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Forgotten Architectural Masterpiece: Chicago’s Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal

Updated on June 3, 2013
The Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal, circa 1920.
The Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal, circa 1920. | Source
A marker323 W. Polk St., Chicago, IL -
323 W Polk St, Chicago, IL, USA
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Freight House occupied large area between the railroad tracks and the river south of the marker.

In the early part of the 20th Century and long afterwards, Chicago was internationally known as the premier city for architecture. Chicago architects invented technologies that allowed the dense, modern, industrial city to become part of human habitation throughout the world. The skyscraper—its engineering, its practicality, its foundation, its functionality—was invented, perfected, and refined for modern use by architects practicing in Chicago. The precepts of architectural design, ornamentation, and the re-invention of its manifestations were all principally developed in Chicago by Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and many others.

So how does an architectural masterpiece in the world’s greatest architecture city go nearly unnoticed for more than half a century?

The building in question is William Lightfoot Price’s amazing Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal (also known as the Western Warehousing Company), located at 323 W. Polk Street in Chicago, and built from 1915-18. At the time of its construction, it was one of the largest buildings in the world in terms of square feet. It was built, in large part, to allow Chicago’s many rail stations to consolidate into a main railroad terminal just west of downtown, a terminal that later became the current Union Station.

Apart from being one of the largest square-foot buildings in the city of Chicago and the world, the Pennsylvania Railroad Freight House featured a unique design-- built to appear as several smaller buildings through varied facades and floor elevations, capped by a 12-story, pyramid-topped clock tower. Its address was 323 W. Polk Street, located across the street from the Marshall Field warehouse at 310 W. Polk that survived it by nearly 25 years.

In all, the building contained 1.5 million square feet of space on five levels, making it one of the largest buildings in the world. For comparison, Chicago’s Merchandise Mart-- built 12 years after the Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal-- held the title of largest building in the world with 4 million square feet until the 6.5 million square foot Pentagon was opened in 1943.

In William L. Price: Arts & Crafts to Modern Design, author George E. Thomas points out that the Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal design was a revelation in managing the scale of a massive structure. “Just as large buildings need relatively simple forms to be graspable by the eye, when they go beyond immensity to become gargantuan there is often a need for secondary articulation so that the building can be grasped,” he wrote. Price managed the enormous scale by dividing its facades into “large masses with a secondary rhythm established by the pier caps breaking through the parapet.”

View of the Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal on November 8, 1942.
View of the Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal on November 8, 1942. | Source
View of aging Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal, seen from Roosevelt Road overpass on March 25, 1972.
View of aging Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal, seen from Roosevelt Road overpass on March 25, 1972. | Source
Pennsylvania Railroad Freight House against the skyline, circa 1960.
Pennsylvania Railroad Freight House against the skyline, circa 1960. | Source

Chicago architectural historian Carl Condit tabbed the Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal as “an overlooked masterpiece of Chicago architecture.” In 1973, he wrote the building “possesses a monumentality that adds powerful rhythmic accents to the long, rectilinear vistas of its rail and river setting.”

Yet Condit’s praise could not save the building from a looming ignominious fate. The mammoth Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal sat on the edge of the South Branch of the Chicago River between Polk and Taylor Streets for 53 years, its unique 190-foot clock tower looming over the South Loop. In its final years, the building suffered from deferred maintenance as railroad profits and business declined after World War II. The magnificent structure was quietly demolished in the early 1970s. Yet in the pantheon of notable and historic buildings in Chicago, the Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Terminal is almost never mentioned, perhaps because it was an industrial building surrounded by industrial uses and cut off by the Chicago River. The former building site is currently occupied by a few small buildings and electrical transformers.

Sadly, William Price never lived to see his monumental building finished, as he died on October 14, 1916. As an architect, Price was significant in his use of new materials and visionary design aesthetic. He was the visionary designer behind the Blenheim addition of the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the largest reinforced concrete building in the world in the first few decades of the 20th Century. The building was showcased late in its life in the 1972 film The King of Marvin Gardens. His brilliant design was demolished in 1979 (seen at the very beginning of Bruce Springsteen's video "Atlantic City") as modern casinos invaded the Atlantic City beachfront.


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