration, with spectacular results; I urge travelers to look around when next they are going through Union Station, because it is a tourist destination in its own right.
During an aimless youth I stopped for a nosh once in a while at the coffee shop tucked into the south wing of Union Station in Springfield. It was there one day that I saw, seated at the counter eating a sandwich, then-Channel 20 TV weatherman Wayne Cox. He was so close to me that, had I the pointed stick he used so dexterously on camera to indicate the progress of Gulf air masses, I could have speared his dill pickle for a souvenir.
I have associated train travel with glamour ever since.
Alas, as the 1970s and '80s dragged on, Springfield's Union Station became known less for celebrity sightings than for bad smells and naughtiness in the rest rooms. I leave it to the metaphysicians to decide which came first: the dilapidated train station or the disappearing rail traveler. Illinois in any event had amassed quite a few of both. The old Illinois Central depot on Madison in downtown Springfield, for example, had stood useless since the 1960s until, fittingly, it became offices for the state's Historic Preservation Agency, which husbands useless buildings.
Union Station on Third Street never closed, however, as Amtrak sent a few trains through town every day to scare the pigeons that otherwise would have taken over the place. There was talk for a while about making Union Station the centerpiece of a federally-funded transit center that would include a relocated intercity bus terminal and the downtown exchange point for SMTD buses. Even had it been built, chances are it would have foundered, as downtowns were where people wanted to leave, not go to.
Union Station has been reborn, however, and not as a boondoggle but as—talk about adaptive reuse!—a train station. The decorative greenery now takes the form of potted palms, not the scum that grew on rest rooms walls, and the people one finds lounging on the benches are pausing on their journeys east, west, north, or south, rather than down and out. A traveler from even five years ago—and when the renovation got underway there were people there who had been waiting since 1988 for the northbound 9:43—would not recognize the place today.
The agent of the transformation is Amtrak. I have said harsh things about Amtrak in these pages over the years, so I was flattered when a quasi-public corporation set out a couple of years ago to prove me wrong. Amtrak in the last couple of years has upgraded stations along the Springfield-Chicago line, replacing one at Bloomington and fixing up the architecturally more imposing station at Joliet as well as Springfield. But grandest of all has been the rehabilitation—one might almost say reinvention—of Chicago's Union Station.
That pile in the West Loop once was one of the grandest train stations of them all. Built in 1924, Union Station was the largest single work of public construction undertaken in the city apart from the lakefront. The station in its original form consisted of the colonnaded headhouse of Indiana limestone that held a massive main waiting room or Great Hall linked by an underground lobby to a passenger concourse that stood between Canal Street and the Chicago River. So elegant was it at the time of its opening that the management felt free to dispense with cuspidors, since spitters could be trusted to refrain from so vile a practice in such surroundings.
Chicago being Chicago, it had opened its grand station just when intercity passenger rail travel was about to decline, and tore much of its down about ten years before it became popular again. The handsome passenger concourse—an airy vault 90 feet high—was demolished in 1969. The train platforms, ticket windows, baggage facilities, and shops were relegated to a skyscraper basement that Amtrak itself called "totally inappropriate as an entrance to a great city."
Unfortunately, the bargain-basement station was all too appropriate as an entrance to the Chicago of the '70s. For 20 years that dismal portal came to symbolize Chicago for uncounted thousands of visitors from places like Springfield. It was big cities had become—dark, smelly, confusing, and dirty.
An acknowledged planning masterpiece. Union Station is still the third busiest train station in the U.S., handling more than 100,000 passengers and some 250 trains daily. Last year saw completion of a $32 million renovation by the Chicago Union Station Co., the Amtrak subsidiary that has owned and managed the facility since 1984. The concrete concourse has been outfitted in the same marble that graces the headhouse, and new, lighter colors enlarge what are necessarily some pretty cramped spaces.
It's very handsome, but the changes are more than cosmetic. New restrooms have been installed, as have new escalators, more public telephones, more intelligible signs, new ticket and baggage facilities, information booth, and a 900-seat airport-style lounge, adjacent to the train platforms. Many invisible mechanical improvements have been made too, including new heating and air conditioning.
Much of the station's original function has been restored as well as its looks. Amtrak passengers and their greeters and senders-off used to have to dodge commuters at rush hours; now, separate entrances take commuters directly to their platforms, leaving Amtrakkers to study their copies of People in peace.
Things between stations on the way to Chicago are getting better too, as tracks are fixed up and aging rolling stock is replaced. Train travel thus is the one area of public life in the U.S. about which that can be said to be improving. My colleague, Tom Atkins, has taken state officials sternly to task for settling for too little in way of Illinois' next generation rail system. I am an old man, however, and happy enough for moment that the old one working a little better. I watched recently as a middle-aged man escorted two luggage-laden Amtrakkers from the south train concourse toward the Great Hall. He pointed to the new clock face imbedded in the new terrazzo floors of the old concourse lobby that serves as an organizing focus of the new facility, and then to the Art Deco light sconces on the walls. "This," he said, trying to convey the magnitude of the transformation, "was all, uh, what you'd think Chicago would look like." ●