Critics outnumber fans of Union Station plan

Who’s a fan of the proposed “vertical addition” to Chicago Union Station? Except for DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman, almost nobody. Here’s a sampling of the critics from my story posted today on TRAINS magazine’s News Wire:

Since developers announced plans to remake historic Chicago Union Station on June 25, the critics of the proposal have outnumbered the fans by an overwhelming margin.

In newspaper pages, on blogs, and on social media, the public has generally savaged a design by Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties to top the neoclassical head house, completed in 1925, with a modernistic, seven-story steel and glass addition.

The proposed glass structure would contain 404 apartments. Below, in the existing building, 330 hotel rooms would be built.

Architecture critics say the two designs are incongruous. Writing in The Architect’s Newspaper, Elizabeth Blasius described the addition as “a self-inked address stamper.”

“The proposed addition is not only an imbalance in terms of design, it’s also condescending to the station itself, the architectural equivalent of a head patting, or worse,” Blasius wrote.

Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, followed up on his initial criticism of the design in the newspaper by saying in an interview with Chicago’s WTTW:

“The architects are trying to create a design that they say would be compatible with, yet distinct from the addition. But in this case, the addition is not compatible in the least with the existing Union Station. It’s top heavy. It is a grid, a metal and glass grid that is not compatible with the carefully composed classical design.

“It has none of the grandeur of Union Station. It has kind of all the grandeur of a Holiday Inn.”

On the Facebook page Chicago Railroad Historians, the oft-repeated comment was “an abomination.”

Others said: “All tarted up by the real estate whores.” “Looks like my aunt wearing a silly hat at a wedding.” and, perhaps, best: “Putting a streamlined dome on a heavyweight Pullman.”

On Twitter, many smart-alecks had a field day, mashing up photos of Chicago Union Station with old Metra coaches converted into hotel rooms, and putting huge advertising signs on the new structure.

Noted Chicago rail advocate F.K. “Fritz” Plous tells Trains News Wire, “The job is a botch.”

“The addition is a nondescript piece of now that looks like it could have come from any shopping mall in Schaumburg or Bloomingdale. It is undistinguished and unworthy of Union Station and totally incompatible with the rest of the building, which will end up like a carefully dressed and coiffed dowager trying to ‘keep up’ with youth by wearing a backwards baseball cap,” Plous says.

But not all were as unhappy. In fact, DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman sees a true benefit in the proposal for Chicago and railroads.

“Having a major hotel become the centerpiece of the design will strengthen the station’s role as a premier travel center,” he tells News Wire.

“In my opinion, much of the criticism of the architectural details is misplaced. The design leverages the air rights above the head house building while still respecting the station’s historic character. This is a win-win for both travelers to and residents of the city of Chicago.”

The head of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, Schwieterman said the plan could make Union Station’s famed Great Hall a tourist attraction in its own right.

“Our city has a dismal track record when it comes to preserving historic rail terminals,” Schwieterman says. “We lost Central Station, Grand Central Station, LaSalle Street Station, and the former Chicago & North Western Terminal. Finally, we got this one right, finding an exciting new role for the historical head house of Union Station while also retaining its rail-travel functions.”

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