Chicago Union Station: Monument to a Bygone Era

I recently visited Chicago Union Station for the first time in many years while accompanying my grandmother during her move from Chicago to the Washington DC area.  Nearly a century old, the station has seen its ups and downs, weathering the decline of intercity passenger rail in America to continue as one of the country’s most important railway hubs.

Steps leading from Canal Street to the Great Hall in Chicago Union Station
Steps leading from Canal Street to the Great Hall in Chicago Union Station.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Chicago Union Station is located downtown near the Chicago River, not far from the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower).  It’s one of about two dozen union stations in the United States, indicating that when opened it was a shared terminal of several different railroad companies.  Opened in 1925, Chicago Union Station is the busiest US train station outside the Northeast Corridor.  It averages 3.5 million Amtrak passengers a year, a figure surpassed only by Penn Station (New York), Union Station (Washington DC), and 30th Street Station (Philadelphia).  Chicago is a terminus for almost all of Amtrak’s east-west long distance trains, connecting Chicago with such cities as New York, Washington, Boston, Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles.  In addition, it is a busy hub for short and medium distance Amtrak trains to surrounding states as well as six Metra commuter lines.

Chicago Union Station is a reminder of America’s railway history.  In the golden age of passenger railways, stations were as much monuments as functional transportation centers.  These days, transportation is typically regarded with view towards utility.  At most, you may see an airport with an artistic sense of architectural style like Denver International Airport, but it would be inconceivable to see an airport terminal resembling a Greek temple built today.

As US passenger rail declined after World War II in the face of competition from airlines and the interstate highways, many stations fell into disrepair.  Some impressive stations, like the original New York Penn Station, were demolished. Great stations across the country have been shuttered like Detroit’s Michigan Central Station or converted to other purposes like Nashville’s Union Station, now a hotel.  In some places (like Nashville) the stations closed because passenger rail service had been discontinued.  In others like Detroit, the upkeep of a grand old building wasn’t worth it and operations shifted to a much smaller, utilitarian station.  Chicago Union Station suffered too; in 1968 its spacious concourse building was sacrificed to build an office building in the lucrative “air rights” space above the tracks, reducing Union Station’s platforms to virtual dungeons.

There are a handful of reversals in the trend of the grand historic stations falling by the wayside.  Last year Amtrak resumed service to St. Paul Minnesota’s Union Depot after a 43-year hiatus.  Union Station in Washington DC has been restored and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station is as beautiful as ever.

The heart and soul of Chicago Union Station is its massive Great Hall.
The heart and soul of Chicago Union Station is its massive Great Hall.

Restored in 1991 and again in 2010, Chicago Union Station keeps its place today as functional monument.  Chicago Union Station’s limestone façade can’t compete with Washington Union Station or even 30th Street Station in terms of beauty.  Its platforms, dim and subterranean lack the elegance of the bright, spacious train sheds of many European train stations.  Where Chicago Union Station really impresses, though, is its Great Hall, a massive, perhaps oversized passenger waiting area with an incredibly high ceiling and skylight.  In the center of the room are wooden benches.  Long as they are, they take up only a fraction of the room.  At the corners of the hall, massive columns; high above, statues complete the aura of an ancient temple.  Watching the crowds of commuters rush towards the platform areas or just taking in the scope of the room, it’s easy to forget that the Great Hall looks (and feels!) better now than it did for decades.  Indeed, from 1960 to 2011 the hall had no air conditioning, surely a drag during the hot summer months in Chicago.

Views of the great hall's enormous skylight and columns
Views of the great hall’s enormous skylight and columns

One of the Great Hall’s most stunning features its skylight, towering over 100 feet above the floor and over 200 feet in length.  Interestingly, the Great Hall has spent over half its history dark.  During World War II, blackout measures reached levels best described as paranoid.  With about 100,000 passengers a day stopping in the station including many soldiers, Chicago Union Station was considered a prime target.  The skylight was covered to reduce the station’s visibility at night.  Apparently nobody considered the fact that even if the longest range German bombers had taken off from Europe on a one-way suicide mission, they would have run out of fuel and crashed in the Atlantic Ocean thousands of miles from Chicago (or for that matter, the much closer cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington).  Remarkably, the Great Hall remained blacked out until the 1991 renovation.

Stairs from Canal Street into the Great Hall.  HDR.
Stairs from Canal Street into the Great Hall. Note the wear in the stone steps from nearly a century of use.  These are the north stairs, since the light on them was better during my visit than it was on the south “Untouchables” stairs. HDR photo.

Flanking the passageway to the tracks, two elegant staircases descend into the Great Hall from street level.  Millions of footsteps over the decades have worn the center of the stairs by a slight by noticeable degree.  The stairs at the southeast corner of the Great Hall are most famous as the location where a famous shootout in the 1987 film The Untouchables was filmed.  In that climatic scene, Kevin Costner and his sidekick try to nab Al Capone’s accountant while simultaneously protecting a baby in a carriage tumbling down the stairs through a hail of gangster bullets (a homage to the “Odessa Steps” sequence in the 1925 Battleship Potemkin).

Further Reading

Union Station Master Plan History

Chicago Union Station Facts

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