Friday, July 12, 2013

Behind the Black Curtain: Union Station's Elegant and Forgotten Dining Hall

image courtesy The Chuckman Collection
A while back, we came across the above postcard of a lunchroom at Union Station that looked like, if not one of those urban myths, at least an image with substantial visual enhancement.  My history with Union Station goes all the way back to before the Concourse was destroyed for one of the most mediocre office buildings in Chicago, and my only memory of anything involving dining was a sitdown restaurant called the Red Lion, and a Fred Harvey coffee shop whose ‘modern’ glass walls extended in front of the columns in the Great Hall waiting room.  Then I came across this photograph . . .
click images for larger view
. . . A less romanticized but very real space.  But it was only yesterday I came across this . . .
photograph courtesy Ryan Griffin-Stegink, Metropolitan Planning Council
. . . from a Flickr photoset,  Behind the Scenes at Chicago Union Station taken during a recent tour by Ryan Griffin-Stegink of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

We recently wrote about the MPC's current Activate Union Station 2013 Placemaking Chicago Contest, and its goal of finding projects “that best draws people in to activate the space with ideas that are engaging, low-cost and temporary.”  Two winners will receive $5,000 each to make their idea a reality for ten days, August 24th through September 2nd.  Wednesday, July 24th is the deadline for submitting entries.   You can find all the contest guidelines here.

Activate's interventions are, of course, temporary, but as Griffin-Stegink's photographs indicate, there's a lot of room for more permanent enhancements in areas that have long been secreted from view.  Many years ago, there was a general clean-up at the station, and I what I remember most was how the stone of the tall Corinthian columns had seemed to take on a gentle pink accent.  Unfortunately, not long after, in July of 1980, a major fire swept through the westernmost part of the ‘Headhouse’ structure that holds the Great Hall, with lots of smoke damage that made returning back to normal a long haul.  By that time, the pink quality I had noticed in the stone had somehow vanished, and not only was the Fred Harvey coffee shop gone, but also the pair of columns that fronted it.  They've yet to be replaced, leaving the space once occupied by the restaurant an unbalanced gap-toothed hole in the Great Hall, usually hidden behind a curtain.
So that grand space behind the walls, complete with its coffered ceiling . . .
photograph courtesy Ryan Griffin-Stegink, Metropolitan Planning Council
. . . and large, if uninteresting, murals . . . .
photograph courtesy Ryan Griffin-Stegink, Metropolitan Planning Council
has remained forgotten and unseen, save for a small portion that's become a kind of gallery that never seems to be open when I'm visiting . . . .
Union Station was completed in 1925, at the then astronomical price of $75,000,000, by CUSCo, the consortium that had been formed in 1913 to own and run Union Station on behalf of the five intercity railroads that controlled its traffic - you can still see all their names on the wall of the Canal Street arcade.  The station served 300 trains and 100,000 passengers each workday.

Over time, CUSCo sold air rights over the station tracks, for the Daily News Building in the 1920's, the Post Office on Van Buren in the 30's, and the first two Gateway Plaza Buildings in the 1960's.  Then, as a lovely parting gift, it demolished Union Station's Grand Concourse - Chicago's answer to New York's Penn Station - for the numbingly mediocre 222 South Riverside, forcing commuters into barely finished concrete passageways that had all the charm of chutes in an abattoir.

In 1984, the station was sold to Amtrak, which in 1991 initiated its first major renovation, including removing the black-out over the glass of the 300-foot-long barrel vault skylight that had been in place since World War II, allowing natural light to again stream into the Great Hall . . .
photograph courtesy Ryan Griffin-Stegink, Metropolitan Planning Council
 . . . and bringing in architect Lucien Lagrange to upgrade the commuter passageways into something that actually looked as if it were designed for humans.

Back in the 1920's, architect Pierce Anderson had engineered the Headhouse of Union Station so that it could be expanded in the future.  In 1998 and again in 2006, there were grand plans to construct an 18 to 25 story tower atop the original station's 8 floors.  The 2006 proposal was a quarter-billion dollar project envisioning a 300 room hotel scheduled to open in 2009, plus 10 floors and 600,000-square-feet of office space, with the American Medical Association as anchor tenant.  Both proposals managed to be timed just before major real estate crashes, and sunk without a trace.
Instead, last year Amtrak finished a  $25,000,000 upgrade that included spending $7 million to dismantle and remove a Terry-Gilliam-like array of over a half-century's worth of obsolete equipment from the station's basements, the lowest of which are below the city's water table.  Facades were repaired.  As part of upgrading the mechanicals, radiator heat was finally eliminated, and fully-functioning air conditioning was brought back to the Great Hall for the first time in 40 years.  Sprinklers and fire alarms were updated to conform to current code.  A switch to more efficient lighting is projected to bring savings of $1 million a year.
Amtrak has moved back into the office portion of the complex, saving $2 million in annual rent, and is said to be retrofitting long-empty office floors as lodging for crews staying overnight between runs.  Former retail space is being converted into a passenger lounge, and Jones Lang LaSalle continues its long-term relationship with Amtrak working to rent out the balance of the office space, find useful functions (valet parking?) for the now mostly empty basements, and re-invigorate the retail space. 

Why can't Union Station be be revived as Grand Central has in New York, as both a functioning rail station, and a great civic hub?  One comment on the Flickr photoset imagines fine dining returning to Union Station, with tables set up behind the columns of the arcade . . .
 . . . although we'd probably have to figure how to give diners something better to look at than a perpetual line-up of CTA buses, and the featureless 222 South Riverside across the street.
Image Courtesy The Chuckman Collection
Let's hope somewhere as a part of that process, they find a way to return the missing columns to make the Great Hall whole again, and to re-integrate and restore the long-hidden dining room, opening up bricked-in windows of the currently long blank wall along Clinton to the re-invigorated and booming West Loop.

See More:

Behind the Scenes at Union Station, Flickr set by Ryan Griffin-Stegink of the Metropolitan Planning Council

Read More:

Activate Union Station 2013 Placemaking Chicago Contest


Pete said...

But it looks like the room in the modern photo with the coffered ceiling isn't the Fred Harvey coffeeshop, but the Women's Lounge in the northwest corner of the station. Note how the old Fred Harvey images show a plain ceiling, not a coffered one. How sad to see how much this once-majestic building has mostly gone to waste. The last image on that Flickr photoset shows a 1955 layout of the station - I'm particularly intrigued by the east end of the concourse, and the Iron Horse Lounge and Semaphore Luncheonette, where the center of Amtrak's passenger area is now.

Lynn Becker said...

You're probably right about the space. It's likely the Fred Harvey area was burned out in the fire. It would still be worth saving and adapting the former lounge.

Pete said...

It also appears that the dining room shown in that last postcard is now the gallery space that you mentioned - I never even noticed the gallery until this morning (and yes, it was closed). Based on the historical images, it looks like the kitchen was located beneath the balcony in the Fred Harvey lunch room. The 1955 layout map also shows a barber shop in the extreme southeast corner of the building, next to the dining room.

Tony said...

The area with the iron horse lounge was the original concourse. The connection from the Great Hall to the tracks. It was demolished in the 70s. Replaced with an office tower. A smaller concourse is now the lower levels of the office tower.

Tony said...

The area with the iron horse lounge was the original concourse. The connection from the Great Hall to the tracks. It was demolished in the 70s. Replaced with an office tower. A smaller concourse is now the lower levels of the office tower.