Bringing light back to Chicago Union Station

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Seen from the Adams Street bridge over the Chicago River, the ornate Chicago Union Station concourse building stands in front of the more boxy head house, which contains offices and the main waiting room. John Gruber photo
Chicago likes to brag about its architectural heritage, and for good reason. The city nurtured some of the greats, among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and, in the postwar era, the powerful international firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (think “Sears Tower”).

Chicago’s great buildings — from the Monadnock Building to the Auditorium Theater to Tribune Tower to Wright’s Oak Park homes — are staples of its popular architectural tours.

But when it comes to its railroad stations, Chicago should hang its head in shame. One by one, most of its six great passenger stations were either torn down or truncated in the post-1971 Amtrak era.

Central Station was demolished in 1974 to make way for eventual office and condo development. Grand Central was razed in 1971, only to give way to a lot that remains empty today. Dearborn Station’s old head house was saved, but only as a nondescript office and retail space. La Salle Street, although still an active station, was completely reconstructed, sans head house. The 1984 destruction of North Western Terminal, a Renaissance Revival gem, was especially unforgiveable given the late date.

That leaves Union Station, already the victim of one of the city’s worst atrocities, the 1969 destruction of its glorious concourse on the riverfront to make way for a boxy office building. That concourse must have been an exciting place to board a train, its vaulted ceiling and steel framework echoing that of tenant PRR’s Penn Station 907.7 miles to the east in New York.

Chicago Union Station's concourse bore more than a passing resemblance to the one at Penn Station, New York; both were replaced by office buildings, leaving travelers to navigate a warren of small spaces below street level. In this view from World War II, hundreds of model airplanes decorate CUS's concourse. Classic Trains coll.
Built in 1925, designed initially by Burnham and completed by successor firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, Union was always Chicago’s greatest terminal, a Beaux-Arts edifice worthy of comparison with Grand Central, Penn, Thirtieth Street, Washington Union, Kansas City, or any of the other great ones. Though it only served four railroads — PRR, Gulf, Mobile & Ohio (originally the Alton), Burlington, and Milwaukee Road — it had the sort of imperious grandeur worthy of the railroad capital.

At least Union’s owners saved the head house, home to the huge waiting room they now call the Great Room. With its 219-foot-long barrel-vault skylight soaring 115 feet above the marble floor, the Great Room remains once of the great surviving interior spaces in all of American railroading.

Now the room is finally getting some tender loving care. Using $22 million of its own money, Amtrak is paying to completely restore the famous skylight, in the process giving the entire building a new drainage system that should eliminate water damage to the walls and ceiling, so obvious in recent years. In effect, the designers are suspending an entirely new skylight above the original.

The waiting room at Chicago Union Station looks much the same today as in this photo from the 1920s, but it's tired. Now dubbed the 'Great Room,' and the subject of an extensive renovation project, it is assuming a more important role than it has had in decades. Classic Trains coll.
What’s more, the “new” waiting room will be much brighter — thanks to 800-plus new windowpanes of high-efficiency glass. Elimination of the old wire-mesh windows will make the room 50 percent brighter, says Amtrak.

The Great Room’s return to prominence should be a welcome development for Amtrak and Metra travelers. For years the old waiting room had been relegated to “back-lot” status, as Amtrak encouraged its passengers to wait for trains in the rat’s nest of the post-1969 concourse. Often the waiting room was just a vast empty floor, roped off on occasion for private events.

Like many knowledgeable train travelers, I still tended to linger in the old waiting room as long as possible before train time, and avoided the low-ceilinged concourse. Even when it was mostly deserted, spreading out on those giant wooden benches amid the peacefulness of Burnham’s lofty waiting room somehow made the impending trip more exciting, especially when you’d hear “now boarding, train number 5, the California Zephyr” echo off the marble walls.

Even Amtrak wised up recently when it switched back to the Great Room for queuing up passengers for specific trains. A lot of travelers probably grumble about the long walk to the train gates, but lining up in that beautiful room is way more civilized than gathering in the concourse.

The news about Union Station’s skylight had me going back to the Classic Trains library for a glimpse of what once was. I couldn’t help but linger over a couple of views (presented here) showing that wonderful lost concourse, one taken during the high tide of wartime traffic and patriotism.

Then there’s the accompanying photograph of the waiting room, presumably made around the time of its opening, a reminder of what David P. Morgan called a station that “lifted the soul without debasing the body. . . It was really two buildings, one a waiting room, one a place to catch trains — both all stone and high ceilings and arches and fit for pharaohs.”

Will the new, brighter, watertight Great Room live up to Daniel Burnham’s original vision? Will it be fit for pharaohs? I’d like to think so — the skylight project received the backing of local and state preservation agencies. We’ll know for sure by late 2018, when the project is scheduled to be finished.

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