The clock is ticking to save Union Station’s decommissioned power house as Amtrak explores its options—including demolition—for the iconic twin-smokestack structure located along the south branch of the Chicago River. Preservationists hope to see a new use for the building, but the site poses many challenges.
Vacant since 2011, the former coal-fire plant was designed in the Art Moderne style by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White in 1931. The same firm also designed Union Station itself as well as the Crawford Power Station in Little Village, which was destroyed this summer to clear the way for a massive warehouse and distribution center.
The riverfront power house is hard to reach—it’s hemmed-in by train tracks to the west, a substation to the north, and the Chicago River to the east—but is highly visible from Roosevelt Road as well as the river. It holds its own against its famous skyscraper neighbors and stands as an austere symbol of Chicago’s importance as a twentieth century rail hub.
Although site access remains an issue, Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago tells Curbed that he could see the structure repurposed. Its proximity to electric and fiber optic infrastructure, downtown’s trading exchanges, and the cooling water of the river could make it an ideal spot for a data center, Miller says. The site’s inaccessibility would provide an extra level of security.
Miller also suggests turning the building into a refrigeration facility to cool nearby buildings, similar to the massive chilling plant at nearby 300 W. Van Buren Street. Additionally, the easy-to-spot, 115-foot-tall structure could bring in advertising revenue—if done tastefully, Miller adds.
“The power house could have a tremendous future if we encourage something creative and clever,” Miller explains. “It takes imagination and a sensitive approach to rethink these kinds of buildings. London’s Tate Modern museum is in a former power house that sat empty for years. The Union Station property isn’t on that same scale, but it’s still an important and rare example of Art Moderne architecture in Chicago.”
In 2018, Amtrak sought proposals to repurpose the deteriorating structure. “Amtrak has significantly advanced its planning for the demolition of the building, but in response to the interest of the preservation community, agreed to invite proposals for preservation and adaptive reuse of the structure,” said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari in a statement. “That process took place last year and despite considerable effort by Amtrak and our consultant—including multiple extensions of the deadline—no proposals were received.”
The site faces a number of issues that will need to be addressed including hazardous material abatement, water infiltration, and a damaged river bulkhead. It will cost an estimated $13 million to tear down the power house, according to a recent Chicago Sun-Times report. No final decision has been made regarding demolition, Magliari says.
“Amtrak has been very responsive with their recent restoration of Union Station’s Great Hall, its skylight, the Burlington Room, and other historic spaces,” Miller tells Curbed. “It would be wonderful if we could encourage that same approach here. They can save millions in demolition fees by investing in the building and encouraging its reuse. We’re just asking for a little more time and flexibility to make that happen.”