Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Signs, they are a-changin'

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Chicago, where I live and where RT&S is put together each month, represents various things to various people. To my grandfather, who worked with the American Angus Association, memories of the old Union Stockyards come to mind.

To the international tourists I saw wondering through my neighborhood earlier in the month, it’s all about Al Capone. To me, Chicago is railroad town USA, all the way. 

Of those three Chicago icons listed above, only the railroads remain. From historic Union Station to the sleek Ogilvie Transportation Center to the grumblings of the “L” that are audible anywhere in the Loop, Chicago is still very much a railroader’s kind of town.

One of the most visual representations of this is the Santa Fe sign that currently sits on top of a building on Michigan Avenue, overlooking Grant Park, Lake Michigan and tracks that ferry commuters downtown every day on Metra and the South Shore lines. Even after the railway it represented ceased operation once the merger with the Burlington Northern was approved in 1996, the Santa Fe sign served as a reminder in a high-rent, high-tourist district that the city of Chicago was built by and thrived because of its railroads.

Sometime this summer, that reminder will come down and a new sign will take its place. The permit review committee of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks has approved Motorola’s request to replace the sign.

Motorola is bringing a workforce of 100 employees from its suburban offices to the former Railway Exchange Building, now known to us locals as the Santa Fe building. While the building houses several larger tenants, Motorola’s 10-year lease included an option to change the rooftop sign, which does not share the protection of historic landmark status that the rest of the building has. One caveat of switching the sign to read, “Motorola” instead of “Santa Fe” is that the new sign will not deviate from the style of the existing sign and must be consistent in terms of color and illumination levels at night to the old sign.

The overlap between the removal of signage belonging to a now-defunct railroad and railway engineering may not be clear, but I think the “Santa Fe” sign coming down is a metaphor for the current industry. As the older generation enters retirement, they will try to transfer their knowledge and shape the younger generation in a way that does not stray from what they know and represent currently. But the younger generation still represents something new, something promising and something unique.

As one last piece of the puzzle, once it’s removed, where will the sign go? According to David Roeder, Chicago Sun-Times real estate columnist, takers from near and far have voiced interest in adopting the piece of railroad history including the Illinois Railway Museum, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and, ironically, the city of Santa Fe, N.M., which was never served by the Santa Fe’s mainline.

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