I recently looked into the history and architecture of Chicago train stations and how they effect their communities. I dug into a few stations I’ve frequented and as I looked into the Wilson Red Line stop, I realized that the story of the Uptown station history deserved its own post. Don’t forget that we always love bringing tour guests to Uptown’s historic entertainment district on the Jazz, Blues, and Beyond tour.
I lived in Uptown when I first moved to Chicago, so this station holds a special significance. I was always intrigued by the classical revival station on the northwest corner of Wilson Ave. and N. Broadway and, unlike many Chicagoans, never thought the neighborhood all that bad. So when I saw that the platform was slated for a $203 million renovation in an act of neighborhood revitalization, I was curious about its effect on the community and the fate of the station.
History of the Uptown Station
First, I was surprised to find that Uptown Station, although historic, is not anywhere near the original station. In fact, a Frank Lloyd Wright building, circa 1909, had once occupied the land. The rare example of a Frank Lloyd Wright commercial building lasted for only 13 years before it was torn down for the construction of the current classical revival transportation hub.
It was William Gibb, mentioned in part 1, who designed the original station house at Wilson in 1900 which sat atop the elevated tracks. Wilson originally served as the terminal for the Northwestern Elevated Railroad and included a repair shop, a street-level rail yard and the Wilson Shops, (all seen in this photo here). The quickly expanding needs of the station led to architect Arthur U. Gerber’s Lower Wilson built in 1907, a modest craftsman style station at street-level which handled express lines from Wilson. Lower Wilson was then redesigned in 1917 to facilitate the needs of the stop, by then a through station towards Evanston, and later demolished when Uptown Station was built in 1922.
A New Station for the Roaring ’20s
By then, Uptown had become the hottest commercial and entertainment district, especially for Jazz, on the city’s north side, in large part to increased access via the ‘L.’ On our Jazz, Blues and Beyond tour we further explore the history of the neighborhood’s heyday and its decline into a more transitory population. The once grand and ornate station that offered men’s and women’s restrooms, a barber shop and a smoking lounge was chopped up and became home to A&B Food Mart, later Popeye’s Chicken and is now mostly vacant.
Wilson has been considered “the crustiest station in the city,” according to an article in DNAinfo, and often feared by Chicagoans who aren’t as familiar with the neighborhood. I looked at the Chicago Tribune crime report for Uptown and compared the data to that of neighboring neighborhood Lakeview, considered to be safer than Uptown. If you look at the latest data as well as the last 365 days, across the board, Lakeview has more occurrences of crime in almost all categories save for narcotics. In property crimes alone, Lakeview has over twice the number of crime occurrences if not more over the past year than Uptown.
A Contemporary Update
So how does this new development of the Wilson red line really fit in? Its part of a development scheme for the entire neighborhood based on ideas of increased safety and, according to the alderman James Cappleman, “an environment that embraces everyone.” Although I’m curious how proposed luxury housing embraces the current neighborhood community and wonder if Uptown is really that dangerous, I hope to see local businesses, like the Ace Hardware that has been there since at least the 1950s, thrive with the new redesign. I am also delighted to see that the historic Uptown Station will be restored as part of the $203 million renovation, rather than meet the same fate as its predecessors.
–Jenn Harrman, Tour Guide