Ask Geoffrey: The Early (and Late) Birds of Union Station
We were walking through the main hall to our train in Union Station and, looking up, noticed two hooded full-figured statues: one with an owl perched on her forearm and the other with a rooster. I would like to know who the artist was and the story behind them.
—Roberta Kocim, Lombard
The two golden goddess figures, which are between 12 and 14 feet tall, and their animal companions that overlook Union Station’s Great Hall symbolize the round-the-clock nature of the railroads that used Union Station when it was completed in 1925.
The figure holding the rooster and gazing skyward represents day; the one holding the owl and looking down represents night.
They were created in plaster by sculptor Henry Hering, who has a few other works around Chicago, including some of the friezes on Michigan Avenue Bridge, which is now called DuSable Bridge, and the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum caryatids, which are the columns sculpted in the figure of a woman.
The night and day figures fit right into the Beaux-Arts style of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. Union Station was proposed as part of that plan and designed by the firm of Graham Anderson Probst and White. They guard the entryway to a tunnel that passes below Canal Street leading to the train platforms.
Until 1969, there was a grand concourse at the end of that tunnel between Canal Street and the Chicago River. So in the picture above, Union station is the taller building in the upper right, and the tunnel led to the now demolished concourse above the tracks on the lower left. The design of that concourse featured arch trusses and chandeliers. Trains coming from the north and south would dead end at the concourse, making for a spectacular grand entrance to Chicago. Sadly the concourse was demolished after the railroads that owned Union Station sold the air rights above the tracks for the construction of two office buildings.
Today’s Union Station which is owned by Amtrak is in the midst of a sweeping renovation plan, some of which has already been completed.
The Great Hall stairway everyone remembers from the famous scene in “The Untouchables” was renovated by Chicago-based Goettsch Partners in 2015. The skylight in the Great Hall is undergoing restoration now and is scheduled for completion late next year – below is a video explaining how the restoration is being done.
Goettsch also completed the Metropolitan Lounge and the former barber shop is now a meeting space.
And, Goettsch spectacularly restored the former Women’s Lounge, now called the Burlington Room, bringing back to life the once-crumbling murals, ornament and light fixtures. It’s available as an event space.
Future plans include hotel rooms, retail and a food hall – and while those are still on the drawing board, there’s reason for optimism, as ridership on Amtrak has been steadily rising for the past several years.
There's so much more going on at Union Station than we could cover in this segment. Below, a longer look at the newly renovated spaces and the ongoing renovations at Union Station.
And, travel back in time to Union Station in 1943 with this set of more than 200 photos taken by the Farm Security Administration photographer Jack Delano.
I live in The Windermere House in Hyde Park. The building dates from 1923. On several of the floors, there is a metal box on the wall that says 'Chicago Watch Clock Station.' There is a hole in the boxes that looks like it might have been a button of some kind. Any idea what this could be?
—Mitchell Brown, Hyde Park
They were there to make sure security guards were doing their jobs! These stations were a mechanical way of doing something we do electronically now. They were placed at various points along a watchman’s route around a building. Each watchman carried a key with him that would fit into the stations, and as he patrolled the building, he would insert the key into each station. When he turned the key, the machine would put a time stamp on a piece of paper inside so the watchman could prove he had done his rounds.
This particular watch clock station was manufactured by Chicago’s Watchman’s Clock Works, founded in 1910. The company would eventually become Detex, which is still in business today in Texas. But now, the company makes electronic systems to accomplish security guard tour reporting.
The origins of the Windermere can actually be traced to the World’s Columbian Exposition. That’s because an earlier Hotel Windermere was built in 1892 for fair visitors.
Today’s Windermere House opened next door in 1924 as the Hotel Windermere East. The two buildings were connected by underground tunnels for guests and hotel staff.
The original hotel was demolished and replaced with a parking lot in 1959, and in 1981, the Windermere East was reconfigured into apartments. The building was renovated in 2015 to restore much of the original terrazzo, terracotta, and brass ornament.
More Ask Geoffrey:
Did you know that you can dig through our Ask Geoffrey archives? Revisit your favorite episodes, discover new secrets about the city's past, and ask Geoffrey your own questions for possible exploration in upcoming episodes. Find it all right here.
Do you have a question for Geoffrey? Ask him.