Happy sixth day of Christmas, fellow roadies! Isn’t the fifth day really the best? Five gold rings sure beats all those drummers, pipers, dancing maids and prancing lords, not to mention all the bickering poultry. Did you have a lovely solstice? Or did you try to duck all the misrule, uproar and unwelcome relatives that come with Saturnalia? (Lindsey Davis’s novel Saturnalia in the Marcus Didius Falco historical mystery series will give you an excellent idea about that last bit, without having to endure the family politics yourselves.) Well, we’re still putting away the wrapping paper and ribbons, eating leftovers, and writing thank-you notes ourselves, so it’s time for a diversion: part two of our pre-holiday architectural building tours on Route 66 in Chicago.
If the Rookery Building represents early Daniel Burnham, Union Station is posthumous Daniel Burnham. The station was a prominent part of Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, in which he and his assistant Edward H. Bennett laid out future plans for the reorganization and redesign of Chicago. Nobody expected to accomplish all of this at once; the plan was intended to be a guide for the city’s redesign and development over many years. Some of it was accomplished; much of it wasn’t, if only because Burnham died in 1912 during a European tour (seeing how inaccurate medicine was back then, the best guess is that it was either blood poisoning from an infection on his leg, possibly complicated by diabetes, or a heart attack that was a result of all of the above). However, all of it has guided the city’s growth across the decades at least in spirit, even if the Chicago Plan Commission didn’t execute all of the details. Still, Bennett used the Burnham plan to complete construction of our lengthy Lake Shore Drive and the Grant Park we know and love today – though not Millennium Park, the northwest corner of Grant Park that was redeveloped a century later – and plan commissioners have used it to guide further development of the lakefront in particular.
Most of the design work for Union Station fell to Peirce Anderson. All four of the ‘name’ principals in the firm, Anderson included, had worked for Daniel Burnham, so they knew what he had in mind. They had been there when he’d drawn city plans and designed monumental railway stations for other cities, including Washington, DC. Burnham had always needed someone more artistic to replace Root so that he could set the parameters and concentrate on the broad outlines, organization, floor plans and distribution of space while someone else tended to artistic details, and he found several such people in succession to employ at D.H. Burnham & Co. In founding the first modern architectural practice with John Wellborn Root, Burnham had had more than a simple division of labor between himself and Root: D.H. Burnham & Co. had an architectural staff, a mechanical engineering staff, an electrical engineering staff, civil engineering, and so on. These guys didn’t handle every single aspect of a building themselves – they had a team for that.
Even the METRA website, however, still gives primary plaudits to Burnham: “Union Station was designed by the great architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, who died before construction began, and completed by the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. It opened in 1925 after 10 years of work at a cost of $75 million. Its centerpiece is the grand waiting room, a Beaux Arts jewel known as the Great Hall. ”
Peirce Anderson kept Burnham’s preferred Beaux Arts/Classical Revival style but added his own touches. One of the precepts of Classical design is symmetry. For example, if you have a staircase punctuating a wall, it usually has the same amount of space on either side – it’s not off center – or else it’s at one end and has a twin at the other. Another giveaway is the use of Classical columns. Taken together, those two features used for a large public space can’t help but make that space feel like a Greek or Roman temple or forum.
So, too, with Union Station: it has the Classical feel of a grand public space that is part temple, part forum. Enter the great passenger hall, and you’ll immediately notice that the space is divided symmetrically, adding to its monumental feel. Even the niches and entrances to smaller rooms on the long sides are symmetrically placed. The columns, in this case, are of three kinds, but they’re not all of the Greco-Roman variety: Doric and Ionic are present, yes, but the ones you think are Corinthian are, upon closer examination, a hybrid or composite style and not true Corinthian. Potato, po-tah-to. They’re still Neoclassical. And the big room even has its own statuary, not unlike a temple. If you look high above the eastern staircase, you’ll see two figures placed almost near the top of the wall. The one on your left is Night, holding an owl; the other is Day.
