What’s That Building? Chicago’s Union Station

Union Station
Chicago's Union Station. southie3/Flickr
Union Station
Chicago's Union Station. southie3/Flickr

What’s That Building? Chicago’s Union Station

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Chicago’s Union Station opened in 1925, but for half a century it’s been shrinking, both in size and in grandeur. 

Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin talks about the historic site and what plans are in the works to bring it closer to its glory days.

The view of Chicago’s Union Station looking east toward the Willis Tower. (Núria/Flickr).

The current building was one of two that made up the original Union Station. The other building, a premium riverfront site on the east side of Canal Street, was demolished in 1969 to make way for office and retail buildings.

Originally, the eastern building held the concourses where you boarded and got off your train, while the western building served as a waiting area filled with restaurants, shops, a jail, and three separate lounges for men and women who needed daycare for their kids while they napped.

A crowd gathers for the ribbon cutting ceremony at the opening of the new Fred Harvey shopping center in the Chicago Union Station, the first of its kind in any transportation terminal, in Chicago, Ill., Feb. 20, 1956. (AP Photo).

Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett first envisioned Union Station in their 1909 Plan of Chicago, which saw the station as a major portal to a fast-growing Chicago — the nation’s railroad capital — to replace the Grand Passenger Station that was built in 1881.

A clock in Chicago’s Union Station (vxla/Flickr).

But by the mid-1940s and early 1950s, travel by car and by air was taking over. By the mid-1960s, long-distance travel by train was nearly dead in this country, and Union Station and the nation’s other grand rail stations were being hollowed out.

In 1969 the expansive Beaux-Arts-style concourse at Union Station was demolished to make way for modern offices, according to ChicagoUnionStation.com. This photo was taken by Roger Puta in June 1968 (Marty Bernard/Wikimedia Commons)..

So the eastern concourse building was taken down, and many people still say that’s why commuting through Union Station is a pain. The new concourses built below the new buildings were a confusing warren of low-ceilinged passageways, an issue that a couple rounds of rehab over the past four decades has never quite fixed. It’s still a chaotic place, with so many hallways and stairs and escalators that it’s easy to get lost unless you know what you’re doing from routine. 

A stairway near the entrance of Chicago’s Union Station, made famous in the 1987 film ‘The Untouchables.’ (Renzo Borgatti/Flickr).

Today, the station is in the midst of a renaissance. In the past few years, several long-hidden spaces have been reopened, the magnificent Great Hall and its 219-foot-long skylight have been rehabbed. And a developer was chosen in May 2017 to handle a billion-dollar expansion plan that includes reusing the six empty office floors on top of the building as a hotel and office space, and putting three new buildings on station-owned land south and southeast of the building.

The rehab that has been going on the past few years is supposed to correct a lot of navigation problems, although it’s understandably difficult to do, since all that Union Station space is on one side of Canal and the trains all pull in and out on the other side. But the rehab is doing great things in the Great Hall, which remains a magnificent space with marble floors and walls, giant Corinthian columns, and, the real throwback, those long wooden benches. 

Passengers waiting in Union Station’s Grand Hall in August 2007. (jerone2/Flickr).

The renovation plans call for building almost 1.2 million new square feet of space and renovations of more than 200,000 feet of existing space. It is all pretty astonishing when you think about the fact that until 2015, Union Station was using less than one-third of its original million square feet. 

Still to come, according to the rehab plan, is more retail and restaurants, some of them perhaps opening onto the street to reverse the station’s nearly total inward orientation.

In the waiting room of Chicago's Union Station in January 1943. (Photo by  Jack Delano/The Library of Congress [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons).

Click the “play” button above to listen to the entire conversation.