Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1985
AT THE END OF THE LINE
Towers to surmount city’ s last great rail terminal
By Paul Gapp
Chicago’s lingering glory as a city of architecturally mighty railroad terminals has iust about faded awav.
Union Station—what’s left of it—is soon to be surmounted by two new 25-story office towers that will flank it like a set of bookends. The design of these additions may turn out to be as sensitive as one could hope for, but in a sense the project signals the end of an era.
Until the 1970s, Chicago had six rail stations that retained some of their original splendor. Four of them—Central, La Salle, North Western and Grand Central—have since been demolished. A fifth, Dearborn Station, is undergoing renovation after two major disfigurements . The sixth is Union Station, whose transformation will be examined shortly. –
Architectural historian Carl Condit has observed that Chicago, rather curiously, never developed an original rail terminal architecture commensurate with its importance as a railroad center. This is all the more strange because Chicago architects were so innovative in other kinds of commercial design.
Union Station in 1925
One might argue that the absence of a Chicago terminal style accounted for the relatively weak protests made about most of the demolitions in the last two decades. Some Chicago preservationists seem to embrace the notion that if Louis Sullivan didn’t design a building, it probably isn’t worth fighting for.
Hardly a murmur was heard, for example, when Grand Central Station was destroyed in 1971. Yet as Condit has pointed out, Grand Central was an important Chicago building even if it never received much recognition. The French Romanesque station built at Harrison and Wells Streets in 1890 was also one of the most original works by Solon S. Beman, best known for designing the company town of Pullman. Grand Central’s glass and iron train shed was an outstanding rarity.
Some assaults on stations drew more attention. Cries of outrage arose in 1976, for example, when the Chicago 21 Corp. quietly ordered wreckers to raze the extraordinary timber and wrought iron-trussed train sheds behind Dearborn Station at the intersection of Dearborn and Polk Streets. The historic sheds were torn down because they didn’t fit the plans of real estate speculators.
It is only fair to point out that even before the demolition, Dearborn Station’s original 1885 appearance was drastically degraded. Original architect Cyrus L.W. Eidlitz had given the headhouse clock tower a steeply sloped Flemish Gothic summit, and the rest of the station was topped with sharply pitched roofs pierced by dormers. In 1922, a fire destroyed those handsome elements, which were never replaced.
The station undergoing renovation today is thus little more than a fragment of its old self. Still, one hopes it will enjoy a successful life as a retailing and office complex, even if it is only an architectural ghost.
Central Station, its main waiting room enhanced by coffered vaulting and a dazzling display of stenciling, was destroyed in 1974.
Central Station, at Michigan Avenue and 11th Place, long boasted one of Chicago’s more remarkable public spaces. Few seem to remember the main waiting room of the Romanesque terminal that served the Illinois Central Railroad. But the big room was a splendid place, its coffered vaulting rising from floor level and offering a dazzling dis- play of stenciled ornamentation.
New York architect Bradford Gilbert designed Central Station in 1893, and at least part of the waiting room s glory survived until 1963 when an ugly dropped ceiling was installed. The terminal was demolished in 1974.
La Salle Street Station, razed in 1981, was the last of four successive terminals to stand on the same site at La Salle and Van Buren Streets. Frost & Granger designed the station, which was notable in part for its convenient connection to the CTA elevated tracks and the 12 stories of office space in its headhouse.
Frost & Granger also designed the North Western Station at Canal and Madison Streets, built in 1911. Considerable opposition developed when it was announced that the station would be wrecked to make room for a new Postmodern office skyscraper designed by Helmut Jahn. Preservationists cited the monumental dignity of the Italian Renaissance structure and the imposing scale of its ornamented and intricately tiled waiting room. But the station was destroyed, and it remains to be seen how the public will react to Jahn’s flashy replacement terminal.
And so we are left with Union Station—yet even that impressive complex was visually degraded long before the recently announced twin tower addition was conceived.
Graham, Anderson, Probst & White designed Union Station, which was completed in 1925 as a brilliantly organized collection of spaces serving the complex needs of a huge passenger depot. The beauty of its classical styling was challenged by few other major terminals in the nation.
Yet in 1969, the huge concourse section of the station between Canal Chicago River was demolished to clear the way for a skyscraper. That was a pity, because the concourse made a strong but elegant statement, and its interior was the most impressive space in the station complex. The mischief was compounded when newly built facilities serving commuters turned out to be cramped and dismal.
The latest and, one hopes, the last change to be made at Union Station was revealed only a few weeks ago. Chicago architect Lucien Lagrange has designed the aforementioned pair of 25-story offic towers flanking the surviving headhouse section of. the, terminal. They will be built by U.S. Equites Group, a development firm.
The best news about the project is that U.S. Equities has decided to spare the station’s main waiting room, the last surviving space of its kind in the city. Anything less than that would have been a major tragedy, since the room is in superb condition thanks to a major rehabilitation that followed a fire a few years ago.
When the first plans for Union Station were drafted during World War I, it was proposed that the headhouse serve as the base of a 20-story office building, but that was later reduced to the present eight stories. Disappointingly the exterior of the headhouse as it appears today gives virtually no architectural clues about its function as a railroad station.
Still, this did not make matters easier fori architect Lagrange when he set out to design the new towers. Were they not in sympathy with the terminal, the old and the new structures would simply demean each other.
Drawings provided by Lagrange indicate that he has met the challenge deftly and with good taste-although as always, final judgment must be reserved until construction has been completed.
Lagrange employed a classical base-shaft- capital configuration for his towers, which will be clad with stone. Window shapes and other detailing will defer to the terminal’s original vocabulary. How nice it is to be able to do this unself-consciously in today s climate of pluralism and historic recall!
The existing top four stories of the station will be sliced off to facilitate construction, a necessity that will probably do no visual damage to the exterior.
But a still knottier problem had to be solved. The station (whose waiting room runs on a north-south axis) covers the entire block on which it stands. This means that the new towers along Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard will have to be partly cantilevered above the hollowed-out center of the old build-
The 1976 demolition of the train sheds behind Dearborn Station drew cries of outrage.
To handle this difficult task, the New York structural-engineering firm of Lev Zetlin Associates was hired. Its mission is reminiscent of a similar one carried out quite brilliantly a couple of years ago by Alfred Benesch & Co., Chicago-based structural engineers.
Benesch won awards for figuring out how to support two tall office towers whose weight, must be partly supported by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading room building on Wacker Drive between Madison and Monroe Streets. The vast trading room in the low-rise CME building is structurally not unlike the waiting room at Union Station.
The objective of the CME developers, of course, was simply to pack as much speculative office space as possible onto a tight and difficult site. At Union Station, the stakes are higher because of the historic and splendorous waiting room.
It would be crotchety not to praise U.S. Equities for trying to save the showplace waiting room-even if it will make the new office space more marketable. Yet it is also reasonable to assume that what remains of the old Union Station might have been torn down were it not for engineering ingenuity. Because of Chicago’s twisted preservation priorities, the station does not even enjoy the limited protection of municipal landmark designation.
Let us hope the Equities-Lagrange-Lev Zetlin collaboration turns out to be as good as it looks on paper. After a fast and ruthless binge of terminal destruction, Union Station is really all we have.
Dearborn Station in 1911: Fire and partial demolition have left it a ghost of its old self.