Lost Chicago: Union Station’s concourse

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, September 12, 2019

The concourse of Chicago Union Station -- one of the great spaces in a city known for its great architecture -- was demolished 50 years ago. Chicago Daily News
Chicago fancies itself the architectural capital of the United States, and it can make a good case. It’s where Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright established their reputations. From the 1920s onward, it was the most fertile ground for the American skyscraper (sorry, New York, but it’s true). Each year, tens of thousands of visitors enjoy the river and walking tours of the Chicago Architecture Center. 

But Chicago is always a city on the hustle, a place where profit usually trumps preservation, and the list of the Windy City’s lost jewels is long, among them Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange, razed in 1972, and the beloved Garrick Theater, torn down in 1960 to make way for a parking structure. And remember the damnable destruction in 1984 of North Western Station? Its oh-so-Eighties replacement, the ugly Ogilvie Transportation Center, holds up about as well as a Duran Duran song. 

The organization Preservation Chicago keeps an annual accounting of “Most Endangered” buildings around the city. The list is evidence that Chicago’s baser instincts never really go away. Check it out sometime. 

I was prompted to think about this the other day when I realized it’s been 50 years since the great concourse at Chicago Union Station was removed in the summer of 1969. Its replacement was 222 S. Riverside Plaza, a mundane 35-story office building designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and opened in 1971 in a classic example of air-rights development. 

Union Station's concourse building on the Chicago River was a graceful counterpoint to the boxy waiting room/office building to its west. Classic Trains collection
I learned about Union Station’s concourse when it was too late. I was 18 when I opened my December 1969 issue of Trains to find a small Chicago Daily News picture in the Railroad News Photos section, showing a cascade of sparks falling 108 feet to the floor as workers cut into the concourse’s magnificent steel arches. In the dark, moody photo, you could see we were losing something wonderful.

Wonder is what the architects — Burnham’s successor firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White — had in mind when they designed Union Station. The edifice officially opened in 1925 after 12 years of construction. 

Inspired by the vaulted skylights and soaring arches of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, the Union Station concourse was a civilized place to organize the teeming crowds waiting to board the trains of station owners Pennsylvania, Milwaukee Road, Burlington, and tenant Alton. Wartime images of the concourse by the great Farm Security Administration photographer Jack Delano depict what must have been an inspiring space, designed to prepare someone for the thrill of travel.

Outside, the concourse was the perfect complement to the rest of Union Station, linking the imperious head house with the Chicago River in an impressive use of graduated scale, beckoning pedestrians walking westward from the Loop along Jackson Boulevard or Adams Street. 

Office of War Information photographer Jack Delano documented Union Station, including the concourse, in 1942-43. Jack Delano, Library of Congress collection
Most travelers using Union Station today probably have no idea what was lost as they push their way through the rabbit’s warren that leads them to their trains, the low ceiling a reminder of the office building that presses down from above. When you’re stuck in one of Amtrak’s train-time cattle calls, it’s hard to imagine how civilized it all must have been.

To be fair, Union Station has been improved in recent decades. Amtrak’s remodeling of the interior in 1991 was a substantial step forward, not only visually with its neoclassical design touches but also practically with improved traffic flow. While not perfect, the changes helped, says Trains correspondent Bob Johnston.

“What they did was create a horizontal aisle next to all the gates to allow detraining passengers an exit strategy while the boarding passengers waited,” Bob explains. “Today they also use that corridor to march people directly to the Michigan, Carbondale, and St. Louis trains from the Great Hall and it works surprisingly well, but there is still a line up in the corridor for early morning trains. It is truly comical when boarding passengers from the Great Hall or the Metropolitan Lounge conflict with BNSF Metra commuters in the constricted space.”

Things improved again this year. Amtrak has put the finishing touches on a $22 million refurbishing of the Great Hall, originally called the Waiting Room. The centerpiece is the lustrous restoration of the room’s 219-foot skylight, which should eliminate the perennial problem of water damage. The project included 2,052 new panes of glass in the original skylight protected by a new, second high-efficiency skylight hung five feet higher.

The revival of the Great Hall is an important moment in Chicago’s architectural history, especially since Amtrak has flirted with some terrible proposals to alter the head house. The vast floor of the old Waiting Room remains a welcoming oasis from the street. Its revival almost — but not quite — makes up for the atrocity committed just a half-century ago when they destroyed the concourse. 

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