THREATENED: “ Fourth-Rate Design” Addition Proposed for Chicago Union Station Rooftop “W ould Bring to the Forlorn But Grand Train Station All the Grandeur of a Holiday Inn.” (Chicago 7 2018)

Proposed Rooftop Addition to Chicago Union Station, Rendering Credit: Solomon Cordwell Buenz

Proposed Rooftop Addition to Chicago Union Station, Rendering Credit: Solomon Cordwell Buenz

Preservation Chicago included Chicago Union Station as a 2018 “Chicago 7 Most Endangered” based on conceptual rooftop addition renderings released by the development team as part of the Chicago Union Station Master Plan announced Mayor Emanuel and Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman in May 2017. The Chicago Union Station Master Plan anticipates the construction of five new super-tall high-rise towers estimated at over 1.5 million square feet on the blocks directly to the south of Chicago Union Station.

Significant recent preservation-sensitive restoration work at Union Station by Amtrak has reversed the long-term trend of decades of demolition and deferred maintenance. Several important interior spaces and features have returned to public use, such as the Women’s Lounge, now known as the Burlington Room, and the Men’s Lounge and Barber Shop, which now form a series of passenger lounges. The restoration of the Great Hall/Waiting Room is nearly complete, along with a comprehensive restoration of the Great Hall Skylight. Preservation Chicago has played an active role as a consulting partner in this process with Amtrak, the City of Chicago, and design teams, and we both recognize the challenges and applaud these amazing accomplishments.

However, the decision to include Union Station as 2018 “Chicago 7 Most Endangered” decision proved prescient when at a community meeting held on Monday, June 25, 2018, developer Riverside Investment & Development and joint-partner Convexity Properties presented architect Solomon Cordwell Buenz’s rooftop addition proposal. Surprisingly, the newer design renderings were even less compatible with the historic station than the earlier iterations. The only silver lining is that proposed rooftop addition has been universally panned as a profoundly inappropriate addition to Union Station. This strong and wide opposition makes approval by the 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly and Mayor Rahm Emanuel more difficult without a significant rethinking. A sampling of the responses to the proposed design is below.

Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic from the Chicago Tribune, laid out the existential challenge to Union Station, a Designation Chicago Landmark designed by Daniel Burnham and his successor firm in 1925 this way.

“When the City of Chicago granted [Union] Station official landmark status in 2002, it buttressed its case by noting that the station is the last great historic railroad terminal still in use in Chicago; that it’s one of the nation’s most architecturally and historically significant passenger railroad stations, and that its soaring Great Hall is one of the country’s great interior public spaces.”

So the stakes for this forlorn but beloved Landmark, designed by Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White and completed in 1925, couldn’t be higher. Which begs this question: Are we stuck with this fourth-rate design or are Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, in whose ward the station sits, going to exercise their considerable clout and push for something better?”

In his column, Blair Kamin described the proposed rooftop addition as one that “would plunk a squat modernist box atop the existing structure’s neo-classical pedestal. They go together as well as Rauner and Pritzker, the City Council and ethics reform.”

“The seven-story addition and its 404 rental apartments would bring to the forlorn but grand train station all the grandeur of a Holiday Inn.”

“Worse, its exterior, a skeletal metal and glass grid is at odds with the station’s carefully-composed classical aesthetic. Despite the architects’ best efforts, it’s as though one era of architecture had been piled, willy-nilly, atop another.”

“The juxtaposition of past and present isn’t as violent as the spaceship-like seating bowl that’s plopped atop the classical colonnades of Soldier Field. It’s just banal, which Burnham buildings never are.”

“[The] addition design for Union Station does not inspire confidence. A building that’s part of the Burnham legacy deserves better, especially when it forms a gateway to Chicago.”

Additionally, Blair Kamin included some of the more colorful reactions to the proposed rooftop addition on social media and in response to his earlier column.

“On the web, architecture critics and sidewalk superintendents have been piling on with nasty metaphors: An ice cube for a colossal architectural headache! A self-inked address stamper! A suburban office building lifted off its foundations by a tornado and dropped atop the neo-classical station!”

