A New Glass-And-Steel Transit Station By Ross Barney Architects Returns The ‘L’ To A Chicago Neighborhood Transitioning From Skid Row To Lofts And The Good Life.
Last May, for the first time in more than 60 years, a train stopped at Morgan and Lake streets at the western edge of the Chicago Loop. Since 1893, the intersection had been home to a stop on the commuter rail line leading from the central business district to the western suburb of Oak Park. But a changing neighborhood and reduced demand meant that the station was declared obsolete in 1948, and instead of stopping, the trains began passing through.
The neighborhood has undergone massive changes over the years—morphing from the center of the city’s fresh food industry at Fulton Market, to a desolate stretch bordering Chicago’s Skid Row. But recently, changing demographics, loft conversions, and an influx of boutiques and new residents have caused the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), which owns the station, and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), who operates it, to rethink the status of the long-defunct stop.
CDOT commissioned local firm Ross Barney Architects, which has designed several other stations in the system, to breathe new life into Morgan Street. “What you’re really trying to do is identify transportation as you come upon it. You’re not trying to hide it,” says principal Carol Ross Barney, FAIA. “The CTA was interested in a station that looked the way they want people to perceive CTA service: efficient and quick.”
The staggered inbound and outbound platforms are flanked by two glass and stainless steel enclosed towers—an airy contrast to the heavy metal infrastructure supporting the elevated tracks. The aging track structure had to be fortified before it could withstand the weight of the new station, and new precast concrete platforms were put into place.
The towers themselves are connected by a pedestrian bridge that spans above the trains. But the bridge isn’t just for looks. The CTA operates its stations under a system of free and fare zones; once a person passes through one of the turnstiles at street level, it becomes impossible to exit and re-enter without incurring another charge. The bridge allows riders the freedom to enter the fare zone on either side of the station and make their way to either platform.
Other design decisions were similarly driven by a careful balance of aesthetics and pragmatics. The glass-enclosed stair towers are covered on three sides by perforated stainless steel panels that add dimension during daylight hours, but also offer protection against CDOT’s number one enemy: graffiti. “It used to be that the major threat for graffiti was spray paint,” Ross Barney says, noting that former Mayor Richard M. Daley banned the sale of spray paint in the city in 1992.
“The really artistic taggers still go buy paint,” Ross Barney says, “but the guys who just want to tag for immortality started using diamond dust and hand engravers. So then the glass was vulnerable.” The stainless steel panels covering the glass prevent the etching from taking place, but the combination also lends the towers a “nice ethereal feeling,” Ross Barney says.
The architects also used the perforated stainless steel panels along the station platforms as guardrails and wind breaks lining the backs of canopies that shelter commuters from rain and snow. The canopies are topped with sheets of turquoise-toned polycarbonate that, Ross Barney says, are far cheaper and easier to maintain than glass panels.
The majority of the canopies along the platform feature these polycarbonate shades, but at the far reaches of the station only the painted-steel framework is present. That is because, even though the CTA currently only runs four- or six-car trains on the line, they wanted the station to be designed to accommodate eight-car trains as ridership grows. “This way, they can add a canopy as they need it,” Ross Barney explains.
As the neighborhood continues its resurgence, that kind of flexibility is key, but so was creating a design that is “of its time,” Ross Barney says—as opposed to slipping the station invisibly into the urban fabric. “If I had to classify the building, I’d say that it’s very simple, but it’s very hopeful,” Ross Barney adds. “I think that what we did is an accurate reflection of how people feel about cities: They are being renewed.”