Get to Know an ‘L’ Station: Racine

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[Jacob Kolar/Chicago Patterns]

Bemoaned for their cracked concrete and flaking paint, it’s clear the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Blue Line stations along the Forest Park branch are unloved. Yet, look past the aesthetic shortcomings caused by deferred maintenance and general neglect and this branch is a shining example of the Modernism that became prevalent after World War II. Perhaps no station better communicates this Modernism than Racine. Sandwiched between two of the most popular stations on the branch in Illinois Medical District and UIC-Halsted, Racine has been neglected and thus retains its near-original appearance. As the CTA invests in more renovation work each year, Racine sits idle, a great example of 1950’s architecture & design.

About the Branch

When the CTA was established in October 1947, it took over a large network of train lines, as well as bus and streetcar services. Most of the train lines were elevated with the exception of the recently finished State Street Subway and the still-under-construction Dearborn Street Subway. Facing the Auto Age and the increasing suburbanization of the United States, they moved quickly on several cost-cutting measures, such as closing entire branches of train lines and converting streetcars to buses.

[Jacob Kolar/Chicago Patterns]

By the 1950’s, the CTA’s austerity was over and they were ready to invest in their first large-scale infrastructure project, a brand new train line to be built concurrent with and in the median of the Eisenhower Expressway. An existing elevated line was to be demolished and a new, novel type of rapid transit would be built. The idea was to create a transportation corridor, with four car lanes and two train tracks in each direction, moving people from the near western suburbs to the cusp of the Loop as quickly as possible. Island platforms were built in the median of the expressway and ramps of concrete and steel ascended from each end, attaching to the overpasses above. This improved connectivity, as almost all of the major north/south thoroughfares had an entrance as they passed over the expressway.

In some ways, the original vision of the branch has faltered. The California, Central, and Kostner stations have since been closed and a few of the auxiliary entrances have as well, which has diminished the connectivity to the neighborhoods it serves. The second train track, meant to offer express service, has never been built. Nonetheless, the transportation corridor idea proved successful to the point that train lines were later built in the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway and the Kennedy Expressway.

[Jacob Kolar/Chicago Patterns]

About the Station

Racine is a great example of the original design aesthetic employed from UIC-Halsted all the way to Forest Park. Glazed brick in an eggshell blue color, popular in new construction American kitchens at the time, is used for exterior cladding. Glazed block of the exact same color is used for the interior at both Racine and Loomis. Staggered glass blocks allow light to enter the station house.

In an effort to provide some variety, different bricks were used for different stations. The California and Cicero stops make use of the same color as Racine, while other stations employ cladding in a cream color. In Oak Park, stations received brown brick without glazing and auxiliary entrances were constructed of only glass and steel.

[Chicago Transit Authority collection]

Atop the entrance and auxiliary entrance was a neon sign saying ‘Use Rapid Transit’ and ‘_ Minutes To Loop’, which were later removed. Also removed were the original doors and handles, the latter made to look like the CTA’s mid-century logo.

[Jacob Kolar/Chicago Patterns]

Racine retains a lot of the original design features though, such as the glass and steel customer assistant’s booth and wavy grillework.

[Jacob Kolar/Chicago Patterns]

Of interest is the station name signage in an Art Moderne style, similar to what’s found in the Dearborn Street Subway. Design work for the subway began towards the end of the Great Depression, but wasn’t finished until 1951 because of a World War II-induced material shortage. Since the Forest Park branch opened only seven years later, it’s likely that some design elements dating to the late 1930’s were included in the thoroughly Modernist plans.

Since opening, UIC-Halsted and most recently Illinois Medical District are the only stations on this branch to have received significant updates, which has resulted in a well-preserved group of stations. In particular, Racine’s location in between these two education and employment hubs has likely resulted in a lack of investment, allowing the station to maintain the majority of its 1950’s design features. This has also resulted in the aforementioned cracked concrete and flaking paint, as well as rusting steel, and other issues that come with deferred maintenance.

The stations are in the tenuous position of being too old to be considered ‘contemporary’ and too young to be considered ‘historic’, which results in occasional calls for their replacement. Rather than this, the CTA might consider respectful renovation, which will cost less and preserve the delightfully mid-century aesthetic of the Forest Park branch.

Writer’s Tip

Exit at Racine on an empty stomach and go south to Polk. Walk east until you reach Carpenter, then be prepared to make a difficult decision: a delicious Italian beef at Carm’s or a world-class Italian sub at Fontano’s.

References and Further Reading:



2 responses to “Get to Know an ‘L’ Station: Racine”

  1. bruce moser says:

    Excellent research on Racine Station. I am 15+ year Chicago Architecture Center docent. The mid-century CTA logo still appears facing west on El station at Wabash and Washington (or is it Randolph or Madison?). Are you aware of El station at Quincy and Wells restored to 1890’s look. It appeared in “Planes, Trains and Auto” movie. Steve Martin took an El from this station to his home on the North Shore (sic). Consider an article on Metro Correctional Center 1975 by Harry Weese at Jackson and Clark. Have you visited the new Chgo Arch Center at 111 East Michigan on south side of river across from the new Apple store. I will check into your other articles on Chgo Arch. My daughter Julie an old friend of your mother.

    • Jacob Kolar says:

      Hello Bruce, thank you very much for reading and I appreciate the kind words. The mid-century CTA logo you’re talking about adorned the west-facing facade of Randolph/Wabash, which has since been demolished and replaced by Washington/Wabash. The only ‘L’ station that I can think of that still has the mid-century logo is Ashland/63rd in West Englewood, which I’d like to profile in a future post. I’d also like to nominate it for Chicago Landmark status down the line. Harlem/Lake in Oak Park also has it, but I’m trying to stick to Chicago. Yes, I’m aware of Quincy, it’s beautiful and was recently designated a Chicago Landmark. I also remember that scene, there are so many good ones which involve our beloved ‘L’. Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines driving their car on it in Running Scared comes to mind, as does Chance the Rapper’s recent music video ‘Angels’. Thank you for the recommendation, I think Harry Weese is my favorite Chicago architect. His Time-Life Building at the northeast corner of Fairbanks & Grand is my favorite building in the city and I recently purchased a book about his works. I’m yet to visit the brand new Chicago Architecture Center, but I hope to do so soon. This is the first article I’ve written about Chicago architecture, but I hope to do more and there are plenty of great articles on here. In regards to your daughter and my mother, it’s a small world!

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