Union Station remake: Let’s keep it classic

Yet another proposal to remake historic Chicago Union Station is expected to be unveiled this week. Will this plan be any better than the others?

Here’s a suggestion: Go back to the original idea for the station. Let’s keep it classic, or at least, classy.

The most recent plan — topping the station off with a modern glass-and-steel structure — was recently scrapped. Critics described it as “an abomination” and often likened it to Soldier Field after the iconic, columned structure became the landing site for something from Star Wars.

That seven-story vertical addition was “deemed unacceptable by the community and the Alderman due to architectural and traffic concerns,” according to an announcement from the office of Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward encompasses the station. 

“As a result, the development team decided to completely revise their vision for the project,” the announcement stated.

Good idea.

Amtrak, which owns Union Station, selected Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties in May 2017 to redevelop the station and surrounding properties at a cost of $1 billion. Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB) are the architects.

Their plan called for plopping a modern addition atop the neoclassical Headhouse. This was immediately lambasted in newspaper pages, on blogs, and on social media.

The two designs were clearly incongruous. Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, said the addition has “none of the grandeur of Union Station (but) all the grandeur of a Holiday Inn.”

Amtrak would “not offer a characterization” on Riverside’s plan, a spokesman said.

Union Station, with its multi-columned exterior, was completed in 1925. It was designed by Daniel Burnham and successor firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. 

Kamin has written that Burnham once envisioned Union Station as a magnificent gateway to Chicago’s west loop area, and that an office building had been originally planned for atop the station but never built, though foundations were laid.

An artist’s rendering with a suggested office tower and attributed to Joshua D’Esposito, former chief engineer for Union Station and Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, was published, but it’s unclear if this was the intended final product.

In 2002, another Chicago architect, Lucien Lagrange, unveiled a plan for a 400-foot tower above the station, with hotel offices and apartments. That plan fizzled. At least one other plan has come and gone.

Amtrak has already allocated at least $14 million to restore the interior of the Headhouse to its  classic beauty. The sweeping marble stairways leading from the Great Hall’s main waiting room up to Canal Street were replaced. The Great Hall’s 219-foot barrel-vaulted skylight is being renovated. The Metropolitan Lounge was relocated. Murals were being repaired.

So why stop there? Why not go all-out retro on the exterior as well as the interior?

We’ll find out Tuesday.

Richard Wronski

A version of this story was posted on TRAINS magazine News Wire.

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