THREATENED: An Industrial Legacy Worth Saving: Chicago Union Station Power House MAS Context Essay by Iker Gil

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“On January 28, Preservation Chicago tweeted to alert the public about the threat of demolition of the Chicago Union Station Power House, an Art Deco-style industrial building designed by the renowned architecture office Graham, Anderson, Probst and White in 1931. Its owner, Amtrak, is requesting demolition approval in the next few days that would level the building to create a parking lot and a shed. The nonprofit preservation organization has created a petition to raise awareness of the situation and try to save the building.

“The news is, unfortunately, not surprising. The building, that has sat empty for a decade, was included in Preservation Chicago’s 2017 and 2020 Chicago 7 Most Endangered list, and in late 2019 there were articles in the news about the intention by Amtrak to demolish it. The building has a remarkable presence in the South Loop of Chicago, with its brick massing, vertical windows, and two towering black smokestacks. It is a building that exemplifies the role that Chicago has played as a hub of transportation, and more specifically, rail transportation since mid-nineteenth century.

Before and around the time of the construction of the Chicago Union Station Power House, its architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White had completed some of the most important buildings in Chicago: the nearby Old Chicago Main Post Office (1921 and expanded in 1932), The Wrigley Building (1924), the Civic Opera House (1929), the John G. Shedd Aquarium (1929), and the Merchandise Mart (1930), the largest building in the world at the time, with 4 million square feet. During those years, the office also worked for the Chicago Union Station Company completing a series infrastructure-related projects that included the Union Station (1925), a building originally designed by Daniel Burnham (Graham, Anderson, Probst and White was the successor firm of D. H. Burnham & Company).

“This is the latest threat to the industrial architecture of Chicago that is disappearing in front of our eyes.

“Here in Chicago, we have had a few successes, some of them very recent such as the remarkable reuse of the Old Chicago Main Post Office, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. After sitting vacant for decades and with some failed attempts to reuse it, it finally opened to new tenants in the fall of 2019 after an extensive renovation led by Gensler. A decade earlier, the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center opened in the former coal-fired power plant, one of the four main buildings designed by Nimmons & Fellows and part of the Sears, Roebuck and Company facilities in North Lawndale. Designed in 1905 and decommissioned in 2004, the work of Farr Associates was named Project of the Year in the 2009 Richard H. Driehaus Preservation Awards. It is worth noting that these two successful examples are also of a scale that requires a large investment. That should not discourage exploring other opportunities to reuse many other buildings of much smaller scale and easier to tackle but of equal value.

“Despite some successes, Chicago is losing its industrial heritage at an alarming rate. These are buildings that, while they might not appear in architecture guides, have an important role in the history of the city. Their spaces have unique qualities, are easily transformed into residential, commercial, or civic uses, and allow for the adaptive reuse of an existing and valuable heritage. Not everything needs to be saved, but there is no reason to demolish perfectly fine buildings that can be reused.

“And the point to make here is that buildings are important for what can happen in them, for how they can provide a remarkable framework for things to happen. Local residents, community groups, architects, landscape architects, historians, ecologists, economists, those working in public administrations, and anybody interested in the future of their community can provide ideas, ambitions, and visions of how those buildings can contribute to their lives and the city, combining analysis, observation, and participation, defining a strong relationship between place and use. The opportunities are infinite when diverse voices and perspectives are included, and we all understand the value of these buildings. But we can’t afford to wait to consider the value of the industrial buildings once the demolition permit has been issued.

“Chicago’s industry has shifted over the decades. The hard-working conditions that many people had to endure during their shifts do not have to be replicated or celebrated. However, the change in the type of industries does not require the destruction of the industrial fabric that has defined parts of the city. New uses and existing buildings are not mutually exclusive. They can complement each other, pushing the city forward in a successful and equitable way while maintain its character and qualities that have made Chicago what it is. The Chicago Union Station Power House provides an immediate opportunity to explore what we can envision for this valuable structure that has anchored this part of the city for nine decades. With a series of new residential and office buildings being built north of Bertrand Goldberg’s River City and a new neighborhood proposed across the River, this can become a great asset for the area and the city.” (Gil, Mas Context, 1/28/21)

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