A History of the Dearborn Station

Dearborn Station is one of the oldest metropolitan railroad stations in the United States.  It is one of the few examples of a major urban terminal to survive until the present day.  The Station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1981.

The Station represents an important architectural style, the Romanesque Revival, frequently used for major public buildings in the mid-nineteenth century.  It is also architecturally significant in that it represents the work of a major American architect, Cyrus Eidlitz of New York.  Dearborn Station is historically significant in that it represents the era of growth and prosperity of the American railroads.  The Station also played an important role in the development of Chicago’s South Loop.  Prior to construction of the Station, the area contained many small residential structures.  Proximity to Dearborn Station encouraged the development of the commercial printing district on Printers’ Row in the years following the Chicago Fire.  Dearborn Station, with its massive brick tower, has always provided a visual focus for the South Loop and a visual termination for Dearborn Street.  In recent years, it has also served as important element of the Dearborn Park development.

Dearborn Station was closed to public use in 1971, and its train shed was demolished in 1976.  After more than a decade of underuse or vacancy, the landmark structure will be restored and revitalized through new ownership.  Oppmann/McLaughlin/Conner, a Cleveland and San Francisco real estate development partnership, has recently arranged to purchase the Station from Citicorp Savings.  Renovation is expected to begin in 1985.

The Context

About fifty years before the construction of Dearborn Station, the settlement of Chicago was incorporated as a city.  Its fortuitous location along Lake Michigan and near the river transport system suggested that the young city might become a shipping center.  This hope did not go unrealized; by the 1870’s, Chicago was a hub of the rapidly expanding American railroad systems.  The fire of 1871 interrupted but did not slow the growth of the city or of its railroad empires.

Dearborn Station was a primary facility of the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad, a railway company incorporated in June of 1879.  The Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad’s major tenants included the Chicago, Danville and Vincennes Railroad (later the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad); the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railroad Company (later the Wabash Railroad); and the Grand Trunk Junction Railroad (later the Grand Trunk Western Railroad, and the Chicago & Grand Trunk Railroad).

The incorporation of the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad provided track service for the aforementioned tenants and extended its track system.  The Chicago & Western Indiana tracks extended to Dolton, Illinois, a location twelve miles south of the central city.  By May 1880, the tracks had been constructed to Twelfth and State Streets, where a temporary depot was erected at the northwest corner of the intersection.
The new railroad company was successful, and a demand for new facilities resulted in a bond issue through which the five major tenant companies became owners of the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad.  The City of Chicago granted the railroad the right to build a terminal in the area bounded approximately by Twelfth Street, Harrison Street, and Third and Fourth Avenues (later Plymouth Court and Federal Streets).  As the railroad extended its tracks to Polk Street, the City agreed to open Dearborn Street from Van Buren to Polk.  This occurred in 1883, at which time the railroad began construction on a new terminal along Polk Street between Third and Fourth Avenues.

Dearborn Station was one of the three major railroad terminals constructed in Chicago during the 1880’s and 1890’s.  The others, which are no longer standing, were the Grand Central Station, designed by Solon S. Beman and constructed in 1889-1890, and the Illinois Central Station, designed by Bradford Gilbert and constructed in 1892-1893.

The Architect

The architect to receive the commission for the design of Dearborn Station was Cyrus L.W. Eidlitz (1853-1921) of New York.  Eidlitz, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, was the son of the noted New York architect Leopold Eidlitz.  Cyrus Eidlitz was educated in Switzerland, and studied architecture at the Royal Academy in Stuttgart, Germany.  After returning to New York in 1871, Eidlitz worked as a draftsman in his father’s architectural office.  Leopold Eidlitz associated with Henry H. Richardson on the design of the New York State Capital at Albany during this period, and it is possible that Cyrus Eidlitz also worked on this project.

In the 1880’s, having opened his own office, Cyrus Eidlitz received the commission for the design of Dearborn Station.  He maintained an office in New York for more than twenty-five years.  Eidlitz’s noted works include the original New York Times Building, which he designed in collaboration with Alexander Mackenzie.  Eidlitz remained in practice with Mackenzie until his retirement in 1910.

The Original Station

Construction of the new Dearborn Station began in October of 1883.  The Station opened in May of 1885, and the train shed was completed in October of that year.  The cost of the building was estimated at $400,000 to $500,000, and the director of construction was identified as Mr. J.T. Alton by contemporary periodicals.  The magazine, Railway Age, called the station “imposing and elegant”, and commented upon its “thorough and substantial” construction.

Dearborn Station was designed as a “head-type” railway terminal, in which all passengers enter or leave through a “head building” located across the end of the railroad lines.  The platforms are located between pairs of tracks and are arranged perpendicular to the head building.  This basic plan was a popular scheme for railways terminals in this era.  In a common variation on this design, wings were extended back from the head building to surround the end of the tracks on three sides.  Dearborn Station represents this plan.

