Chicago is Spelled With an "L"


By Jean Marbella

Date of Publication: April 18, 2001
Source: Baltimore Sun


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.

Other cities have elevated transit systems, but no other city has its identity so inextricably linked to the tracks as Chicago. The city's downtown, after all, is called the Loop for the complete circle - actually a rectangle - that the elevated tracks make around the city's core.

"This massive steel structure that snakes through the city evokes the character of the city," says Graham Garfield, an L aficionado and urban planning student at the University of Illinois. "It does tell the story of the city."

Other cities have opted to replace elevated lines with subways, particularly in their downtown areas - and because of that, Chicago's Garfield stop might be the nation's oldest remaining elevated station, according to the landmark commission.

In Chicago, it's hard to imagine the Loop without its loop.

"Periodically, there would be calls to get rid of those unsightly elevated tracks, but at this point, they're pretty much here to stay," says Garfield, who runs a Web site devoted to L history and news.

The L, more than a subway, is an intimate mode of travel: The tracks in many places skirt buildings so closely that, if the train car windows opened, you could reach inside the offices and apartments.

"Chicagoans feel a personal connection to the L, " says Garfield, whose Web site has profiles of some but not all of the 143 stations. "I get e-mails from people, 'Why isn't my station there?' People take a real ownership of where they get on and off. The stations really are a gateway to the neighborhood."

The city's landmarks commission granted preliminary landmark status to the station in December. The commission is discussing the designation with the CTA, before deciding whether to forward the proposal to the City Council. The council would then vote on whether to grant landmark status. The process of designating a landmark, which protects the building from demolition except in the most dire of circumstances, takes about a year.

If the Garfield station is named a landmark, it will be the first L stop to receive the city designation, although other stations are either on the National Register of Historic Places or are part of a neighborhood that is considered a historic district.

The Garfield station is still in use, but the CTA is building a new station on the other side of the boulevard as part of a larger project to update the Green Line and comply with new accessibility requirements. What will happen to the old station once the new one opens is unknown, but preservationists hope it will remain in use, perhaps as a newsstand or other business.

"We'd really would like to see it used," Goeken says. "Preservation is not just about creating museum pieces."