JOLIET – A glimpse into the city’s Union Station’s future can be seen through the windows of locked doors these days.
Union Station, which opened in 1912 as the hub for train travel in Joliet, has been largely closed off to the public since commuter platforms were moved to the other side of the tracks in September. Joliet is building a modern train station, anticipated to open in 2016.
The move cleared out most of the business that was being done at Union Station.
A long-standing coffee shop closed down without enough commuters passing by to support it. The Amtrak office moved to a temporary trailer to be closer to where commuters now board trains. Metra moved there, too.
The Metra ticket office is being converted to a bridal room – a sign that there is a future for a Union Station without train commuters.
The Grand Ballroom
The Grand Ballroom at Union Station, the second-floor banquet facility, is getting new space no longer shared with train commuters.
“The bottom line is it’s not a working train station anymore,” said Linda Gawel, who does marketing for The Grand Ballroom.
That’s not a bad thing as far as she is concerned.
Commuters moving up and down the stairs and hall just outside the banquet facility made it difficult at times to show off the ballroom to future brides, Gawel said.
“We would like our brides to know it’s a private area now,” she said. “People aren’t moving around anymore. It’s a great thing.”
The Grand Ballroom has moved some furniture and plants into what used to be the train station’s main lobby. The area is closed to the public, but can be seen through the windows on the locked doors.
The Grand Ballroom is operated by the same business that runs Patrick C. Haley Mansion, an old Joliet home in the St. Pat’s Neighborhood converted into a banquet facility. Both places offer unique, historic settings for weddings and other special occasions.
Having the place more to themselves should be an incentive for brides and others checking out the location, Gawel said.
“We see how interested people are, coming in and knowing it’s not a working train station,” she said.
But the Grand Ballroom is not taking the entire station.
A glimpse through the windows of the locked doors into the lobby also shows the building is half empty. The Grand Ballroom is free to use the space for an “experiment” because no one else is using the station.
“They are experimenting on using the main lobby as a pre-event area,” said Kendall Jackson, planning director for the City of Joliet, which owns Union Station. “They would have maybe a bar set up there and maybe have a band. They said some of their clients would really like this space.”
Whether the Grand Ballroom could use the space depends on what else – if anything – moves into Union Station.
Except for the Metra ticket office, nothing has replaced the other operations that moved out.
The city has a nibble from the federal government, which is checking out space for a potential office for an unnamed agency.
But that office would only take about a third of the space formerly occupied by Bar Blu, the last of a few failed restaurant ventures at Union Station. But for the Grand Ballroom, which operates primarily on weekends, and the coffee shop, which operated only during the morning commute, the city has never found retailers, restaurants or office users that stayed long at Union Station.
‘An irreplaceable landmark’
Local railroad historian Bill Molony points to The Dearborn Station in Chicago as an example of a classic train station put to new use. The station, built in the 1880s, was unused for years before being successfully redeveloped as part of the city’s Printer’s Row District, he said.
Union Station is one of two train stations designed by Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt, who also designed Union Station in Kansas City. The Kansas City station also was renovated in the 1990s. It still is an Amtrak stop, but also is used for museum exhibits, contains a live theater and is home to an interactive Science City.
Molony, president of the Blackhawk Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, called of the Joliet station “an irreplaceable landmark. What you’re talking about is adaptive re-use of the building. ... Whether it ends up being used as office space or for some other purpose, with all the redevelopment in Joliet that the city and county have in mind, I think it will be put to use.”
A transportation campus
The Grand Ballroom, in business for 15 years, does offer hope for Union Station.
It is one business that has proved durable since the city sought commercial tenants after major renovations were completed in 1991 to preserve Union Station.
The city hopes the latest upgrades, creating a modern public transit facility around Union Station, will attract interest in the historic building’s commercial potential.
A new bus station will be next door. While the new train station is on the other side of the tracks, it’s close by.
A police substation is located in Union Station. Eventually, the substation will be the center for a system of security cameras that watch the transportation complex, including Union Station.
“That building will be integrated as part of the entire transportation campus,” Jackson said. “If there is someone who would benefit from being that close to public transit services for whatever reasons, that space could be attractive.”