This was easily my favorite essay for my writing class this quarter, chiefly because I got to stick my nose in to two great loves: architecture, and trains. It’s about Chicago Union Station, and that means it’s all about COOL STUFF. Well, except the food court. Food court people are scary, man.

On Making No Small Plans

Of all the Amtrak trips I’ve taken, there are really only two stations that stand out in my mind: Washington DC Union Station, and Chicago’s Union Station. Texarkana is a room with a television in it; Flagstaff, Arizona has a room with a bench and a car rental desk. Atlanta and Bloomington/Normal are just anonymous waiting areas that could be confused for a Greyhound station; St. Louis actually is also a Greyhound station. The name of the game now is economy, for there are so few remaining passengers, and, outside of the Beltway routes that they use personally, Congress doesn’t see a point to rail transit. Why would anyone choose take a slow, bumpy train when airplanes are so much faster and more modern? Even a fan like me must admit that the golden age of rail transit is behind us, and there is no longer much reason to have a landmark building to send passengers to faraway places. But a few of these old grand buildings still stand, clinging on to their intended roles.

Daniel Burnham is a regular player in most stories about building Chicago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is he who gets credit for the eponymous Burnham Plan, the 1909 “Plan of Chicago,” though it was co-written with another author; and it was he who forcefully drove the design of the 1893 World’s Fair, Chicago’s White City. Both of these projects are still in evidence today, 98 years after his death.

One of the six stated intentions of the Burnham Plan, the radical proposed redesign of the City of Chicago that was intended to provide for improved conditions of city life for all its people, was to improve the freight and passenger rail transport in the city. At the turn of the century, Chicago was a major rail hub, for both freight and passenger traffic. Everyone knows that, but what is less well known is that it wasn’t entirely by happenstance. There was no magical confluence of population and waterways and commodities that just meant that Chicago was clearly the only place a rail hub could develop. As is only right and just, given our traditions of civic governance, there were machinations involved to make this happen.

The first railroad in Chicago was chartered in 1836 and laying rail by the late 1840s, kicking off a mad rush to grant land and bring railroads in. Fifty years later, over twenty-two rail companies served Chicago, ferrying people, livestock, and goods in all directions. The independence of all these new rail companies meant that the train stations went where there happened to be room to put them, at the time. A passenger might arrive on an Illinois Central train at Chicago Central Station, at Roosevelt and Michigan, then have to walk over to Harrison and Wells to catch an outbound train at Chicago Grand Central Station. Scattered elsewhere throughout the Loop were Chicago Northwestern Station, La Salle Street station, Dearborn Station, and the first Union Station. They could have made it a little more decentralized, but they would have had to work at it.

The Burnham Plan proposed to consolidate these six passenger terminals into new multi-company complexes just to the south and to the west of the Loop. To this end, Daniel Burnham was commissioned to design the new Union Station. From Clinton Street on the west to the Chicago River on the east, Union Station sits between Jackson on the south and Adams to the north, bisected by Canal Street – two full city blocks. But Burnham never saw a train arrive at the station; he died thirteen years before its completion.

Burnham was a fan of the Beaux-Arts tradition, which was a neoclassical style that had originated in Paris. He was such a dedicated adherent that, after the 1893 World’s Fair, he invited another up-and-coming local architect to go to France and study at l’École des Beaux-Arts on his dime – luckily for the Prairie School, Frank Lloyd Wright declined. Undeterred by this, or by Louis Sullivan’s vocal discontent with the White City of the Fair, Burnham continued in this style and, when several railroads banded together to commission Chicago Union Station for their needs, this is the style he used for Union Station’s design.
The Great Hall of Union Station, a cavernous room nearly a full city block in size, is the crown jewel of the station. The exterior of the building is neoclassical Greco-Roman: tall, with a grand arcade at the entrance, fronted with massive columns. It is imposing, but not particularly stunning. That happens once you get inside.

Inside, the ceiling is lofted a hundred feet overhead, creating a huge echoing chamber topped by a skylight that bathes the room in light on a sunny day. Decorative fluted columns with elaborate capitals border the walls and entrances, and tall lamps with standards in the same elaborate style are dotted around the edges to provide light when the sun fails. Galleries, ideal for people-watching, surround the room on an upper story on three sides. And when it comes time to catch your train, your walk to the concourse is watched by two statues: one figure, holding a rooster, represents Day, and the other, with an owl, represents Night, and together they stand guard over rail travelers at all hours.