When completed, the head building of Dearborn Station stretched 213 feet along the south side of Polk Street.  The main building was approximately 45 feet deep.  A wing on the west side extended 85 feet along Third Avenue.  The central portion of the building was two and one-half stories in height, with a three-story section at each corner block.  Each wing was two stories in height.  The corner blocks originally had hipped roofs, while the connecting portion and wings had gable roofs.  All of the roofs had gable-roofed dormers, and were covered by red and blue slate tile arranged in horizontal colored bands.

The main, north facade of the Station was not designed to be symmetrical.  The corner block at the east end of the main building was slightly larger that that at the west, since the east block contained the main passenger entrance and the waiting rooms.  To balance the composition of the facade, the large clock tower was located slightly to the west of center.  The tower was originally over 170 feet in height, with a steeply pitched Flemish Gothic roof.  This steeped roof was ornamented with low dormers.

The tower, which measured twenty-one feet square at the base, weighed 1,860 tons including its foundations and was supported by a 1,200 square foot footing.  The tower and walls of the Station were supported by continuous rubble stone footings.  Cast iron columns supported the floors and roof and were located on individual spread footings.  The footings of the tower and those of adjacent walls were not separated and did not employ isolated piers.  Differential settlement of the tower and north facade proved detrimental to the facade.  The tower was apparently cut away from the main building twice, to allow for settlement.

In addition to the rubble stone foundations, the major building materials of the new Station were granite, brick, terra cotta, slate, iron and glass.  The rusticated pink granite base is one story in height at the western corner, and one-half story in height at the eastern corner.  This base rises to two stories in height at the base of the tower.  The facade above the granite base is red pressed brick, with red terra cotta ornamentation.  The masonry is common bond, with horizontal decorative bands to define stringcourses.  Terracotta trim defines decorative courses, and arches above the entrance and first and third story windows.  Corbelling below the clock face in the tower provides additional decoration.

The main entrance at the corner of Polk Street and Third Avenue incorporated three large archways at each corner.  An iron canopy projecting over the sidewalk protected the facade.  The first floor of the Station, located at sidewalk grade, contained the main entrance, waiting rooms and a lobby.  The main lobby provided access to the ticket offices, waiting rooms, bathrooms and a vestibule leading to the train shed.  The Third Avenue wing held a large restaurant dining room and a baggage room, while the Fourth Avenue wing held a ladies’ waiting room.

The Station also included a full basement that housed heating facilities, a barbershop, the restaurant kitchen, and storage areas.  Contemporary accounts noted an “emigrants’ waiting room” also located in the basement.  The second and third floors of the Station, reached by iron staircases, contained offices of the railroad and its tenant companies.

The interior of the Station originally featured many amenities.  Within a few years of construction, both the Station and its yard were lighted by electric light, and innovation at the time.  Some rooms had fireplaces.  Finishes were hardwood, including floors and wainscoting in the offices.  In public spaces, floors were tile with glazed brick ornament.  Decoration in the lobbies and dining room were especially elaborate.  One journal described stained glass transoms in the restaurant at the northwest corner of the Station.

A large concourse was located south of the original Station and between the east and west wings.  The 135-foot by 30-foot concourse was surrounded by an ornamental iron fence and gates that divided it from the Station and tracks.  The concourse was maintained as an open space during the early years of the Station’s history.

In contrast to the modern Station, the train shed was old-fashioned even at the time of construction.  The style and type of construction employed in the shed had been in use in the United States for over fifty years when Dearborn Station was built.  The sixty-foot high train shed extended behind the main building to the south, between the two wings.  The shed roof was composed of three parallel roofs supported by timber and wrought iron trusses approximately sixteen feet on center.  The main shed truss spanned sixty-five feet, with a smaller shed roof on either side.  A louvered monitor vent extended along each roof.  Four pairs of tracks ran along north-south axes beneath the 165-foot by 700-foot train shed.

South of the west wing of the Station along Fourth Avenue, a one-story brick building provided space for a baggage room.  A heating plant was located in the basement of this 310-foot by 40-foot structure.  The Express Buildings were located south of this baggage building.  Additional baggage handling facilities were located at the south ends of the east and west wings of the main Station.  United States mail was handled at the south end of the west wing of the main Station.


The fortunes of Dearborn Station closely followed the fortunes of the American railroad industry.  In the early years of the Station’s history, it grew in accordance with the expansion of the railway system.  The prominent Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe became a tenant of the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad in 1887.  In 1891, in preparation for the Columbian Exposition, expansion of the facility involved changes to tracks, switches, baggage handling areas and ticket offices to accommodate increased volume of use.  These changes were completed in 1891 and 1892, and in 1893 an electric plant was installed to replace the gas lighting system.  By the end of the decade, Dearborn Station served twenty-five railway lines, 122 trains and approximately 17,000 passengers per day.

