Union Station renovations moving forward quickly
There are no men sporting top hats or women wearing gloves and floor-length dresses. No bellhops scurry about with luggage as passengers embark on journeys.
Yet the Union Station train terminal — a vast space that was chopped up for offices in 1979 — is now being restored to some of its original grandeur.
“We’re trying to take that back now,” says Gary Oborny, chairman and CEO of Occidental Management.
Oborny bought the Union Station campus of five buildings for $1.5 million in 2013 and, after working on some of the other buildings, is now refurbishing its showcase feature.
The most significant change is the elimination of many of the steel frames that created mezzanines for office space.
Union Station was known as “the daylight station of America,” as one visiting Mississippi reporter put it before the 1914 opening, with an east bank of windows that “flooded light into the whole area,” Occidental president Chad Stafford says.
“So the mezzanine blocked a lot of that.”
With their demolition, Oborny says, “This is how the space looked . . . back in 1914. Very wide open, all the way up to the ceiling.”
It’s a decision he came to only after a lot of debate.
“OK, do we keep the square footage — as a real estate developer, you know, from a rent standpoint and a revenue standpoint — or do we take this building back to what it was before?”
Restoration was the right decision, Oborny says, although “it always grabs you a little bit in the wallet.”
Finances have dictated one major decision for the 57,000-square-foot space, part of what eventually will be a 180,000-square-foot complex.
Oborny made a deal with Faneuil, a call center that will bring 600 jobs to the building, instead of creating a mixed-used space with shops, restaurants and other businesses as some had hoped for.
“We thought a larger user would allow us to do more with ... the terminal building,” Oborny says. “If we would have done it the other way, we probably couldn’t have taken out the mezzanine and all that.”
There would have been other issues as well.
“That’s always the tricky thing with this stuff,” Oborny says. “How do you control security? How do you give access to it? ... How would you make this mixed-use? ... It’s probably possible, but it was going to be challenging.”
Oborny is simultaneously adding to the development and preserving much of what’s there.
“You’ve got to be able to save the historical significance of the building, right? But then we have to upgrade the building so that people want to lease it.”
Workers have removed carpet and are now removing the adhesive over the marble floors of the terminal so they can be polished to their original sheen. They’re reglazing windows and redoing metal work surrounding the windows. They’re removing plexiglass from the huge arched windows in the front of the terminal building, and they have figured out how to create energy-efficient double-paned windows within the framework of the original metal casings. The stained glass at the former Harvey House restaurant inside the terminal is being restored as well.
“It’s detailed work,” Oborny says of all the upgrades. “There’s some complexity to it.”
He’s still searching for someone who can fix three vintage Seth Thomas clocks that have been exposed through the mezzanine demolition.
Oborny is trying to preserve history while also adding some modern touches.
For instance, on the west side of the terminal where ticketing and concessions used to be and where Faneuil has chosen to leave a mezzanine for office use, the call center has selected a chartreuse as an accent color on some beams.
“I think that’s a great tradeoff personally, to really get the next generation bought into being in these historical buildings but yet still have an appealing environment that they want to work in,” Oborny says.
He says black and gold are traditional for a historic remodel, but he chose a hot red for a Union Station sign out front.
“You’ve got to put a little element of edginess to it with these historical properties for people to really be able to appreciate them.”
There are decorative architectural features in the shape of ribbons, or “garland-looking stuff” as Stafford says, throughout the property. Oborny is going to paint the outside ones a darker gray “just to make it pop a little bit.”
Many people probably think of Union Station as a gray building. The front base is a variegated gray granite, and sandstone granite pillars are a mix of taupe and gray.
The surprise, though, is that the rest of the exterior walls and most of the inside ones, too, have terracotta glazing that reglazing reveals to be muted blue, green, rose, cream and taupe. The result is a more colorful look than Union Station has had in some time.
“We think these are kind of the color hues that the building had,” Oborny says.
Then there’s what he calls the “good amount” of structural work the building needs — it hasn’t been used for eight years since Cox Communications left — including upgraded HVAC systems and a new roof “so that we have a good tenant experience. That’s really important.”
