Joliet’s Union Station turns 100. What’s next?
By Bob Okon firstname.lastname@example.org October 12, 2012 6:08PM
Bill Molony, president of the Blackhawk Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, holds up historic photo from the same spot at Union Station in Joliet, Illinois, Tuesday, October 9, 2012. The Blackhawk Chapter is holding a banquet Sunday, Oct. 14th to mark the 100th Anniversary of the station. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun Times Media
Updated: November 15, 2012 6:12AM
JOLIET — It’s 100 years later. Trains still matter. So does Joliet’s Union Station.
Joliet is counting on trains to play a new role in its economic future, even as the 100th anniversary of Union Station marks a time when the city’s classic train depot is being relegated to a new purpose.
That anniversary will be celebrated Sunday at a party commemorating the Oct. 14, 1912 banquet that regaled the opening of the station.
“The original banquet 100 years ago had 450 people. We couldn’t quite match that,” said Bill Molony, who expects about 100 at the celebration.
A good turnout nonetheless.
The event was organized by the Blackhawk Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.
Molony is president of the chapter, and he said the benchmark date for Union Station indeed is something to celebrate.
“It’s been a landmark in Joliet for the last 100 years,” Molony said.
It’s also been a functional train station for 100 years. That will change in the next few years as the city builds a new station as part of a transportation center that will be designed to bring trains, buses, taxis, rental cars and even bicycles into one convenient spot for people who are looking for an alternative to typical automobile travel.
Union Station will become a pass-through point for travelers on their way to the new train depot and central bus stop. City officials hope increased traffic, some of which could come from Joliet’s new role in the future high-speed rail corridor from Chicago to St. Louis, will attract unique food shops, small stores and other businesses to Union Station.
Built with a limestone exterior, marble floors, palladium windows and other throwbacks to another time and another century, Union Station does offer a unique setting.
“It’s beautiful,” said Megan Hozzian, a college student from New Lenox who goes through the station to pick up the Amtrak train to Illinois State University. “I didn’t realize it was 100 years old.”
A major renovation of the station was completed in 1991. But it began to show wear and tear again until the city of Joliet, a part-owner of the station, stepped up maintenance this year.
While care of the station may keep it from showing its true age, its early 20th Century architecture does give it a distinguished look.
“I like it from the outside,” Hozzian said. “It sets itself apart from everything else out there.”
Even in Joliet, where it’s not unusual to find buildings that are 100 years old, there is nothing quite like Union Station.
It was built, Molony said, at a time when railroad stations were symbols of civic pride and typically marked a visitor’s introduction to a city.
“From the 1850s to the 1950s the railroad station was the front door to every community,” Molony said. “The new school teacher, the catalog salesman, the traveling salesman all came to town on the trains.”
The city hopes that high-speed rail will help recreate some of that busy hub atmosphere of 100 years ago. But the station will have to be reinvented to make that happen.
Even while it continues its role as a train station today, it’s hardly the place it was back in 1912 or even 1950 for that matter.
It’s the first floor of the station that the city hopes to convert to food shops and stores. There would have been no room for such uses back in the day, said James Haller, the city’s director of community and economic development and a train buff.
When you walked into Union Station decades ago, the ticket windows were on your right and the baggage area was on your left, Haller said. The traveler then walked upstairs to wait for the train, but the entire first floor was used for station operations, he said.
“Almost all of the lower level was used for baggage,” he said. “There were freight elevators that took the baggage to the upper level.”
The upper level now consists of ticket windows, waiting areas, and The Grand Ballroom, a banquet facility that offers a unique setting for wedding receptions and other events. It’s where the anniversary banquet will take place Sunday.
First-time visitors often don’t realize that The Grand Ballroom is located in a working train station, said Lori Franze, who manages the banquet facility.
“First of all, they say, ‘Oh my God, it’s a train station,’” she said. “Then they’re pleasantly surprised.”
Yes, you can hear the trains rumble outside, and the banquet facility itself has the classic echo of the grand train stations of yesteryear. It formerly was the waiting area, where passengers would bide their time on long wooden benches until their trains arrived.
The station was designed by Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt, who also designed another Union Station in Kansas City that opened two years after Joliet’s station and is still there today. Kansas City’s Union Station has the kinds of stores and food shops that Joliet would like to see.
Galeion Nailing, a server who works at the banquet hall, thinks it can happen here.
He describes Union Station in a crescendo of adjectives: “Very nice, marvelous, spectacular.”
“There’s a lot of potential,” Nailing said. “A lot of people come through here.”