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Suburban renewal: end of the line for Skokie's 70-year-old train station?

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As commuters turn off Dempster in Skokie to get to the CTA's Skokie Swift train, few if any glance at the old brick station they pass. It's no wonder. The brick has been painted red and white, the green ceramic tile that once graced the hipped roof has been replaced by red shingles, and the old light globes are gone. Most of the elegant vertical windows are bricked up. The portico columns are cracking, and the dropped ceiling obscures the distinctive brackets that hang from the eaves.

The station--once a jewel on the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad--hasn't been operational for three decades, and now the village of Skokie wants to raze it to make way for a new loading and unloading area for commuters who use the Swift. But officers of the Skokie Historical Society are beseeching the village to reconsider. They've proposed a traffic plan that saves the station, and they have a developer who's ready to turn the station into a flourishing business venture.

Their dreams haven't met with much enthusiasm from Skokie officials, which to some minds raises questions about how careful the suburbs that flourished after World War II are being about preserving their architecture. "The older buildings are dropping left and right in younger suburbs like Skokie," says Michael Dixon, a restoration architect who's a consultant to the historical society. "Nobody in these towns seems to have much sense of the cultural value of the past. Their leaders care about progress but not about history."

The North Shore station represents the vision of Chicago utilities magnate Samuel Insull. Convinced the suburbs were ripe for expansion in the 1920s, he backed the construction of three high-speed railways out of the city, including the North Shore line. The station on Dempster, one of eight erected between Howard Street and Milwaukee, was designed by Arthur Gerber, chief architect for the Insull railways. The structure, which opened in 1925, featured grooved brick walls, terrazzo flooring, and a design that reflected the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, a contemporary Gerber is thought to have admired.

Skokie, or Niles Center as it was then called, and other northern suburbs didn't explode as Insull thought they would until after 1945, when servicemen returned from the war hungry for affordable housing. But as cars became more prevalent and the Edens Expressway opened up, the North Shore line saw its ridership shrink. In 1963, three years after Gerber died at 82, the railway shut down.

Since then the CTA, the station's official owner, has rented the space to a dwindling number of retail establishments. Today Greyhound, a tenant for 15 years, is the only one left. Its manager, Jim Quinn, blames the CTA for letting the building deteriorate. "The dry cleaner left because the roof leaked," he says. "Now it takes 90 days to get the simplest plumbing repairs." A CTA spokesman counters that the dry cleaner didn't leave in anger but retired, and he faults Quinn for not lodging complaints about the building in writing.

In 1992 the village of Skokie secured a $1 million grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to improve the traffic-clogged area where cars, buses, and taxis drop off and pick up commuters. Village planners wanted to tear down the old station, put in a small office for Greyhound and a bus-driver lounge, and add a short-term-parking island. Skokie felt safe suggesting the station be razed after the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) ruled that it wasn't worthy of being a federal landmark.

Official word of the station's death sentence reached the historical society in February 1993 during a meeting with village manager Albert Rigoni. Barry Humphrey, the historical society's vice president and a Skokie native, and Gayle Dompke, the society's secretary and owner of the farmhouse on Gross Point Road her great-grandparents built in 1864, were taken aback. But the two were slow to turn their shock into action. "We didn't have any immediate solution," says Dompke. Besides, she and Humphrey were then consumed with a doomed campaign to save the art moderne Niles Township High School (East), which was torn down by Oakton Community College. "We spent some time spinning our wheels on the station," concedes Humphrey. "We're a volunteer group. We only meet monthly."

A year ago IHPA told the historical society that it still thought the station lacked enough "integrity" to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places, given that so much of its original decoration had been stripped away. But the IHPA promised that if the station were restored it would take another look. Meanwhile, Michael Dixon, who was invited by the historical society to do an independent architectural assessment, determined that the building was in fairly good shape, with a sound foundation and no rotting wood. He also fell in love with the place. "Built to last, this structure recalls the pride of the community," he wrote the society's president, Michael Nees. "We can only marvel at the ingenuity and quality of its construction and Prairie School design." Humphrey and Dompke also got in touch with Steve Friedman, a developer with transportation experience who's part of a joint venture that's spearheading redevelopment around a train station in Brainard on the south side, to come up with a restoration plan.