The torchieres in the passenger hall – tall standing light sconces – are also of an elaborate hybrid style and were also Peirce Anderson’s addition. Not surprising, really, when you consider that this is the same man who was reputedly responsible for designing the two ornate clocks perched on the corners of the Marshall Field & Company State Street store building (which, incidentally, is a National Historic Landmark in addition to being listed on the NRHP). Anderson had a nice way with ornament that must have grudgingly pleased even that master of architectural ornament, Louis Sullivan, who could definitely be a Grinch about other people’s work. The torchieres are impressive. Still, we prefer the Field’s clock. You may not. But go look at both yourselves.
When Union Station first opened, it must have been really something. Sumptuous travertine walls, marble stairs, highly polished brass railings, elegant lighting, statuary, all that light pouring in from the glass-block skylight of the great hall, and all those amenities … a person might be easily impressed, or even feel a bit daunted if he were from the sticks and had never seen anything like it before. At either end of the western wall of the great hall were two smaller chambers, one a ladies’ lounge where women could relax and stretch out on couches, corral their children and let them nap, even get their nails done – it had everything but a hair salon. The men’s lounge was similar, in that it had almost anything that a gentleman faced with a long wait could want, except that it also had a shoeshine stand. In the passenger hall between the entrances to the two lounges was a stand where people waiting on the benches could get a quick snack; a full-service restaurant was tucked to one side near the corridor to the comer depot, with another below stairs run by the Fred Harvey chain.
The covered tunnel on the north side of the building, through which first carriages, then taxis drove in to drop off customers, is now protected by a guard gate and no longer accessible to the public – a victim of sensible security concerns after 9/11. However, the big eastern staircase from the great passenger hall (which is actually below street level) leads up to Canal Street, where the buses line up. It is on this very staircase, we were informed, that the famous scene with the runaway baby carriage in the movie The Untouchables was filmed. Sure enough, there’s a display to one side of the staircase that not only describes the staircase but lets you see a short film clip of that scene (if you haven’t seen it, we won’t spoil it for you). Next to it is a display about the station itself, full of facts and numbers. We won’t spoil that, either.
The short corridor beneath Canal Street that connects the great hall to the commuter depot or concourse on the east side of Canal has a small fountain at the passenger hall end (a restaurant is still tucked into the north side of the hallway between the fountain and great hall, but obviously someone else runs it now). The fountain and the surrounding Art Deco/Art Moderne lighting and renovation in that area is part of the station’s overall renovation in recent years, the design of which was undertaken by Lucien Lagrange Associates. We know: except for the fountain and the wall sconces, and maybe a paint job, you can’t tell that they did much at all with the commuter concourse. That’s because when renovation began, Lagrange had no idea just how expensive the restoration of Union Station – especially removing the tar from the skylight in the great hall – would be. After the restoration work, there wasn’t much money left for renovation, but Lagrange did what he could.
The tar, incidentally, was imposed upon the innocent exterior of the passenger hall skylight for blackout purposes during World War II, to keep the station safe from Nazi bombardiers (who, clearly, never got past North American coastal defenses, making Chicago much safer than either coast). The tar was much easier to apply than remove, of course, and the government wasn’t offering any funding for the latter, what with the returning GIs needing benefits and jobs, etc.; so the removal was postponed after the war as long as possible. This rendered the spacious passenger hall dark, cave-like and claustrophobic, robbing it of its glory for half a century (nobody would have wanted to rent that as a special events venue) – a half-century during which train travel precipitously declined as automobile travel increased. Perhaps that was another reason the station managers felt no urgency about removing the tar. At least now, people can see what they’ve been missing.
Our guide spent some time discussing the subject of building skyscrapers by first securing air rights above railroad tracks or other such obstacles, a concept pioneered in Chicago. As there are other buildings and complexes that also depended on air rights for development, that’s a subject for another discussion that we won’t go into here. But we will mention the greenhouse-like glass shed roofs that cover the boarding areas, something else that was used in a new way here. They don’t look like much from above, just long rows of glass sticking up from a shed roof, but they were needed to illuminate the stub ends where the tracks meet the station. You can see them from the ‘bridge’ on the south side of Jackson Boulevard, across from the Gateway Center III building on Riverside Plaza that stands above the station’s commuter entrance, just west of the river and the real bridge.