Entering the Great Hall from the entrances on Canal Street, one descends one of two Grand Staircases – everything is grand, at Union Station – into the huge waiting area, set with benches. This area is timeless: instead of seeing a commuter make her way down this Grand Staircase, step back and see a flapper instead, with cropped hair and a scandalously short dress, descending with high heels clicking on the steps, laughing and planning to hit a jazz club later that night. Or see a solemn man in uniform carrying a canvas duffel, on his way to France, Korea, or Viet Nam. Look at a family, and imagine them just arriving, carrying bags up the stairs instead of down – they could be some of the 7 million Black Americans who left the South in a Great Migration that began after World War I and continued until the 1970s, some half million of whom chose to remain here and create the Chicago of today.

Whoever you see in the Great Hall, see them walking. It’s not a place for sitting still. There’s no real need. Metra commuter trains operating out of Union Station don’t even require advance ticketing, so you can run through the station at the last minute and jump on before the doors close. Amtrak trains require buying a ticket in advance, but unlike airlines with tedious security checkpoints and required advance check-in times lest your overbooked seat be given away, arriving fifteen minutes before departure is plenty of time – as long as you have the time to get through this vast station and down the platform to your train in time, you’re good. Even though the Great Hall is for waiting, only a few people actually do so.

The dramatic architecture of the old Union Station is there, and has been there for 85 years, boldly stating that in Chicago, things are so great and so grand that we can go to these exaggerated lengths to create a dramatic theatre, just for any old person to spend a few minutes walking through. But the human drama taking place in the newer part of the station is no less impressive for its lack of splendor or its transience. The Concourse of Union Station, where passengers go to board their trains, is confusing and cacophonous. Metra commuters on autopilot head directly for their customary platforms, not even bothering to check the departures monitors to tell them where to go. Passengers just off an Amtrak train haul wheeled bags and luggage through the disorganized crowds, just trying to find someplace with a sign to tell them where they should go. Signage is in short supply in some areas, so the smart bet is to follow traffic that looks like it knows where it’s going, and hope they’re not heading for a train to Libertyville. Caught up in the current, sooner or later you’ll wash up on the concourse’s shore, and because we all know what you’ve just gone through, there’s a bar waiting to greet you with cheap beer on tap and, best of all, a clear route to the exit.

So, was Daniel Burnham’s goal, to simplify rail in Chicago, both worthy of his attention, and achieved through the design of Union Station? Arguably, no. While he could not have foreseen the fall of rail travel in the second half of the twentieth century, a fall which effectively wiped out the need for efficient intercity passenger handling in the Loop, he also could not force the hands of the railroads to join together under one roof in the first half of the century. Today, Union Station is the only intercity passenger rail station left in Chicago, but that is due to lack of demand; if Union Pacific decided tomorrow to start hauling in passengers from Wisconsin, it could just as easily terminate trains at Ogilvie. In fact, intercity service remained at the other terminals until traffic died down and the different railways got out of the passenger business.

Some of those terminals still remain, in various configurations: the original Northwestern Station, another neoclassical station, was demolished and replaced with a modern office tower, with Metra commuter rail service in the first-floor Ogilvie Transportation Center. La Salle Street Station takes commuters from the base of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange building to far-flung suburbs. Dearborn Station still stands, but its rails are gone; today, it’s a shopping center. Other stations are long since gone: Central Station remains in name only, as a tiny slice of a neighborhood between the Museum Campus and Lake Shore Drive to the east and the South Loop to its west, bordered by Indiana Avenue. And an empty lot sits next to the river at Harrison Street, where Grand Central Station was until it was demolished in 1971.

That said, I’ll throw my hat in on the side of success for Burnham. Because Union Station remains, and it still serves over fifty thousand passengers daily, shuttling them in to and out of the center of town. The Loop may or may not be the beating heart of Chicago, depending on where your geographical loyalties lie, but it’s certainly a close enough approximation, and it is fitting to greet people with such a fine reminder of why making grand plans is worthy, and how to do so still has the power to stir the heart of man, even a hundred years on.