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CHICAGO 101


Union Station
200 S. Clinton St.

Union Station

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2001-2003 NB

There are grooves in the marble steps leading down to the Great Hall of Union Station, smooth ruts worn by the drumming feet of countless passengers throughout the twentieth century. You don't hear much drumming anymore--in part because the main entrance for daily commuters to the city's oldest remaining passenger station in use is the escalator under a modern office building across the street, and in part because trains today, with air and highway travel now routine (and, sadly, much better funded by the government), are mostly ghosts of the country's past. Indeed, that underground escalator ensures that the cavernous but majestic Great Hall is mostly empty space, sparsely sat in and stared at by tourists. The escalator allows you to come and go from the trains themselves without setting foot in the Great Hall--although I beg you not to.

Call me raptured by railroad romance, but I love fitting my feet into those ruts in the marble stairs, even if they make it harder to keep my balance as I lug my suitcase to catch the Amtrak back to Michigan. I think of all the feet that wore them down over the decades, and the sights and sounds that filled the Great Hall as they did. I mostly agree with author Jonathan Franzen, who writes in his essay "First City": "I generally resist wishing I'd lived in an earlier era (I always imagine myself dying of some disease whose cure was just around the corner), but I make an exception for those years when the country's heart was in its cities, the years of ... trolley cars, fedoras, and crowded train stations."

Amid this age--during the Roaring Twenties--Union Station was constructed. Opened in 1881 as Grand Passenger Station, Union Station was rebuilt over 11 years starting in 1914 to provide bigger space and deliver a more powerful architectural punch. Completed in 1925, it resumed its role as the nation's crossroads, the pit stop between Penn Station in New York and transcontinental routes reaching West. (See the link to Jazz Age Chicago below for a more complete history of Union Station's construction and architecture.)

In a way, it's a shame that a city whose name is synonymous with the ascent of railroads in American history (an ascent that seemed complete by the time of the Civil War) has no functioning train station that dates back as far as World War I (Dearborn Station is older but is now an office building). Still, Union Station is a magnificent landmark, a living, breathing museum.

I've never seen The Untouchables, which was filmed here, but I suppose I owe it to myself as a Chicagoan to rent it soon. I did see My Best Friend's Wedding, whose climactic bakery truck chase ends here (with Dermot Mulroney telling Julia Roberts in the Great Hall that her jealous sabatoge of his wedding was rotten but also "pretty flattering"). Meanwhile, TV Guide relates that William Holden's first movie after Sunset Boulevard was called Union Station and cast him as a Chicago detective here, but the entire movie was filmed in Hollywood--I want to watch it to see how they pulled this off.

Today, the station's vitality is constantly threatened by the perpetually imminent demise of Amtrak, and its structural purity is challenged by developers' plans to build offices over it, but Union Station will always be a proud reminder of Chicago's heritage.   -NB

From Citysearch.com:
During Union Station's boom years in the 1940s, more than 300 trains arrived or departed daily and 100,000 passengers passed through the terminal. These days, about 50,000 commuters scurry through Chicago's most magnificent transportation terminal every day. Unless you enter Union Station on the west side of Canal Street, it's entirely possible to buy your tickets and board your train without ever seeing the Great Hall, the surviving half of the original 1925 station. Take a few extra minutes, though, to take it in. The pink Tennessee marble floors harmonize with the marble walls, Corinthian columns and bronze floor torches. The soft light filtering through the Great Hall's vaulted skylight immediately puts you at ease. The room's size tends to hush people, so its long wooden benches are a good place to relax, admire the architecture, or just daydream.
-More about Union Station from Citysearch.com
-Map of Union Station from Citysearch.com

From Jazz Age Chicago:
1913, the Chicago Union Station Company authorized construction of a replacement station. The railroad companies involved, most notably the Pennsylvania Railroad, hoped the new Union Station would be a world-class facility, an architectural and engineering marvel that would befit the importance of the railroad industry to America's rise as an economic powerhouse. Chicago's business leaders and politicians, likewise eager to boost the image of the city, heartily backed the expansion plans. Accordingly, the new station was designed to be not only a highly efficient and fully modern transportation facility, but also a monument to the city and the social confidence of its most powerful citizens. 
-More history of Union Station from Jazz Age Chicago
-See "Where All The Trains Ran: Chicago" from Common-place.org

-More about Union Station, including a great exterior picture, from Doug Kaniuk
-Picture: Illinois native and 1928 Olympics gold medalist Betty Robinson arrives in Union Station, from the Riverdale Historical Society
-More about passenger rail in Chicago from Bill Vandervoort
-More about Chicago trains from 20thCentury.org

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Copyright 2001-2003
Nathan L.K. Bierma
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