Union Station Redevelopment Proposed

A massive $1 billion redevelopment proposal has been presented by Amtrak for Chicago Union Station. On May 25th, Mayor Emanuel and Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman unveiled a plan which includes five new high-rises, public plazas, a rooftop garden, and a food court. The plan is expected to take six years to complete and will be completed in three phases.

The project was designed by Chicago-based Goettsch Partners and the Chicago-based Riverside Investment and Development was selected to lead the project with joint venture from Convexity Properties. Riverside Investment recently finished the 150 N. Riverside Plaza office tower. Convexity Properties recently completed the Robey Hotel in Wicker Park’s historic Northwest Tower.

Of paramount concern to Preservation Chicago, the plan includes a pair of residential towers atop the historic landmark Daniel Burnham/Graham, Anderson, Probst and White-designed Union Station Headhouse. The Beaux-Arts Union Station, with its magnificent Great Hall and massive Corinthian-order travertine columns were widely celebrated when it was opened in 1925 after over ten year of planning and construction. The dramatic space remains as compelling today as it was when it first opened. It’s an ideal set for movies and the grand staircase featured prominently in The Untouchables. The impact of new construction on The Great Hall/Waiting Room in unclear.

One of the original Graham, Anderson, Probst and White design renderings contemplated a single, limestone-clad, approximately 12-story tower over the Headhouse. Though the tower was never built, the building structure was designed to accommodate them. In 1985, a plan for two-towers was proposed but never materialized which was based upon the original Burnham design and continued the building’s materials, ornament, window size and spacing, and cornice treatment.

Until the 1970’s, Chicago was a center for passenger railway service with six major rail stations including the Illinois Central Station, La Salle Street, North Western, Grand Central, Dearborn/Polk Street, and Union Station. The first four were demolished and the surviving Dearborn Station suffered a fire in 1922 and it was rebuilt with truncated rooflines. It later lost its railroad shed to demolition during its transformation into a shopping arcade in the 1970’s.

Union Station is Chicago’s finest and last connection to an era and an industry that played a major role in Chicago’s growth and history. Union Station’s interior spaces and commuter experience have never recovered from the demolition of the soaring Union Station Concourse in 1969 immediately east of the Headhouse, to make way for an office building. Therefore, any changes to this important landmark must be handled with the utmost sensitivity.

Significant and very positive restoration work has been underway at Union Station over the past couple years and has returned several important interior spaces and features to public use, such as the Women’s Lounge, now known as the Burlington Room, and the Men’s Lounge and Barber Shop, now a series of passenger lounges. The restoration of the Great Hall Skylight and a restoration of the Great Hall is soon to be underway. Preservation Chicago has played an active role as a consulting partner in this process with Amtrak and the City of Chicago and applauds their accomplishments.

Preservation Chicago is concerned that the proposed contemporary towers will be an inappropriate addition to a highly significant historic landmark building. Additionally, we’re concerned about the new construction negatively impacting the existing historic fabric and integrity of the Headhouse and Great Hall. We would prefer to see the other three proposed high-rises to grow larger which would allow Union Station, a designated Chicago Landmark, to be protected in its current form.

Additionally, the Art Deco Union Station Power House located at 301 W. Taylor Street, also by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, was shuttered in 2011 and is one of Preservation Chicago 2017 Most Endangered Buildings. This river front building is now threatened with a $13 million demolition to be replaced with a surface parking lot.

Additional Reading

At the End of the Line Towers to Surmount City’s Last Great rail Terminal. (Fascinating article from the Chicago Tribune archives)  Chicago Tribune, 12/8/1985

Column: Union Station plans fail to live up to lofty rhetoric, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 5/25/17

Union Station Redevelopment Includes 5 New Towers, Food Hall, Rooftop Plaza, DNA info, David Matthews, 5/25/17

Union Station slowly moving into 21st century, Blair Kamin, Chicgo Tribune, 11/27/16

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