But events soon took a negative turn. The society asked Bill Hasbrouck, another restoration architect, to come up with a design for the new Swift loading area that would spare the station. Unfortunately, city officials pointed out, his design stacked buses in such a way that passengers would have to cross in front of vehicles to get to the train.

Last July Dixon made another plea to the IHPA, but the agency told him nothing had changed to cause the agency to rethink its original finding. Nevertheless, Friedman's plan was submitted to Rigoni in August. It would restore the depot to its former grandeur, at a cost of $525,000, after which it would house not only the Greyhound office but a flower stand, a coffee bar, another dry cleaner, a video-rental parlor, and the Skokie Chamber of Commerce. The plan followed the precedent of the two other surviving terminals on the North Shore line: the one in Highland Park survives as headquarters for a heating contractor, the one in Kenosha as a restaurant.

In September the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois sent Rigoni its own plan for the loading zone, which also retained the station. Humphrey and Dompke also hoped to get support from the Skokie Park District by suggesting that they pair the idea of a refurbished station with the bike path or "greenway" the district is considering installing along the old North Shore right-of-way. The park district has applied for an IDOT grant to explore the feasibility of a bike path, but park district director Steve Hartman says, "The greenway can exist very nicely without the element of the station."

Rigoni says his staff is studying the Friedman and Landmarks Preservation Council plans. "If all the goals of the transportation project can be met and the station can be restored in a relatively quick period of time, that's fine," he says. "But there are competing goals here, and the transit goals are paramount to the village. The [IHPA] says the station isn't a landmark, and I'm told the thing would be very expensive to rehab."

Rigoni adds that Skokie has generally been responsive to preservation needs, having helped renovate a circa-1845 log cabin, a red-brick house that's the suburb's only entry on the federal register, and the onetime city hall and firehouse the historical society now calls home. But Rigoni has little fondness for the station. "I have to tell you that it's in deplorable condition. It's been substantially altered. Through the years I've gotten complaints on the state of the building, of people lurking around at odd hours. Whether it's beautiful anymore is in the eyes of the beholder."

Neil King, a realtor whose father established the family firm in Skokie in the early 1930s, says, "In fairness to the preservationists, we don't have much left from the old days of Skokie--some mediocre old stone buildings in the downtown area, and that's about it. Still, I don't detect a groundswell about all this. Historic preservation doesn't usually catch people's imagination, it doesn't sell. Most residents of Skokie are new to the community, and they could care less. Even me--I grew up in Skokie, just two blocks from the station, and I can hardly recall it from my childhood."

In September the CTA opened a new $3.7 million Swift station, essentially a glorified turnstile, just south of the old station. Rigoni won't say when the village will decide the fate of the old station, though Fred Schattner, Skokie's traffic engineer, suggests it will be before year's end. Humphrey and Dompke considered mounting a petition drive, but decided it wouldn't make any difference.

Last year the historical society pleaded with Skokie officials to enact a historic-preservation ordinance--a fixture in suburbs from Wilmette to Itasca--but Rigoni says his staff will act only if the society drafts an ordinance for them to work with. Humphrey believes something broad must be done soon if suburban public buildings are to be protected. "Downtown railroad stations--the Union stations in Washington and Chicago and Grand Central in New York--are looked on as civic temples. When you get down to the suburb level it's a different story. There's sentiment for the old churches--they are the pride of their congregations and will last forever. But the public structures aren't so lucky. No one cares about them. But we see that they are important, that they're part of a village's character. If you can get other people to see that point, fine. If we can't, we lose."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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