Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An elegy for soon to be Lost Chicago

Ask me to name my favorite street in Chicago's Loop and I'd have to go with Wabash Avenue. The buildings that line the street aren't necessarily the best this city's architects had to offer, but they all reflect the attention to quality and detail that late nineteenth and early twentieth century architects put into their work. While not one single building is what you might call a masterpiece of design, when you put them all together, they create a breathtaking streetscape, speaking to each other in a distinctly turn of the twentieth century language. The loudest voice in that conversation, both visually and audibly, is the elevated structure that has dominated Wasbash Avenue since 1894. The L is to Chicago what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Brooklyn Bridge is to New York, and the cable cars are to San Francisco, that is to say, a magnificent work of late nineteenth century engineering that continues to stir hearts, and symbolize its city.

Of the four, Chicago's L is probably the least universally loved. It's noisy and it casts a perpetual shadow on the street below. It can be terrifying as well, as anyone who has ever traveled on or stood below trains as they make the tight, precarious curves twenty feet above ground can testify. Fears of trains falling from the sky came true in 1977, when an Oak Park bound train bumped into another train standing just east of the State and Lake station. The forward momentum of the trailing cars on the 90 degree curve at Lake and Wabash caused them to jump the tracks and topple to the street below.

The technology was well in place in the 1890s and a subway system as intricate as New York City's was considered. Because the Chicago rapid transit companies were privately owned by different entities, overwhelming difficulties and costs prevented it. The Union Loop as it was originally called, would enable the L lines to arrive downtown, traverse the overhead tracks, then return to their original destination without having separate terminals in the central business district of the city. This greatly facilitated transferring from one line to another as there were no routes that ran through downtown. As a private entity, city statutes mandated that the construction of the elevated structure above city streets would require 100 percent approval from the property owners along those streets. This being Chicago, you can imagine the shenanigans that went on to get the approval to build the Union Loop. But build it they did, and despite all the commotion and racket over the years, the 120 year old structure is still serving us well as it thrills and terrifies us at the same time.

The real beauty of our L, is the structure itself. As one of the consolations to property owners along the proposed route who feared the structure would cast the entire street in shadow, the builders agreed to build the structure supporting the tracks using an open, lattice-work system of trusses,  rather the solid beams. Consequently the Loop L, as opposed to the rest of Chicago s elevated structures, has a light, open feel to it, which perhaps enhances the death-defying quality of the experience of  trains rumbling above your head.

Madison St. station house
The elegant, functional design of the L structure, contrasts with the design of the stations which were built in a more traditional, historic-revival style, such as the neo-rennaisance of the station house on the left, reflecting the popular architectural fashion of the time. Most of the Loop stations have been significantly altered over the years, with the exception of the Quincy and Wells station, which has been restored virtually to its original appearance, and the Madison and Wabash station, which at this writing, has just been closed for good and is awaiting demolition.

The purpose of the demolition is to replace two Wasbash stations, the one at Madison, and eventually the one at Randolph two blocks to the north, with one modern station spanning from Madison to Washington Street. This would serve two very practical purposes. Reduction of the number of stops in the Loop, as they did a decade ago on Wells Street will, theoretically anyway, reduce congestion and improve travel times. Perhaps more significantly, the new station will be built to current ADA standards, making it possible for people with disabilities to better access public transportation, a very good thing by any standard.

On the other hand it's likely that another reason for the new construction to cut costs in the long run by reducing the staff needed to operate one extra station. Of course politicians love to get their names all over shiny new things and you can bet you'll see the mayor's name (whatever name that may be) plastered all over the new station.

The old Madison and Wabash station was built in 1894 along with the Wabash Avenue leg of the Loop structure, the first section of the Union Loop to be built. As you can see from the photographs, the station has seen better days, no doubt a result of receiving only the most basic maintenance as its days have been numbered for a good time now. Yet even through the rust, the pigeon proofing screens, and the grime, you can still appreciate the fine detail work of the ornamentation of the station. The new station as you can see in the photograph of the "Coming Soon" poster below, will sport undulating rib-like beams (a recent article compared the station's design to the work of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava), which will support a transparent canopy to protect passengers from the elements, while giving them an unobstructed view of the architecture that surrounds them. From the renderings, the new station appears attractive, exceptionally functional, and respectful of its surroundings.

Still I'm going to miss the old station which I must say was one of my very favorite places in Chicago if for nothing else, the spectacular views of Wabash Avenue, provided by the bridge that spanned the tracks.

That bridge has long been redundant as passengers can now walk beneath the station to transfer to the opposite tracks, and there are no plans to replace it with another one in the new station.

Attractive as it may be, the new station will definitely change the character of the street, which is not entirely a bad thing. Still, destroying a structure that's been around for 120 years shouldn't be something to be taken lightly. Then there's the view...

Take a good look, once the bridge is demolished along with the old station, no one will ever have this view of  Chicago again.

No comments: