Blue Line beauty in eye of buffs


By Brett McNeil
Tribune staff reporter

Date of Publication: October 27, 2003
Source: Chicago Tribune


Tour takers get a look under the "L" tracks at Damen station on the Blue Line. Sunday's tour of stations along the line drew 40 people who paid $33 each and rode a charter train. For a larger view, click here. (Tribune photo by Jose More)

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

Like a long, dark winter or a prairie landscape, the Blue Line is an acquired taste.

Still, the Chicago Transit Authority's no-frills rapid transit line to the West and Northwest Sides has its adherents.

"It's eclectic, that's for sure," said Graham Garfield. "It's a patchwork, of a lot of different types of construction combined into one line."

A CTA planner who maintains the online archives at, Garfield helped organize the first historic tour of Chicago's "L" stations five years ago, and in the years since they have become sellouts at $33 a head. The tour Sunday, conducted on a four-car charter train, focused on the oft-overlooked subtleties of Blue Line station design.

"One of the things people always comment on is that the subway platforms in Chicago are so austere," Garfield told a group of 40 people waiting inside the LaSalle Street station. "But remember, at the time they were designed [the 1930s], ornamentation was old-fashioned."

Rather than replicating the fancy iron grillwork found on portions of the Blue Line's elevated platforms, designers of the subway stations opted for an Art Moderne style: clean ceramic-tile walls, stark cement floors and informational signs written in a lean, crisp typeface called Futura.

John Craib-Cox, an architectural historian, came along as a guide to aesthetics and general trivia. During the four-hour tour he explained such finer points as how to gauge the age of a rivet on an "L" support beam and why stations built during the 1960s are easier to clean than those built in the 1890s. Mostly, though, he stuck to building styles.

On the LaSalle Street platform, Craib-Cox pointed to the station's arched ceiling and said, "Although this is very simple, it's got a unity of construction to it."

People on the tour, many of them repeat customers, nodded in agreement.

Tony Coppoletta, 24, of the city's West Lawn neighborhood was on his fourth "L" tour.

"Since I was a teenager and they opened the Orange Line to my part of the city, I've been interested in the `L,'" Coppoletta said. "For me it was an enabler. It allowed me to see the rest of the city."

Oak Lawn resident Rod Balla, 52, and his son Ryan, 16, were taking their second tour in as many years. Balla explained that their interest in rapid transit history is sort of futuristic.

"We believe that the automobile will be history in about 70 years," he said.

Even on a train full of self-described "rail fans," Balla's prediction was a little out there. Most simply said they like learning about Chicago's mass-transit culture.

Kathy Fink, 39, of Winnetka brought her son, Andrew, 13, for his first tour Sunday. Even as chaperon to an unabashed train buff, Fink said she found herself interested in an everyday place like the Belmont station.

"I didn't realize [the Chicago architectural firm] Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was involved in the design," she said after Garfield explained the station's history. "I think a lot of people rushing through don't notice, either."

Art Gilfand, 48, of Lakeview was on his third tour Sunday--and plans to be back next year.

"After riding these trains for the last 40 years, I've been on every line, on every inch of track in the city," he said. "I'm obsessed with it, and I'm just glad to see other people equally obsessed with it."


Copyright (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune