Original publish date: June 8, 2015 Reissue date: July 3, 2019
Twenty-Five years ago this week, the single most important icon of our Capitol city’s railroad era, Union Station, reopened to much fanfare, high hopes and hoopla as a downtown destination for visitors and citizens alike. Indianapolis Union Station reopened its doors on April 26, 1986 as a festival Marketplace.
The first railroad came to Indianapolis in 1847 and within a year there were four serving the city. Railroads connected the young state capital to the rest of the nation. Over the next decade, other major rail lines would reach town. But they each had their own tracks and their own depots. In 1848, the city fathers developed an idea to build a single station that all the railroads would share. The four railroads liked the idea and in 1853 the original Union Depot was built in Indianapolis. Union Station was integral to the growth and development of antebellum Indianapolis. It was the first time in American history that all railroad trains could enter and leave a city from a single central station.
It was America’s first “union” railway depot (whose very name suggests the meeting of several railheads) but soon the idea was duplicated across the nation. Union Station united passenger and freight trains from many competing railroad companies into a single convenient downtown terminal. The station prospered for decades serving up to 200 trains and thousands of people per day. By 1870 more than a dozen railroads were now converging at the “Crossroads of America.”
Beginning in November 1886 a new station was constructed just north of the existing station, and soon a three-story, red brick and granite station with extensive vaulted Romanesque arches and a 185-foot clock tower began to rise towards the Hoosier heavens. It was that clock, with its four separate clock faces each nine feet in diameter, that would become an Indianapolis landmark for generations to come.
The station, whose focal point was a three-story structure known as the Grand Hall, was completed in late September, 1888 and by all accounts was a raving success. In the early 20th Century it was assumed that as long as the cities population grew, so would the need for trains. In 1920, Union Station was averaging 176 trains a day. That figure does not include all of the electric rail traffic in the city. The original large iron train shed was replaced with a larger, poured concrete structure. The new shed, which survives to this day, offered twelve passenger and two express freight tracks.
Some of the better documented notables known to have passed through Union Station include Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman. However, its not enough to simply state that these were the only famous names to travel through Union Station. In the age before automobile and air travel became the unconscious norm, Americans traveled by train. Every politician, every movie star, every author, every athlete, every famous (or infamous) person traveling east of the Mississippi, traveled through Union Station. Names innumerable populate the scrolls of time at Union Station.
Seventeen-year-old Thomas Edison worked at Union Station in 1864 as a Western Union telegraph operator but was fired for spending too much of his time on “useless” experiments. One of those experiments included wiring two telegraphs together, one to receive incoming messages and the other to save them, resulting in a primitive data storage device. Sadly, it broke down on the night of Abraham Lincoln’s re-election due to extraordinarily high incoming traffic and Edison was fired. Edison moved to Cincinnati shortly afterwards and perfected his device, which he called a phonograph, and the rest is history. Ironically, the golden age of Union Station runs nearly concurrently with the life of it’s most famous terminated employee, Thomas Edison (1847-1931).
Train travel dropped in the 1930s, mostly because of the Great Depression, but rebounded during World War II because so many servicemen were on the move. After the war, passenger trains were declining as the automobile and aviation industries experienced rapid growth, all but signing the death warrant of Union Station. By 1946, as post-war passenger service fell off, only 64 trains a month operated and by 1952, barely 50 passenger trains a month used the station. Over the next generation, as rail travel continued to decline, Union Station gradually became a dark, ghostly relic of a by-gone era. During the 1960s and 1970s, it suffered from the same pattern of deferred maintenance and slow decline plaguing most urban buildings.
Union Station was then owned by Penn Central, a “Frankenline” created by the merger of the old Pennsylvania and New York Central lines. A series of events including inflation, poor management, abnormally harsh weather and the withdrawal of a government-guaranteed $200-million operating loan forced the Penn Central to file for bankruptcy protection on June 21, 1970. Many of the once-powerful railroad firms were bankrupt and only six trains operated out of the station. Penn Central offered the station for sale and the decline continued when by 1971, the United States mail room closed and Amtrak was formed out of the few remaining rail lines. It looked like the grand station would be bulldozed into a parking lot. A “Save Union Station” committee scrambled to keep it from being demolished.
