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What Chicago Would Look Like

Union Station dresses up for company

Illinois Times

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 Springfield's 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 on the Chicago River between Jackson and Adams streets.


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 canals and airports. 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 restrain themselves from so vile a practice in such surroundings.


Chicago being Chicago, it opened its grand station just when intercity passenger rail travel was about to decline, and tore much of it down about ten years before it became popular again. I refer in the latter case to the handsome passenger concourse—an airy vault 90 feet high—that 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 what big cities had become and remain in the imaginations of far too many Americans—dark, smelly, confusing, and dirty.


An acknowledged planning masterpiece. Union Station is still the third busiest train station in the U.S. Intercity rail may have atrophied, but Chicago Union is the terminus of a half-dozen commuter rail lines, which leave it 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 waiting 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." ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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