Union Station is still an Amtrak terminal as well as a commuter station, but it gets far more use daily as the latter. The double stub-end tracks below grade make this the only station in the U.S. where northbound and southbound tracks for different railroads end at the same place. On any given work day, 300 trains arrive at and leave from the station. That’s a lot of commuters. In fact, that may be why another major upgrade is needed and why city hall has that in mind (albeit a little at a time, after the Great Recession and given the city’s perennial budget crunch). Union Station is a city landmark and is NRHP listed.
No trip to the LaSalle Street financial district (remember that we visited the Rookery after Union Station) would be complete without a visit to the Money Museum. Money, you say? In a museum?? That’s for spending! Or saving. What were they thinking??? Well, it’s at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, where all they do is think about money, so there you go. It’s down at the opposite end of the block from the Rookery, which makes the Fed very convenient for a same-day visit. Naturally, you don’t get to wander about the building: even to see the first-floor museum, the guard still has to scan you and check you out.
They do have an informative guided tour of the various displays about the forms and origins of legal tender, but you can also just walk yourself around as we did (especially if you see no profit in receiving a token goodie-bag of shredded cash at the end; we decided to skip that). One highlight is a very helpful display that tells you how to spot counterfeit bills. There’s also a billboard-type display where you can give Ben Franklin your face, heh heh. Charming! You can also walk over a see-through window in the floor that reveals a pool of various coins from different eras.
It’s actually more fun, though, to pose for pictures next to a big cube containing a million $1 bills, a pile of tens equaling a million dollars, or – my favorite – a shiny Halliburton case with $1 million in $100 bills. Not too bulky to take on the train with you, and very smart and stylish, too, though not for a nanosecond should anyone think that you could even bump that briefcase without alarms going off everywhere (and you’d have to get out the same way you got in: past the guard). An armored car surrounded by a platoon of Kevlar-covered sharpshooters would be easier to rob. So no naughty thoughts, boys and girls. But I can think of a relevant variation of that blues song in which the always entertaining Pearl Bailey asks Santa to bring her a five-pound box of money. Not the whole money tree, just the five pounds. That Halliburton with the million in cash weighs more than two Chicago phone directories, but I’d gladly use it for weight training if Santa wants to bring me one of those. Just saying: Try me; just try me. Bring it on home to me, honey.
And with that, Joe and I were headed back toward Union Station. We did stop in at the J.W. Marriott on Adams Street on the way, better known as the former Continental and Commercial Bank Building, for which it was built (later, City National Bank occupied it), but that was just to take a peek at their Christmas decorations. The building was one of the very last commissions that Daniel Burnham’s firm received before he died – and, in fact, it was completed in 1914, two years after he passed away. It’s been beautifully restored and a dozen floors are now converted to hotel rooms (581), suites (29) and meeting rooms (41), with the rest remaining office space accessed by the LaSalle Street side entrance. But alas, we couldn’t linger that day to enjoy it; being pressed for time, we didn’t stop at the lobby bar for a drink and only took a few snaps. Besides, we were headed back down Adams and Ogden Avenue to the Cicero-Berwyn border for a very late lunch at Henry’s Drive-In, then back home to the ’burbs.
That was a mighty full day for our downtown excursion, thankfully one that saw no bad weather or traffic snarls. And at the end of it, we were treated to Chicago-style hot dogs on Route 66, early twilight, and one of those great photo opportunities when it’s still light out but the electric lights and neon signs are lit. Love it.
A cozy and blessed winter season to you, a groovy Kwanzaa to those who are still celebrating, and merriest New Year to all! See you soon on the route.
Your gleeful road scholars,
Marie and Joe