Chicago’s Union Station can be more Grand (Central)

UnionFrom the Saturday, July 4, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

There are train stations. And there are destinations.

And then, in rare and wonderful instances, there are both.

Last Saturday in New York City, my wife and I visited one of those wondrous rarities when we took the “5” train to Midtown and whiled away a rainy Manhattan afternoon exploring the fabled Grand Central Station.

During our time puttering about the sprawling 48-acre terminal/tourist attraction, we lunched at The Oyster Bar – one of the city’s oldest, established in 1913 – before wandering through the eclectic array of food stands in the adjacent basement food court.

Upstairs, we strained our necks while admiring the intricacies of the Zodiac constellations painted high above the beautiful Main Concourse’s covering its towering ceiling.

Next, we sipped cocktails inside The Campbell Apartment, an opulent space that once belonged to 1920s business tycoon John C. Campbell and is now a dimly lit “speakeasy” evoking that era. Later on, we spent an hour people watching from the bar at Michael Jordan’s NYC Steakhouse on the balcony that overlooks the busy concourse below.

After finally leaving the terminal, I found myself wondering why Chicago’s own historic Union Station – which I used to visit often when I worked nearby – couldn’t be more like Grand Central. And then upon my return to Chicago, I was delighted to discover that it just may soon be.

According to a Monday report in the Chicago Tribune, Amtrak, which owns the 90-year-old Union Station, is planning to spend millions of dollars to restore and transform the transportation hub into an entertainment and tourist destination worthy of Grand Central, complete with restaurants, outdoor cafes, a hotel and even a grocery.

Capitalizing on the revitalization of the West Loop neighborhood that surrounds Union Station, Amtrak intends to open up thousands of square feet of long-shuttered space, allowing the public into palatial rooms with 33-foot-high ceilings and alcoves that haven’t been open for decades.

Back in the 1940s and ’50s during the golden age of Union Station – and passenger train travel itself – those rooms housed upscale restaurants and bustling coffee shops, along with a dance hall, men’s tailoring shops, law offices and more. Today, Union Station still features its spectacular Great Hall atrium with a 110-foot-high barrel-vaulted skylight that’s worth a visit on its own, but the rest of the facility is aging, utilitarian and largely dull. And I’ve always believed it had the potential to be so much more.

That’s why it’s exciting to read that Paul Sanders, Amtrak senior manager of facilities management at Union Station, is talking about throwing open locked doors to reveal the historical spaces hidden behind marble walls and ornamental iron bars as well as reinstalling canopies that used to drape the station’s street-level entrances.

“The West Loop is a hot real estate market, and Union Station is overdue to get a piece of the action,” said Joseph Schweiterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. “It’s remarkable these great spaces in the station have sat empty for so long.”

It is. And Sanders says the ultimate goal is to transform Union Station into a traveler’s and visitor’s venue that tops the successful retail and food and beverage offerings at Union Station in Washington, D.C., and the celebrated rail depots in Seattle and Denver.

Now, I haven’t been to any of those transit stations, so I can’t speak to how Union Station might compare. But after my weekend in New York, I do know that Union can be more Grand by making like Manhattan’s Midtown jewel and becoming not just a place where you arrive, but also one that makes you want to stay.