Full Speed Ahead
In 1910, United States Steel Corporation helped finance construction of a grand new station for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the city of Gary. Located on Broadway Street near U.S. Steel’s Gary Works division, Union Station combined Classical design with emerging construction technology. Today, after decades of disuse, a new plan to adapt the landmark as an $8 million Fiber Smart House, job training center, and public space is poised to blend the best of old and new at the site once again.
U.S. Steel, which owned a nearby cement plant, likely influenced architect Maurice Alvin Long’s decision to build the passenger and freight depots using reinforced concrete. Designed in the Beaux Arts style, made popular in the region by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, most of the station’s architectural features—pilasters, columns, lozenges, and quoins—were poured in place. Union Station’s design set the tone for the city’s building boom in the 1910s and 1920s, when many of Gary’s public and commercial buildings employed Classical elements and concrete materials.
Inside the station, a grand hall with mezzanine and coffered ceiling greeted passengers traveling to and from Gary to Hammond and Chicago. Despite the growing popularity of automobiles, Union Station remained a busy transportation hub for decades after its construction. Passenger service began waning in the 1950s and completely ended in 1971, prompting officials to close the station. As decades of vacancy accumulated, the building’s once-fine interior features crumbled. Plaster ceilings collapsed, leaving the roof open to the elements. Indiana Landmarks named the building to our 10 Most Endangered list in the late ’90s and early 2000s, hoping to spark interest in its reuse. But proposals for repurposing the site failed to gain traction.
In 2016, the Decay Devils, a grassroots group with an ambitious goal to save Union Station, took ownership of the site. The group joined Indiana Landmarks as a local preservation affiliate, solicited our expertise in nominating Union Station to the National Register of Historic Places, and used an Endangered Places grant to commission a structural analysis of the building. To raise the station’s profile and draw people to the site, the group added a historical marker explaining the landmark’s significance, installed benches and murals by local artists, restored original brick pavers, and added a viewing station where visitors could safely look at the decaying interior.
“We brought in photographers and painters, and held photo shoots, music videos, and choreographed dances. One year, we put in a big garden to get that crowd,” says Tyrell Anderson, Decay Devils president. “Our goal was to create an environment where everyone was welcome and engaged. We feel as though we made the space feel like a nice park that just happens to have an abandoned building.”
New possibilities opened up for Union Station in 2023, when the City of Gary and telecommunications firm Digital Equity LLC approached the Decay Devils about repurposing the building as a technology hub, citing its location along rail lines where fiber optic cable infrastructure already runs. The Decay Devils will continue to own the building and enter into a long-term lease with Digital Equity. “We looked at Union Station and saw a magnificent building with great bones that sits at the center of fiber assets,” says Tom Dakich, the company’s managing director and general counsel. “There is a tech community being developed in northwest Indiana and the renovated Union Station is the next part of it.”
Part of the passenger depot will become a network operations center to monitor fiber operations. Some of the building will be repurposed as a digital job training center teaching coding and other technology classes, while the grand entry will be open to the public. The adjacent freight depot is slated to house public safety emergency services. The project broke ground in late August with a goal of opening by fall 2024.
For the all-volunteer Decay Devils, it’s a rewarding turn of events after years of advocacy and strategic programming. “Our gamble definitely paid off,” says Anderson.
This article first appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Indiana Preservation, Indiana Landmarks’ member magazine.
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