No passengers can be seen waiting in this 1970 photograph. (Image: Library of Congress)

Passing the Romanesque Union Station may create conflicting emotions for some. It is gratifying to see an impressive historic building restored–especially since other places, like Columbus and Atlanta, demolished their grand old train stations. It is also frustrating to see what was once Indy’s entry point so hushed and underutilized.

The railroad history of the building is substantial. The salvaging and restoration of the building is also an interesting chapter of the city’s story. Those efforts lead to the building’s status as a top attraction for fun-seekers for a brief time in the 1980’s.

First time visitors to Indianapolis arriving by train for the 1966 Indianapolis 500 were horrified by what welcomed them. Newspapers described a huge, desolate structure inhabited by a handful of railway employees and a congregation of homeless people using the public space for shelter. Crumbling plaster and peeling paint were prominent throughout the building, and the once-polished terrazzo floors were caked in grime and covered with cracks. The scene was an appropriate metaphor for the decline in passenger rail service. The building, then owned by the Indianapolis Union Railroad, still stood only because there were no funds to demolish the structure.

A transfer of ownership allowed the building to exist in its rotting state for another decade. The Penn-Central railroad, facing bankruptcy, put the building up for sale in 1970. Under the leadership of Mayor Richard Lugar, funds were secured through a Federal grant to stabilize the building. Ownership came under a group of private investors awaiting support for a new use. Meanwhile, passenger trains continued to decline. Six daily trains served the station in 1971. The number dropped to two in 1975, and the last passenger train left the station in 1979.

A lone customer stands next to a security guard at a lunch counter at Union Station in 1970. Notice the crumbling plaster at the top of the archway. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

A lone customer stands next to a security guard at a lunch counter at Union Station in 1970. Notice the crumbling plaster at the top of the archway. (Image: Library of Congress)

In 1980, the city became the sole owner and immediately began making plans to redevelop the property into a mix of shops, nightclubs and restaurants. Under the leadership of developer Robert Borns, the project gained backing from the three largest banks of the time. In 1984, construction began on a 30-million-dollar project to convert the station into a “festival marketplace.” Featuring around fifty specialty shops, eleven restaurants and night clubs, a food court, and large arcade, the station became a hub of downtown activity upon its reopening in April of 1986.

An artist's sketch of the proposed marketplace accurately depicts the changes that took place to the train shed right down to the 1980's fashions (Courtesy Indiana State Library)

An artist’s sketch of the proposed marketplace accurately depicts the changes that took place to the train shed right down to the 1980’s fashions. (Image: Indiana State Library)

The renewed life of the station was short lived. Circle Centre Mall opened in 1995 sealed the station’s fate. The kitschy specialty stores that sold everything from magic tricks to Indianapolis shot glasses were no match for the national retailers one block away. The marketplace closed in 1997. Ghostly white statues were all that were left to inhabit the corridors. In recent times, the building has served host to a hodgepodge of businesses, including a charter school and the Mexican Consulate. The Grand Hall is banquet space for the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which is the sole survivor of the original project. A few storefronts can still be found intact behind closed doors. A particular point of interest is an apartment on the second floor overlooking the Grand Hall, still stuck somewhere in the eighties.

What is your dream for the future of Union Station?

You can get a good of the scope of Union Station retailers in this pre-opening advertisement (Courtesy Indiana State Library)

You can get a good of the scope of Union Station retailers in this pre-opening advertisement. (Image: Indiana State Library)

Printed Sources:

The Indianapolis Star

May 26, 1966

November 11, 1974

May 22, 1980

March 30, 1986

April 18, 1986

6 responses to “At Your Leisure: Last Train to Indy”

  1. Phil Brooks says:

    Thanks! Such a magnificent structure, I hope more uses can be found for it in the future. I’m glad I got to enjoy it in the 80s and 90s.

    Indianapolis’ Union Station was reportedly the first Union Station (meaning, the first used by multiple private railroads) anywhere.

    Amtrak still goes through IUS, but passengers access trains from the bus station on the south side of the structure.

    I would love to see (at least photos of) that apartment!

  2. Rebecca Bandy says:

    Why not use this as a museum of some sort? Surely the City of Indianapolis can fill it with treasures for the world to see. A Historical/Genealogical Library where everything is stored and preserved in one place. If the city of Indianapolis can afford to bring in every type of sports venue ….they can add something of an educational value to the downtown area. A museum of of trains and passenger cars located on the tracks…. Union Station is so large, it can hold many useful purposes… and the city can afford to make something happen besides sports venues. In the summer, bring back an indoor Starlight Musicals…..So many ideas …maybe some are viable!

  3. Matt says:

    I’d like to see it become a train station! Denver’s Union Station is so impressive:

    The new bus depot Indy is building is a huge missed opportunity for the city.

  4. Tom Davis says:

    Bob and Sandra Borns had that apartment made for themselves in Union Station when they developed it in the mid-80s. I was working for Borns Management at the time, though primarily for the division that owned and managed apartments. But I did type the check that Bob delivered to the city to start the ball rolling, and I’m always a little sad that his vision didn’t really last. I was also responsible for entering payroll for the Union Station employees for a while, so it was neat to see that list of businesses again. Bob and/or other family members actually owned or ran some of them, including Sophie’s Hot Dogs, which was named after his mother-in-law, if I’m not mistaken.

  5. Chris hodapp says:

    My brother and I were dedicated railfans in the 1970s as young teenagers. We joined the Riley Booster Club to help save the James Whitcomb Riley train to Chicago, and we were volunteers for the Indiana Railway Museum. We stored passenger cars at the Capital Avenue Coach Yard, which was later torn down to make way for the Hoosier Dome. But at that time, we ran excursions to Chicago with our private observation cars. They were happy days to be a kid playing with the grownups.