According to prominent architect Edward Keegan in his review published in Crain’s Chicago Business, “The SCB scheme looks like a banal government-issue office building of the 1960s has been plunked down on top of the original. And it’s not the contrast that’s the problem…The fact that this design has been publicly unveiled is an insult to Chicago’s alleged position as a place that takes architecture seriously. It requires a complete do-over.”

Out-spoken architecture critic Lynn Becker released the following review on his twitter feed which is reprinted in its entirety,

“How can people with a proven track record of striking towers and graceful restorations come up with such a stinking rotten fish of a design?

Done by SCB in a style best described as Plop Architecture Revival, it perches atop the Burnham Company’s iconic Union Station like a gigantic vulture spaceship of mediocrity. It’s the poster child refutation of the increasingly unjustifiable old saw about Chicago as the city that “cares about architecture.”

It should be called “The Viable” since that’s the justification for the design that came up several times in last night’s unveiling. The donut of space that exists along the perimeter of the Great Hall’s giant skylight just wasn’t wide enough for double rows of pricey apartments along a central corridor. More depth. We need more depth! Hence, “The Viable” which has absolutely no justification as architecture, only as the rawest economics.

Which is doubly sad as the building it desecrates is given a masterful renovation in the SCB plan, preserving the grand entrances along Jackson and Adams and their view into the Great Hall even as they’re repurposed them as entrances to a new hotel and the apartments, respectively. The deadened Clinton Street facade is opened up, the stoned-up spaces returned to windows, and a new entrance inserted into the long ago incinerated Fred Harvey restaurant at the mid-point of the Great Hall. New lighting would accentuate the building’s best visual qualities.

Its great stuff. It’s like they spent all their talent on reviving the original building, and were left running on empty when it came to designing the addition. The Elbphilharmonie it’s not. It’s what you’d see in a dying, middle-tier rustbelt city desperate for development.

Are we that desperate?

If the Landmarks Commission doesn’t reject this design, they should fold up shop and put a big “Just Kidding” sign next to their mission statement.”

According to architecture reviewer Elizabeth Blasius in her column in The Architect’s Newspaper, “In 2004, Chicago watched historic Soldier Field become a toilet bowl. In 2019, Union Station will become a self-inked address stamper….If approved, the addition on Union Station could cause a paradigm shift in the way Chicago Landmarks are approached by potential developers, broadcasting a message that cultural and architectural resources are only of value if they are monetized to their fullest extent, and that the Landmarks Ordinance can soften in the face of economic motivators. 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. Ringing out like the 2004 renovation of Soldier Field (a project that curiously won an award for design excellence by the AIA the same year it was recommended to be stripped of its National Historic Landmark designation), this is new bullying old.”

Chicago Curbed editor Jay Koziarz questioned what the precedent of the potential rooftop addition construction would mean for the future of Chicago’s landmarks.

“Looking beyond the initial knee jerk reactions and pithy comments, the Union Station overhaul will be a key battle for preservationists with the potential to set future precedents with regards to what can be done to Chicago’s protected, historically significant buildings. The decision to move ahead ultimately lies with the city, so if you’re truly horrified give Alderman Brendan Reilly and the Chicago Landmarks Commission a call.” (Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 6/27/18)

Preservation Chicago strongly opposes any rooftop addition to Chicago Union Station. And in this case, by building across the street, the development team can easily build the additional square footage for an apartment building without adversely affecting a world-class Chicago Landmark. Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the Chicago Union Station Master Plan contemplate five new construction high-rise towers equaling over 1.5 million square feet on the blocks directly to the south of Union Station. So by transferring the buildable air rights from Union Station, the development team could recover any lost square footage. In his column, Blair Kamin endorsed this as a possible solution to this problem.