Mayor Richard Lugar led the effort to save the station. Hope sprang anew in 1974 when Union Station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (protecting it from demolition) and was purchased for $196,666 by a group of 21 private investors known as “Union Station Associates.” A year later, only two trains remained and four years later in 1979, “The National Limited”, which ran from New York to St. Louis, was the last passenger train to use the station for one year. The station was closed and for a few months the largely vacant Union Station became a municipal eyesore and hangout for gangs and the cities less fortunate. In 1980, the city of Indianapolis purchased the station for $434,500 and Amtrak reinstated the Hoosier State, running daily from Indianapolis to Chicago
In 1982, inspired by the success of adaptive reuse projects in comparative sized cities like Boston, Baltimore, and San Antonio, the city government stepped in to save the historic landmark. A local development team from Borns Management Corp. began a renovation project that turned the facility into a 1 million-square-foot “Urban festival marketplace.” After almost 15 years of deterioration, Union Station re-opened its doors in 1986 after a $50 million dollar facelift to much fanfare showcasing many specialty shops and fine restaurants. Local developer Robert Borns used the Federal investment tax credit program for historic structures to convert and modernize Union Station.
At first, it was a breath of fresh air and a “must see” for locals and tourists alike. For a time, the future looked bright for the renovated landmark. Crowds flocked to the urban mall in search of everything from gourmet food to fashionable clothing. Specialty shops included a magic shop, sports store and an appropriately apropos toy train store. However, it was not a longterm success, although it did stay open for about a decade. By 1989 the station reports a $2.92 million net loss and the following year, Union Station reports a $3.38 million net loss. In 1991 the Borns turn over their long-term lease for Union Station to the Balcor Co., a Skokie, Ill., finance and real estate firm that held a $23 million mortgage on the station. In 1992 station officials report business is picking up, but still ask the city to defer payments on loans the city made to the station. In 1993, the station reported turning a profit of $431,000-the first time since it’s opening in 1986 that it has been in the black.
By early 1995, Balcor Corp. puts its lease up for sale and 3 months later, USA Group Inc. buys Union Station for $3.2 million and gives most of it to the city of Indianapolis, except for the 852-car parking garage attached to property. About $ 26 million in outstanding loan payments are forgiven by governmental agencies and Balcor. A year later, three Union Station bars and restaurants shut down, citing declines in business since Circle Centre opened-leaving the station about 50 percent occupied. Faced with declining patronage and continued high maintenance costs, city officials shuttered the mall venture in 1996. It was closed for renovation on April 1, 1997 and in October 1999 the Union Station once again reopened as Crowne Plaza’s Grand Hall and Conference Center.
The old train shed became the home to the new Crowne Plaza luxury hotel. Four tracks at the north and south ends were retained, and stocked with thirteen old heavyweight Pullman cars which were converted them into hotel suites. The cars harken back to Union Station’s heyday by being named after prominent personalities known to have traveled through the train station, including Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, Jon Philip Sousa, Benjamin Harrison, Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo, P.T. Barnum, Cole Porter, Diamond Jim Brady, Amelia Earhart, Rudolph Valentino, Lillian Russell and Jean Harlow.
Perhaps as an homage to the vibrant spirits of luminaries past, Twenty-eight “Ghost People” linger around the Grand Hall at Union Station. Dressed in authentic period clothing, carrying real items from their times, each have a special story. Made of white fiberglass, they were created by Indianapolis native Gary Rittenhouse, from an idea of developers Bob and Sandra Borns, who were fascinated by the history of thousands of people beginning and ending their travels in Union Station.
Today, the station is owned by the City of Indianapolis and houses a major hotel, restaurants, a charter school and a banquet hall . A branch office of the Mexican Embassy also is located in the building, a sign of Indy’s changing demographics, and a fitting place, because this was the gateway to Indianapolis for most of the city’s immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I’ve told you why Union Station is important to Indianapolis but I have not told you why the station is important to me. It is important to me because this was the site of my first date with a pretty little girl from Frankton, Indiana way back in 1988, She was unfamiliar with the big city of Indianapolis and I was Indianapolis born and raised. I loved union Station then as I love it now. I love the history, mystique and wonder contained within it’s walls and I love the little Frankton girl whose hand quivered in mine as we walked the storied halls of this Grand Indiana landmark. In fact, Union Station was the site of our first kiss. A memory that still makes us smile. I’d like to think that our story is special, but I suspect that ours is only one of many such tales of romance and young love that can trace their genesis back to a first date or first encounter at Indianapolis Union Station. A historic tapestry that Rhonda and I are proud to be woven into.