Friday, April 16, 2010

Union Station

The tour of my list of unfortunate architectural contributions to our city continues with this uninspiring box that sits above the concourse of Union Station in the West Loop. The tower in the photograph on the right is Gateway Center III and the squat black building on the left is the MidAmerica Commodity Exchange. Both are the work of the inescapable firm of Skidmore Owings and Merrill.

In a previous post I listed two criteria for truly awful buildings. This one meets both. Any building fronting the river sits on a prominent location and as such the architects have a responsibility to respond in kind with a building of at least some distinction. Can't see much in the cracker box tower. The Exchange Building at least has a trace of relevance, the estimable AIA Guide to Chicago describes it as "a supine version of the John Hancock Center."

And any building that replaces a beloved building faces the inevitable comparison to its predecessor that is more often then not, negative, often to the extreme.

I have a particular ax to grind with this one as I had a history with the original concourse building of the Union Station complex. When I was a small child, my grandparents would often take me Downtown on Sunday afternoons. One of our favorite haunts was Union Station which at the time consisted of two buildings. The headhouse still exists west of Canal Street. You can just barely see it in this photograph peeking over the addition on the left. The great waiting room was there as it still is, without a doubt one of the finest extant interiors in Chicago. East of Canal in a separate building was the concourse building.

As great as the waiting room is, the interior of the concourse was arguably better. This was the first experience of Chicago that travelers from all over the country had as they disembarked from trains that had names like the Hiawatha, the Broadway Limited and the California Zephyr. And what an experience it was. The roof as you can see from this postcard rendering, was held up by arched trusses that were supported by iron posts, inspired by the concourse of the late, great Pennsylvania Station in New York. Chandeliers suspended in mid air illuminated the great space when golden beams of sunlight didn't stream through the windows. When you got off your train and walked into that space, you knew you had arrived at someplace special.

This wasn't the only train station in Chicago by a long shot, but it was the grandest. It was the place where I fell in love with trains. While Union Staton was more often than not our Sunday destination, every once in a while we'd actually hop on a train, usually one of the commuter lines, the Burlington to Aurora, or the Milwaukee Road to Elgin. Then there was our annual summer trip to Milwaukee aboard the Hiawatha with its beautiful skytop lounge car designed by Brooks Stevens. Here it is from the inside.

I remember coming back from those trips, getting off the train and the great concourse welcomed us back home like an old friend.

The end came around the time the railroads gave up on passenger service and the national passenger service Amtrak was born. Everything became stripped down and the grand concourse was deemed superfluous as there was no revenue generating possibility in it as was the case with the offices across the street in the headhouse.

I don't remember how I felt when I heard the news, as a child I was probably swayed by the propaganda of the time that you can't interfere with progress. There was an allure back then that I succumbed to of the new, the shiny, the modern, as opposed to the dingy, old buildings that symbolized the dark ages to many. I do remember my last few visits, disembarking from the Elgin train, seeing the place illuminated by the fading orange light at the end of the day and realizing that it soon would be no more. And I remember watching from the Adams Street bridge as the headache ball rammed into the clerestory window above the columns of the east side of the building as the grand old building stubbornly gave up her ghost.

The construction of the new building lasted a year or two, and during that time you'd get off the train and be guided through construction tunnels that led either to the street above or to the waiting room which back then looked a little threadbare . Eventually the new building opened and it didn't appear much different than when it was under construction. Instead of great vaulted ceilings that reached forty feet up or more, you had dropped ceilings, 10 feet high if you were lucky, covered with acoustic tiles. The new joint was designed to be functional and efficient, but was neither, and the once grand arrival into Chicago was replaced by a whimper, or more tragically a whatever.

The destruction of Union Station mirrors that of Penn Station in a few ways. The two buildings were state of the art train stations built toward the end of the golden age of rail travel. Both had similar architecture, Union Station being greatly influenced by the design of Penn's a decade earlier. And both were replaced by buildings that were so bad they had to be reworked several times during their existence. Penn Station's replacement itself has often been threatened with demolition. We're not so fortunate here.

The interior of the Union Station concourse was remodeled in the nineties. While it doesn't come anywhere close to the magnificence of what was lost forty years ago it is much more palatable today than it was when it first opened.

As for the exterior well...


Pete said...

I use Union Station every day, and the current version of the concourse is a complete disgrace. The ceilings are too low, the passageways are too narrow, commuters clog up dangerously at the base of the escalators in the morning and Amtrak riders who are hauling luggage get jammed up with Metra commuters sprinting to their evening trains. When I see images of the soaring and expansive old concourse building, my heart skips a beat - this is absolutely, positively, how the station should still be. Shame on the powers-that-be for tearing down that great building so the site could be sold for the building of that anonymous office tower.

You'd think that if they were that hellbent for income-generating space back then, they would have built the long-planned office tower on top of the headhouse instead of tearing down the concourse building.

James Iska said...

Thanks for your comments. Taking them to heart I passed through the concourse yesterday and you're absolutely right, it is a complete mess. The "improvements" they made several years back were merely cosmetic, there is no rhyme or reason to the way the place is laid out, I'm there fairly regularly but still get lost trying to figure how to get out of the joint.