During a well-attended community meeting on June 25, Ward Miller received an enthusiastic round of applause when he said, “Rooflines, elevations, and interior volumes are protected under the landmark ordinance and we think you’re going to step over these lines. We’d like to see no building on top of this amazing station, and instead suggested transferring the additional floors to the new high-rise buildings proposed next door.” (Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 6/26/18)

Ward Miller suggested an alternate approach might be to build out an extensive rooftop terrace on the existing Union Station rooftop, which would be directly above the proposed 330-room hotel within the historic office floors. Rooftop restaurants and lounges, with both indoor and outdoor spaces, have proved to be incredibly popular and highly valuable assets for developers and building owners throughout the Loop. In some cases, the rooftop lounges have become so successful that they have become a primary income generator for the entire building and a powerful draw for the hotels within the buildings below. Examples of highly successful rooftop restaurant lounges include the Wit Hotel’s rooftop bar, Cindy’s rooftop restaurant on the roof of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, the London House rooftop restaurant, and the Peninsula Hotel’s newly opened bar. Activating Union Station’s historic rooftop with a use or series of uses that would be open to all could become a huge draw. Coupled with a hotel below, a series of rooftop restaurant, lounge, and event space would become a destination unto itself and powerfully reactive one of Chicago’s greatest landmark buildings.

The problematic architectural design came as a genuine shock to many as the developers and architect have completed many outstanding projects. Perhaps there was another silent partner that forced the hand of the design team… a fragile 100-year old building structure. While some additional building structure was included in the original building, as a step towards a contemplated possible future addition, no complete as-built column and structural drawings have been located. Therefore, knowing precisely what was constructed during the course of a sixteen-year design and construction period between 1909 and 1925, with multiple mid-project alterations, poses a significant challenge. Additionally, even if accurate as-built drawings existed, the condition and strength of these structural elements would be very hard to quantify with precision due to their significant age.

While there has been little focus on the building’s structural capacity, the current proposed design suggests that the existing structure is fragile. The 1998 Lucien Lagrange tower plan called for a pair of 17-story tower additions clad in limestone, but wisely relied heavily upon a large number of new structural columns to support the weight, which would have imposed of many new structural columns passing through the center of the Great Hall and skylight. Thankfully this plan never materialized.

The current proposed addition does not contemplate new structural columns through the Great Hall and will largely rely upon the existing structural system. To decrease stress on the existing structure, the differential loading caused by two towers has been scrapped for a donut ring design which more equally distributes the weight. A beautiful limestone façade appropriate for a neo-classical building has been scrapped and replaced with a lightweight glass and steel curtain wall. The building height has been dropped from 17 stories to seven, likely because there is legitimate concern that it is simply too risky for the building to handle any more weight.

So what level of risk is acceptable? How accurate are the engineering calculations? How real are the assumptions upon which they are based? To move forward safely, there must be absolute certainty that the building structure is sufficient to carry the new load of a new, seven story, 404-unit apartment building. However, with a nearly 100 year old structural system, it is impossible to achieve that level of certainty, unless the original structural system is either completely disassembled and rebuilt, or a new freestanding structural system is built to fully carry the entire load of the new structure. Neither option is feasible without major adverse impacts on the existing, recently restored interior spaces.

Considering the importance of this Chicago Landmark Building and its role as one of the busiest rail terminals in the United States handling approximately 140,000 passengers on an average weekday, the impact of a minor or major structural failure due to new the construction could be catastrophic in terms of impact to the building, to passengers life safety, and to the overall economy of Chicago.

Vastly simpler contemporary engineering designs have catastrophically failed, such as the FIU Sweetwater University City Pedestrian Bridge which collapsed in 2018, and much younger systems have failed such as the 41-year old I-35W Minneapolis Bridge collapsed in 2007. In the case of the I-35W, in multiple lawsuits cost tens of millions of dollars. The cause of the collapse was due to slightly undersized structural gusset plates, a flaw that had been overlooked for 40 years of inspections, and the additional weight resulting from two extra inches of concrete from resurfacing.

What level of risk is an acceptable level of risk? None.

Additional Reading

Column: Union Station plans on the wrong track, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/26/18

Column: We’re only stuck with the lousy Union Station design if we fail to rethink it. Let the debate begin, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/27/18

An insult to Chicago’s architectural bona fides, Edward Keegan, in Crain’s Chicago Business, 6/26/18

Will a proposed addition turn Chicago’s Union Station into the new Soldier Field?, Elizabeth Blasius, The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/26/18 

The Internet Isn’t A Fan Of Union Station Redesign: It Looks Like A ‘Dopey Derby Hat,’ A Fishtank, A Spaceship, Kelly Bauer, Block Club Chicago, 6/28/18

Developers unveil plan to build hotel, apartments atop Chicago’s Union Station, Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 6/26/18

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