Chicago is spelled with an `L'

SUN JOURNAL

Transit: The Windy City considers making an official historic landmark of the oldest station in its signature elevated train system.

April 18, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO - They came by the millions to the most celebrated event of the era, the World's Fair of 1893. To reach the wondrous show on the city's South Side - including grand pavilions, exotic exhibits from around the world and engineering feats such as the world's first Ferris wheel - they came by land, sea and even movable sidewalk.

But most came by train, including a new commuter line with tracks elevated high above the street - the first line in what would ultimately become Chicago's signature mode of transit: the "L."

The fair is long gone - part of the glory of such an event is its evanescence - and just one train station from that L line remains, at Garfield Boulevard. To protect this final link to the L's beginnings, the city is considering declaring the station a historic landmark, protecting it from potential demolition.

The Garfield station, on what is now the L's Green Line near the University of Chicago, is a humble, one-story structure of surprising charm in the midst of a decaying neighborhood of crumbling buildings and empty lots.

Built in the Arts and Crafts style of its era, the station has a bowed front topped by a wide, conical roof and exposed beams and rafters. Unfortunately, one of its most distinctive features, some decorative brickwork in a two-toned, diamond pattern, is hidden under a coat of white paint, and a small, arched window on the side has been bricked over.

Designating the Garfield station a landmark would acknowledge the role that the L has played in the city's history and identity, says Brian Goeken, deputy commissioner of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. "The L is such a unique feature of Chicago. Other cities have elevated systems, but we're the one known for it," he says.

While landmark status often goes to a city's monumental buildings - its cathedrals and museums, its mansions and temples to government or commerce - the Garfield designation would pay tribute to everyday people and their everyday lives.

"We often honor the high-style buildings, the famous architects, the homes of the wealthy," Goeken says. "But this is how average people lived. Regular people passed through these doors. The Vanderbilts weren't riding the L."

The station is the sole survivor of the South Side Rapid Transit Co., a privately owned commuter line that began operating in 1892 from downtown Chicago south to 39th Street. It was known as the "Alley L" because its elevated tracks were squeezed above the alley between State Street and Wabash Avenue downtown.

The opening of the line couldn't have been more felicitous: Congress had selected Chicago over New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., as the host of the World's Fair - known as the Columbian Exposition, to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World - and the city was busy building up the 633-acre site.

The boastful Chicago leaders who launched an all-out campaign for the fair also succeeded in garnering an enduring nickname for their town: At the height of the competition for the fair, a newspaper in New York advised readers against paying heed to the "nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not hold a world's fair even if they won it."

Roughly a quarter of the country's population visited the fair, to see exhibits such as the Egyptian pavilion that re-created a Cairo street scene, and buildings designed by an all-star cast of architects and erected on grounds laid out by master landscaper Frederick Law Olmstead.

The site for the fair was Jackson Park on the lake front around 63rd Street. The South Side Rapid Transit Co. capitalized on the huge influx of visitors to the city - about 27.5 million people would attend the fair during its six-month run - by extending its line farther south to the fairgrounds. The transit company built new elevated tracks, again above alleys, stretching the line from 40th Street to 63rd Street.

Of the seven stations built as part of the extension, only Garfield Boulevard, which is also 55th Street, remains intact. The terminus at Jackson Park was torn down after the fair ended, and other stations have since been closed, demolished, drastically altered or completely rebuilt.

Other transit companies similarly built small lines serving northern and western parts of town. Eventually the companies consolidated to form the basis of today's many-tentacled bus and L system, which since 1947 has been operated by a government agency, the Chicago Transit Authority.

The Garfield stop now is one of 143 L stations and is near the southern end of the system's Green Line. About 1,100 rapid transit cars traverse 222 miles of L tracks (some of which actually go underground into subway tunnels) over seven different routes. The CTA estimates that the L makes about a half-million passenger trips a day.

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