Anyone who’s seen “The Untouchables,” the Kevin Costner version, has an idea of how stunning Chicago’s Union Station used to be.
The famous baby-carriage scene in the 1987 film showed some of the station’s beauty, set on marble steps flanked by brass railings that flowed into a huge room. It suggested what used to be the reality: Union Station was the O’Hare International Airport from the mid-’20s until the Korean War, the meeting place for the nation.
The famous Union Station staircase scene from “The Untouchables.”
Recently, Crain’s photographer Manuel Martinez and I got a chance to look at what is hidden behind the walls of the million-square-foot structure. And, despite tarnish and dust and soot, it’s a lot.
One of the many hidden areas of Union Station that commuters don’t see.
Tucked behind impervious walls and locked doors or accessed only by keyed elevators is a different world—700,000 or so square feet of empty but usable space, below, which station owner Amtrak is seeking partners to redevelop.
The entire west wall of the building, flanking the Great Hall, used to be a mass of men and women’s lounges, a 17-barber barbershop and three-story Fred Harvey House Restaurant, both a cafe and a fine-dining room.
Above, historic photos of Union Station’s cafe, barbershop and dining room. Below, the barbershop then and now.
The cafe closed after a fire in 1981 and is empty—except for the Christmas decorations and fixtures stored in a corner, the blackened walls and the boarded-up three-story windows.
One small room in the station has been redeveloped as a lounge with Wi-Fi, satellite and other perks, at $20 a day. But at the moment, that’s about it.
The redeveloped lounge.
There’s almost as much space on the east wall, underneath Canal Street. That used to be high-end retail, with a Marshall Field’s-esque look. Included: a false exterior wall with no ceiling (below), designed to give retailers a place to display their wares to pedestrians and to let a little more natural light enter. One section is being eyed for an indoor/outdoor cafe. Another room, once used to sell tickets, is being remodeled into a lounge for first-class passengers.
The remains of the false exterior wall today.
Lightwells are a frequent feature of the building, which was partially designed by Daniel Burham—of Burnham Plan fame—before his death. “Daniel Burnham was a pain in the butt because he was a build-forever (type of guy),” says Amtrak building manager Paul Sanders. “Well, guess what. We’re at forever.”
That’s seen even better upstairs, in the seven empty floors that used to house railroad offices and that flank the Great Hall’s glass atrium, which, miraculously, is still there.
Above, a now-empty area where a new first-class lounge could be located.
The offices are empty, stripped to the walls, wheelchair accessible and ready for development, Sanders enthuses.
A walled-off area in Union Station that used to house a women’s lounge.
The area collectively is referred to as the station headhouse, and Amtrak is hoping to return it to what it looked like when it opened after 10 years of construction in 1925—and to make a few bucks off of it, too.
Union Station’s Great Hall, then and now.
Amtrak also is hoping to peddle adjoining air rights, too. If responses come in to its bid requests, the passenger rail service will get some badly needed money. And Chicago will get a piece of its history back.
Changes coming? Above, Union Station’s cafe, then and now.
Update, 12: 45 p.m. — In a somewhat related matter, two Illinois Democrats, Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Dan Lipinski, have been named to the Senate/House conference committee that will hammer out the first multi-year road and transit bill in a decade.
The bill at the moment does not include financing for Amtrak, which is expected to be funded in a separate bill. But one key item is support for freight rail, with several projects in the pipeline that would help unclog Union Station, which was built as a long-distance rail hub but now mostly houses Metra’s commuter service. There’s also some pots of money at issue that Amtrak could tap for Union Station work.
Lipinski told me in an interview that his priorities in the conference include freight rail, as well as securing the somewhat higher overall spending level the Senate wants. Lipinski said he believes funding problems involving Chicago Transit Authority projects—especially extension of the Red Line south to the city limits and rebuilding the Red Line north—appear to have been taken care of. But the situation remains flexible until a bill is enacted.
Present-day photos by Manuel Martinez; historic photos via Amtrak.