Sunday, April 18, 2010

Northwestern Station

I've never been much of a fan of the architect Helmut Jahn. I find that his work typically conveys bombast over quality and sensitivity. But his buildings are always interesting and often a notch or two above much of the work of his contemporaries.

In the Eighties, Chicago's second grandest railway terminal, the Chicago and Northwestern Station, was razed to make way for this office building of Jahn's. The tower was christened Citycorp Center and the terminal portion has been recently renamed Ogilvie Transportation Center in honor of one of the very few Illinois governors who did not end up in jail after serving his term in office.

Not bound by the purist (and false) Modernist dogma of pure functionalism, Jahn designed a building of arches and monumental spaces, all the hoopla that defined Art Deco revival. It casts a striking silhouette on the skyline.

The old Northwestern Station designed by Frost and Granger and built in the Renaissance revival style in 1911 was magnificent. Like the original Union Station concourse, it made a great first impression on travelers who arrived from far and wide until the mid-sixties when its namesake railroad discontinued long distance passenger service. Unlike its larger counterpart down the street, all those entering Northwestern Station would pass through the grand waiting room under the building's most imposing feature, its beautiful Guastavino tile ceiling, common elsewhere but rare in Chicago.

In its later days, as the clerestory windows of the waiting room had been tarred over, the waiting room was not bathed in natural light. But the lack of natural light was made up by the warm tones of the tiles and the massive green marble columns holding them up. By the time of its demise in 1984, the interior was filled with so many kiosks and illuminated signs, it was difficult to see its true beauty which was revealed one last time by the wrecking crew.

The old station is truly missed by all who knew it. It was a great building that harkened back to the golden age of travel in America, and was a landmark that was well worth saving.

Given that, its replacement is frankly not all that bad, especially if you compare it to the other commuter rail terminals in town, all built in the last forty years to replace much better, older stations. Faint praise indeed. Yet at OTC there is still the sense of having arrived after getting off your train from the suburbs and entering the impressive steel and glass interior. The building is at its best at rush hour when the throngs are hurrying to or from their trains. It is then that the beehive of activity that marks the urban experience is most evident.

Unfortunately this place is all business. While there are lots of places to buy stuff or to eat and drink, save for an uninviting and embarrassingly small waiting room trackside, this is no place to sit down to watch all the activity.

Efficient use of valuable property I suppose, the entire reason for the building's very existence and the glorious old one's demise.


Brianbobcat said...

Are those photos both yours? The demolition photo looks like something the Library of Congress would've taken. I agree with everything you said, especially the bit about the current waiting room. I have Never used it because it routinely smells like BO or other bodily fluids and/or has a homeless person sleeping in it. I routinely will just sit on the floor in the main hall upstairs while waiting for a train.

James Iska said...

Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, grand waiting rooms, and other spaces that invite the public to linger are a thing of the past I'm afraid for many reasons, not the least of them I'm sure being the proliferation of the homeless.

Yes, the two photographs are mine. Thanks for asking!