The passenger terminal and its adjacent facilities covered the area from Twelfth to Polk Streets, and from Third to Fourth Avenues (Plymouth Court to Federal Street).  Tenant companies of the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad had constructed inbound and outbound freight buildings and additional tracks to the east, west and south of the Station.  Express buildings were added, and a second story was added to the baggage facility on Plymouth Court to provide additional office space.  Accommodations for increased United States mail freight were provided south of the west wing of the main Station.

The volume of passenger business also increased, and additional station area was needed.  In 1914, tenement houses on the east side of Plymouth Court between Polk and Taylor Streets were razed and an Annex Station was constructed along Polk Street.  The Annex Station was a one-story brick building containing a large waiting room, approximately 100 feet by 30 feet in size.  South of the waiting area was a 100 feet by 30 feet in size.  South of the waiting area was a 100 foot by 20-foot concourse with six tracks along north-south axes.  The tracks and low platforms were covered by umbrella sheds.  In 1920, additional space within the main Station was provided when its main concourse was enclosed and heated, created an additional waiting area.

On December 21, 1922, a fire started in the tower of the main Station.  The fire spread quickly, and the roof, upper floor and attic of the Station were destroyed.  Employees and passenger were ordered to leave the Station, and there were no injuries or fatalities.  So efficient was the organization of the Station personnel that all baggage and mail was saved from the fire.  A ticket office and waiting room were quickly provided in the nearby Station Annex, and trains were barely delayed by the fire.

After the fire, the Station was rapidly reconstructed under the direction of the engineering and architectural staffs of the Santa Fe Railroad.  The Santa Fe magazine attributed the restoration design to the influence of the 1890 Grand Central Station.  The original steep pitched roofs of the Station were replaced by flat roofs with parapet walls.  An extra floor was added to the connecting wings of the main building, to make them the same height as the three-story corner blocks.

Continuing increases in passenger and freight business resulted in the further expansion of the Station facilities.  In 1924, stores and tenement buildings on the west side of State Street south of Polk Street were demolished.  A timber platform and canopy were constructed for United States mail service.  The station and throat tracks and the lead tracks south of Taylor Street were rearranged.  Tracks and platforms were lengthened, and covered by steel canopies supported by steel trusses.  In 1925, the old concourse of the main Station was removed and a new waiting room was build between the two wings of the original buildings.  A new heated, enclosed concourse was constructed south of this new waiting room.

In 1930, further expansion of the mail handling facilities was completed.  Mail handling that had previously taken place on open platforms on the east side of Federal Street south of Polk Street and on platforms west of State Street and south of Polk Street.  A 100-foot by 500-foot reinforced concrete and brick building was constructed along State Street, with a two-story, 100 foot by 175-foot head house.  Truck unloading platforms were built along the alley south of Polk Street.  Four tracks along north-south axes were reached from reinforced concrete platforms.  The tracks and platform were covered by a 100-foot by 350-foot train shed.  The flat steel roof of the train shed had eighteen-inch continuous smoke vents over the center of each track.

In 1931, South Loop businessmen who were disturbed about the expansion of railway facilities and tracks in their neighborhood attempted to tear up a portion of the tracks during the night.  The railroads had learned of this attempt in advance, and the plot was foiled by a train that passed back and forth over the section of tracks throughout the night.  Another significant threat to the Station came in 1940, when the city considered condemning the Station for street construction.  Objections from the railroads successfully stopped this program.

Throughout the next several decades, modifications to the general appearance of the Station continued.  The canopy across the east corner block of the facade was extended across the north elevation of the Station, and along the east facade of the west corner block.  In 1946, the entrance was remodeled at the ground floor level, but the original building fabric was retained.  Some of the arched entranceways on the first floor were bricked in.  Many changes were made to the interior of the Station in the interests of modernization, and many of the original amenities were lost.  A few decorative features of the interior, such as the ornamental column capitals and the iron stair railing of the clock tower stairs were preserved.

By the 1960’s, continued expansion of American highway systems and airline service was leading to a decline in the railroads’ business.  In 1967, the Santa Fe Railroad eliminated three of its seven daily departures from Dearborn Station.  Four of the other five tenant railroads also ended some of their daily runs.  In May 1971, the Station closed to passengers.  The upper floors of the main building continued to house railroad offices.  Until 1976, the underused Station nonetheless remained intact, an example of a historically and architecturally significant railroad terminal.  In that year, amid much controversy, the train shed was demolished by the Station’s owners.  The unique shed, an example of old-fashioned timber and wrought iron trussed shed construction, was demolished despite its potential landmark status.  The head building and wings were, however, left nearly intact.


The following provided information for this report.

Chicago Historical Society

Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks

Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois