The Union Station Power House as seen from Roosevelt Road looking north with downtown Chicago in the background.

The Union Station Power House is on the brink of being demolished to create a parking lot for Amtrak, according to Preservation Chicago. The group is hoping to work with the city and find a developer to preserve the building as an architectural testament to the city’s industrial past.

Eric Allix Rogers/Preservation Chicago

Iconic South Loop power station, facing wrecking ball, should be saved instead, preservationists say

Preservation Chicago hopes to find a developer for the old Union Station Power House, a monument to the city’s industrial past.

An old coal-fired power plant might not be the first idea that comes to mind when Chicagoans think of buildings in need of saving in the city, but a group of preservationists are calling for just that.

Vacant since 2011, the old Union Station Power House is an example of the city’s industrial roots and a monument to its history as a mover of people and freight, according to Preservation Chicago’s Executive Director Ward Miller.

Preservation Chicago has the old “boiler plant” listed as one of the seven most threatened buildings in the city and is making a last-ditch effort to save the building by finding someone who will give it new life.

“We’re still hoping to find a developer that can reuse it and to get the city involved,” Miller said when reached by phone earlier this week. “We want more opportunity to have [the public’s] voices to be heard and determine if there is a way to avoid demolition.”

Whether its future holds a second life as a data center, an addition to the city’s expanding Riverwalk or something even more distinctive, the building should be saved for future generations to enjoy, Miller said, noting that London’s Tate Modern Museum was once the Bankside Power Station.

When seen from Roosevelt Road while crossing the Chicago River’s south branch, the boxy building’s large, twin smoke stacks rise into the sky with some of the city’s most iconic architecture as its backdrop.

The old Union Station Power House along the Chicago River’s south branch.

The old Union Station Power House should be saved as an example of the city’s industrial past and saved for future generations, according to Preservation Chicago.

Eric Allix Rogers/Preservation Chicago

If it looks familiar in style to Union Station, that’s because it was designed and built in the early 1930s by the same firm, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. The power station once supplied the massive amount of energy needed to run Union Station and its surrounding infrastructure.

When the power it produced was no longer needed, the building was shuttered around 2011, though it likely wasn’t operating at full capacity in the preceding years.

“I think it’s been a long, slow decline,” Miller said.

Amtrak’s plan would turn the lot into a parking lot at a cost of $13 million, according to Miller, who cited documents the organization has seen through their work as a consulting party on the project. He believes a decision to demolish the building could be made in the next couple of months.

Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, which currently owns the building, said no final decisions have been made on what will happen to the building but said the structure “is deteriorating rapidly and presents safety concerns.”

“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,” Magliari said.

Amtrak solicited proposals for the reuse of the structure in 2018, with no success.

“Despite considerable effort by Amtrak and our consultant — including multiple extensions of the deadline — no proposals were received,” he said.

Any final decision on what happens to the building will be subject to review by outside stakeholders including the city and preservationists, he said.

Being bordered by the river and rail yard and without public access by foot or car has made touring the building difficult, Miller said. And as a former power plant, it comes with the possibility of hazardous materials waiting inside.

“There’s probably asbestos and coal particles,” Miller said. “We understand this undertaking is a Herculean task.”

Amtrak said other issues with the building include water infiltration in the basement, its proximity to ComEd facilities and a damaged river bulkhead that will require repair.

But someone with the ambition and a creative set of eyes could likely find interesting ways to repurpose some of the building’s industrial elements — the massive boilers for example — Miller speculated.

The building also sits near an area that could soon see major infrastructure improvements as part of “The 78” development, including extending Taylor Street across the river.

Preservation Chicago, working alongside other groups, has seen a lot of recent success — the revitalization of the old Cook County Hospital, Old Main Post Office and, with the cooperation of Amtrak, improvements to Union Station.

“This could be another great example. ... The river is really thought of these days as the second lakefront,” Miller said.

“We only have a handful of these old railroad buildings left.”

The twin smokestacks of the Union Station Power House, a defunct coal-fired power plant that once provided electricity to Union Station and its surrounding infrastructure, frame Willis Tower.

The twin smokestacks of the Union Station Power House, a defunct coal-fired power plant that once provided electricity to Union Station and its surrounding infrastructure, frame Willis Tower.

Eric Allix Rogers/Preservation Chicago

The Latest
Crochet hasn’t allowed a run in his last 13 innings
Many people are flocking to social media for healthcare guidance from online quacks and laypersons, research shows. A recent University of Chicago study on TikTok videos regarding sinus infections is a case in point.
The focus in Chicago has centered on consent decree compliance levels and deadlines, but that will never give a true look at the improvements that have been made across CPD. The work we are doing is not about getting out of the consent decree as fast as we can
A science reporter shares a rare moment of awe surrounded by strangers gathered to experience the natural phenomenon that occurs every 221 years.
Noon Whistle Pub’s timely offering is made with the real insects.