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North Western Terminal (Chicago)

Published: October 21, 2023

By: Adam Burns

The Chicago and North Western Terminal, also known as simply the North Western Terminal, is one of downtown Chicago's great train stations.

It was originally built in 1911 by the Chicago and North Western Railway and served as a major transportation hub for the city.  The facility not only handled all of the C&NW's long distance trains, like the '400' fleet and Union Pacific's City streamliners, but also its local suburban commuter services.

The terminal was rebuilt in the 1980s and renamed in honor of Richard B. Ogilvie, a former governor of Illinois and chairman of the North Western Railway.

Today, it is known as the Ogilvie Transportation Center, and serves three commuter rail lines of the Metra system and offers various retail and dining options.

028682735872358236982096728639827.jpgA postcard scene of Northwestern Terminal, located at Madison and Canal Streets in downtown Chicago, during the 1950s.

History

The story of the Chicago and North Western Terminal began in the early 20th century, achieved its zenith, went through a decline, and was eventually given a fresh lease of life through conversion into the Ogilvie Transportation Center. This iconic structure has played a pivotal role in the history of Chicago, and particularly, its transportation system.

The architectural design of the terminal was spearheaded by the critically acclaimed architect Charles Sumner Frost. Having designed several train stations in his career, Frost brought an unmatched expertise and deep understanding of the intricate requirements needed for the railway terminal’s architecture.

Opening

The exact date the terminal opened to the public was March 8, 1911. This marked a significant advancement in the city's transportation infrastructure, catering to a large network of commuters, and fostering the growth of the industrialized city.

To erect this colossal structure, an estimated $20 million was spent - a substantial sum for the era. This expenditure illustrates the value the Chicago and North Western Railway company placed on developing a state-of-the-art hub for transport.

The building, designed in neoclassical style, evokes an aura of elegance, grandeur, and resilience, marking it as a true testament to the Golden Age of American railroads.

At A Glance

Architect
Charles Sumner Frost
Material
Bedford limestone
Construction Cost
$20 Million
Location
500 West Madison Street
Tracks
16
Island Platforms
8
Train Shed Length
894 Feet
Peak Usage (Historic)
120,000 Passengers
Open Date
March 8, 1911
Rebuilt
1984-1987

The North Western Terminal was constructed primarily using Bedford limestone. This stone type was particularly favored during the time for its durability, and contributed significantly to the station's grand and timeless appeal.

The terminal was strategically positioned within the bustling precinct of West Madison Street in Chicago. The site was chosen for its convenient proximity to the city center and accessibility, a decision that would shape the growth and development of the neighborhood.

The Chicago and North Western Terminal had 16 tracks, catering to the dense network of railway services running in and out of the city. The facility was designed for efficiency and the simultaneous functioning of multiple railway services.

At its peak, the terminal served an estimated 120,000 passengers each day, testifying to its importance as a vital transport hub and the rapid growth of commuter and long-distance rail travel in the era.

Of Chicago's six great passenger terminals, only Central Station (Illinois Central) and North Western Terminal were served by individual railroads.

All of the Chicago & North Western's notable streamliners served North Western Terminal, including names like the Ashland Limited, Twin Cities 400Dakota 400, Duluth-Superior Limited, Flambeau 400, Kate Shelley 400, North Western Limited, Peninsula 400, and the Shoreland/Valley 400.

Decline

However, the terminal's importance dwindled with the declining significance of rail travel beginning in the mid-20th century. The rise of air travel and highways led to a gradual decrease in passenger counts.

In 1984, the head house was razed and replaced with by the Citicorp Center (now Accenture Tower), a 42-story glass and steel structure.  It was completed in 1987. 

Repurposed

In 1991 Metra acquired the station and the following year began to completely repurpose the existing structure for commuter service.   This transition symbolizes the adaptive nature of the city, its infrastructure, and the evolving demands of public transportation.  In 1997 it was renamed as the Ogilvie Transportation Center.

One of the unique features of the Chicago and North Western Terminal was its inherent adaptability. Even in the face of changing transportation trends, the terminal was able to evolve and continue to serve the city's residents.

Despite its repurposing, the building still retains elements of its original décor, reflecting the sophistication of classical architectural design while accommodating the requirements of a modern transportation station.

Over the course of its transformation, the terminal has managed to seamlessly integrate old-world charm with contemporary functionality. The fusion of the classic centralized clock under a grand rotunda, alongside modern technological amenities for commuters, serves as the perfect rendition of the past meeting the present.

The Chicago and North Western Terminal has also been the subject of numerous artistic interpretations due to its aesthetic appeal, featuring regularly in paintings and photographs and contributing to its iconic status.

Its role in popular culture not only showcases the grandeur of the building but also serves as a testament to its importance in the lives of countless Chicagoans.

Although no longer serving the same purpose as when it was built, the building continues to stand as a symbol of the city's vibrant past and dynamic future. Today, as the Ogilvie Transportation Center, it continues to contribute significantly to the city’s transportation network.

The North Western Terminal’s legacy continues to inspire architects and city planners due to its resilience, adaptability, and continuous service to the people of Chicago.

The landmark terminal also offers invaluable insights into the society and economy of early 20th century Chicago, and stands as a reminder of the city's perseverance and everlasting commitment to progress.

An examination of this terminal serves as a unique study of urban strategy, historic preservation, and adaptive reuse, offering lessons in various academic fields, from urban planning to architectural design and transportation history.

In essence, the story of the Chicago and North Western Terminal is a narrative of evolution, showcasing the city of Chicago’s unwavering commitment to meritorious architecture, effective transport systems, and historic preservation.

Notwithstanding its controversies and challenges, the terminal has proven its worth time and again, serving as a cornerstone of Chicago's transportation system, a symbol of the city's architectural prowess, and a source of pride for its citizens.

As a significant architectural achievement of the Chicago and North Western, the terminal serves as a testament to the company's significant influence in shaping the transportation landscape of the region.

The terminal's rich narrative underlines the crucial role it played during the heyday of railway transportation, and it continues to hold an important place in the chronicles of American railroad history.

The North Western Terminal's story represents more than just a railway terminal’s lifecycle from its inception, decline, and eventual reincarnation. It symbolizes the spirit of a city that cherishes its history while embracing progress and innovation.

It is a testament to the timeless appeal of such infrastructural endeavors and how they continue to influence societal dynamics and cityscapes across centuries.

Its architectural achievements, coupled with its service to the city's denizens for over a century, places it in a unique position within the realms of city planning, architecture, transportation history, and cultural studies.

Whether viewed as a snapshot of a transportation era long gone, or an embodiment of architectural excellence coupled with functional adaptability, the terminal's impact is undeniably profound.

It stands as a vivid illustration of human endeavor, resourcefulness, and resilience in the face of adversities and changing times.

The terminal not only represents a physical, stone-and-mortar entity, but also an entity alive with stories, histories, and memories. It does more than merely linking spaces; it serves as a link across time.


Today

Remarkably, the North Western Terminal contributes not just to the historical and architectural spheres of Chicago, but spawns an expansive geopolitical imprint by fostering connections beyond its immediate physicality and chronology.

The ceaseless journey of the terminal invites contemplation on the wider implications and influences a single structure can command across societal, cultural, and historical contexts.

In conclusion, the North Western Terminal’s journey serves as an invaluable reservoir for academia, research, and society. Its story transcends its physical presence, narrating a timeless tale of innovation, evolution, socio-economic progress, and the relentless spirit of a remarkable city – Chicago.

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