Oborny stands outside overlooking the concrete awning on the Union Station platform. That’s where passengers used to board trains after walking through tunnels from the main building and exiting at headhouses, which were kind of entryways to the tunnels, by the tracks.
“I can remember as a little child coming down here with my dad, and we would put my grandmother ... on the train here to go to Chicago to visit my cousins and my aunt,” he says. “It’s little memories there.”
Now he’s preparing to redo the awnings, two of which have the well-known “Wichita” landmark sign featured in so many photos through the years.
Oborny is still contemplating what to do with the headhouses and dreaming of other ideas for remaining spaces, such as the rooftop over the kiosks below.
“We won’t promise this, but our developer idea is that ... we’re looking at potentially building a restaurant up here,” he says. “Do it in glass so people can look up and down Douglas.”
Oborny says it’s “very likely” that he’ll build it and have a patio on the north and east sides. The west side will overlook the working tracks that still remain.
“You have a very beautiful view,” he says.
The tunnels with their crumbling subway tiles won’t be restored or used because there’s too much deterioration, but their entry tiles will remain along with gold leaf lettering pointing to the trains.
A west-facing atrium added during urban renewal will remain along an interior walkway, though the plastic 1980s-era plants within it will go.
“As part of the fee we’re paying Hutton Construction, they get to keep all this,” Stafford jokes.
Hutton is the contractor, and Spangenberg Phillips Tice Architecture is the architect.
A second-story hallway near a glass elevator in the lobby of the building offers a stunning view of the newly opened former passenger waiting area. It leads to a short third floor via some narrow wrought iron stairs. The open space has arched windows overlooking Douglas, the plaza and Old Town.
“Should have bought it when I was in my 20s and had my pad up in here,” Oborny says. “This could be kind of cool.”
One of the most fascinating spaces in the building will rarely be seen by many. That’s the basement.
“Under Union Station was a complete little city in itself because you had people that had to operate the building down below,” Oborny says.
He and Stafford and their families had a fun, spooky tour before the cleanup began.
Some connections to the basement, such as stylish grates along walls, are still visible.
“That’s a beautiful aesthetic,” Oborny says.
Many interior and exterior windows still open and close, which is how the building used to be cooled.
An outside exhaust stack may one day hold a Union Station sign that will be able to be seen from Kellogg.
One of the areas that’s attracting the most attention right now is where excavators are digging to the west of the former freight building to build an addition.
Oborny plans an all-glass atrium between the terminal and freight spaces along with glassed-in patios on the freight building. He says that allows for safety and a view to appreciate the architecture.
“This is the station of light, and so we want to carry that theme through all the rest of the project.”
Besides the call center, which will extend into part of the freight space, Jennifer McDonald’s Jenny Dawn Cellars is the first signed tenant for that area. She’ll use the atrium space and part of a former milk house used to store and cool milk before it went to market.
There’s still 60,000 square feet left to lease at the freight space and its addition.
Oborny is reinventing Union Station in three stages.
The completed $9 million first phase included the food kiosks at the plaza along Douglas and the renovations of the one-time Grand & Patrick Hotel, the former Rock Island Depot and Rock Island Baggage Depot.
The $30 million second phase includes the terminal work, renovation of the freight building behind it and a 40,000-square-foot addition to the west of that building.
By the time a third phase is completed in 2020, there will be a total investment of $50 million to $55 million with a parking garage and an additional building with up to 30,000 square feet.
The 10-acre campus is part of a tax increment financing district that allows taxes that the development generates to pay for public-access areas there over three 20-year periods — one period per each phase of the project.
Faneuil will start moving into the terminal building in December, and Jenny Dawn Cellars will open in the spring, although it’s hard for the untrained eye to see how any of it will be done in time.
Oborny isn’t concerned, though. He says he’s tackled projects much larger.
He has not made a final decision yet, but Oborny says he can see the terminal building’s closed-in ticket booth in the center of the building “being a great place for a mural.”
“We can kind of tell the story of Union Station.”
Oborny’s own story of Union Station has gone pretty well according to plan.
“It’s such an iconic ... location in Wichita, and everybody is so supportive. ... They love to hear about Union Station being repurposed and revitalized.”