    We were regulars at Union Station those years. The hamburgers at the food stand were the greasiest and the greatest. We knew the timetables inside and out. We would spend all night on Saturdays at the large railroad switching tower up at track level, made friends with all of the tower and train crews, engineers, and porters, would hitch rides in the locomotive cabs to towns like Lafayette. Union Station was our second home, our tree fort. But the one place off limits to us was always the upper floors of the main headhouse. No one would ever let us see what was in those offices and behind those locked doors, even though they were mostly abandoned by then.

    If you look at the photo of the Grand Hall, you can see that the offices on either side of the headhouse are not easily connected between the east and west sides. There is a narrow balcony on the third floor Mezzanine to cross over without going to the main floor, but the upper officers are isolated from each other. That’s because the Pennsylvania Railroad’s officers and dispatcher’s center were on the east side, while the Indianapolis Union Belt Railway and the New York Central (the Pennsy’s greatest business rival before their merger in the 60s) were on the west. The two big companies didn’t want easy access between them in the building, and that dictated the building’s odd design.

    By the early 1970s, the railroad offices were long gone, and the upstairs was declared off limits to anyone just casually wanting to look though the place. Even two dedicated teenaged boys who were regular sights at the place, who swore they were honestly just interested in history and architecture and loved the railroads were refused access to anything but the main floor. Amtrak had a lonely, new office downstairs with a ticket clerk and a single security officer to keep out the bums. Aside from that, the building was empty.

    In 1973 (I was 14, brother was 16), we were at track level in the trainshed at the station late one Sunday night. The City had come up with enough money to attempt to stabilize some damage to the headhouse and stop up some water leaks while they desperately hunted a developer. Many thought it a waste and wanted it torn down. But money came from some source, and so repair work began. Consequently, contractors had left a single, secluded window cracked open to run an air hose and power lines through. Seizing the opportunity to finally get in and at last get to see all of that forbidden space, we eagerly climbed through the window and spent the next three hours exploring in the dark, but in absolute heaven. All we had was a single dimming flashlight between us, and this was decades before telephones and electronic cameras. We had no way to record our exploration.

    We climbed up the multiple floors on the western New York Central side easily enough. The large area that later became Bob Borns’ apartment on the second floor was the old board room of the Belt Railway, covered in rich wood panelling with enormous arched windows that ran floor to ceiling. There were multiple vaults in the building, one of which was two stories tall inside. Most of the offices were dull cubicles of little interest, but we rescued a small stack of items thrown in trash piles to preserve for the Museum later, carrying them with us. But the problem was, how to get across to the eastern Pennsy side without being caught by security. There was no way we could go down to the second floor and cross the balcony – we’d be spotted instantly. So, we kept going up.

    At last, we reached the attic. Oddly, that room was fully lit up for some reason, and there were still several old, massive Christmas decorations stored there (like everybody else’s attic), which looked like they dated from the 1950s. The room was an odd trapezoid shape, because the ceiling sloped upwards on one side, but was cut off by a tall wall on the eastern side of the room. The attic was just as isolated from the other half of the building as everything else, because as you can see from the photo above, there’s that big arched window in the way. Well, in the attic, there were two ladders bolted to the far wall, leading to two small access holes that went…somewhere. And we knew it had to be to the other half of the hidden building.

    So, up we climbed, and sure enough, stretched below us was that huge arched, stained glass window. Over our heads was a standard peaked roof that had once been made of clear glass window panes to illuminate the stained glass below it by sunlight. But during WWII, they had painted all of those glass panels black as part of blackout rules during potential air raids. Consequently, the only light for us was our failing flashlight and a slight glow through the glass from the Amtrak office lights six stories below. But stretching across the chasm were several 10×10 solid beams, and two led straight across to matching access holes on the other side. So we bundled up our stash of rescued items in one arm, pocketed the flashlight, and inched our way across a beam. In the bulletproof psychology of teenagers, our greatest fear was not of falling through the glass and splatting on the terrazzo floor, but of dropping some of our swag, being discovered, and getting arrested for trespassing. At one point, I looked down through a broken glass panel and could see the bored rental cop all the way down on the floor below, chatting up the ticket clerk.

    We made it to the Pennsylvania RR side safely, with our treasures intact, and spent another hour going through the offices there. In the dispatcher’s office, the old radio and telephone equipment was still partially intact, and there was a huge floor to ceiling map of the entire railroad system of the midwest and northeast U.S. Sadly, it was wallpapered on, and we had no way to save it or even photograph it.

    The water damage the City was attempting to stabilize was mostly on this end of the building, and several interior walls had collapsed by then. But its bones were still solid, and it still survives more than four decades later because of visionaries in the 1980s who preserved it. They begged the city to connect the station to the Mall and the other facilities farther north with walkways between the hotels to the south when those plans were being created, but Union Station was permitted to languish so very soon after all that hard work, blood, sweat, tears, and money had been spent to create something special. So, it died again because the City went on to a new shiny object. So it goes.

    Nevertheless, 45 years on, I still look at it once a week as I drive by and remember that night, and still think of it as my own, at least for that moment in time.

  6. Scott Wagner says:

    I still remember visiting the train station as a grade school student probably around 1964. I don’t remember seeing any homeless back then, but I do remember seeing the trains, which were impressive as a child.
    I have long since moved away from Indy (unfortunately). Its sad to see some of these great landmarks and symbols of American greatness fall into decay.

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