By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
The front entrance where thousands of passengers passed through was covered with a huge colorful abstract painting. Less than 24 hours later, the windows that had been boarded up for decades would have a similar look.
It’s the start of what many hope will be a rebirth of Gary’s Union Station.
For 107 years, it stood off Broadway, wedged between railroad tracks. However, for the last 67 years, the station has stood vacant—the victim of changing times and neglect. On a weekend where thousands were busy shopping and preparing for Easter Sunday, a group of volunteers was busy turning the faded relic into masterpiece. It’s a project they hope will someday lead to a resurrection of one of Gary’s oldest landmarks from a bygone era.
Piles of debris and dangling portions of the ceiling were on the inside of the building; on the outside, about 10 volunteers spent hours turning the exterior into a work of art. Under sunny skies, they were artists imagining the train station as more than a decaying relic.
The project was spearheaded by the Decay Devils, a community organization that aims to restore vacant historical buildings throughout the world.
On large white canvasses, they spray painted images of people, animals, places, and things. Many were abstract; some were simple. Some drivers stopped and got out of their cars to find out what was going on. Meanwhile, other volunteers were busy prepping the window frames for the new look.
After 10 hours of painting, eight large paintings went up on Easter. Seven of them decorate the south part of the building and two on the west side or the front of the station. A third one was to go up, but volunteers discovered heavy water damage in the window frame. After some repairs, volunteers will complete the project this weekend with plans to create a park-like setting in the front of the building with fresh landscaping, including new bushes and trees. To spruce up the area, the Decay Devils will create a new brick-layered walkway and install park benches.
By turning aging relics into works of art, Decay Devils hopes to instill a sense of pride and beauty in the community, which the group hopes will inspire others to appreciate and preserve history.
“The main reason is to draw attention to the landmarks,” said Tyrell Anderson, president of Decay Devils. “We want to try to change the mentality because right now the thought process is if it’s old, tear it down.”
Anderson added, “We hope that we can get people to come back to Gary. We have a great city, great beaches and great places.”
To complete the project, the Decay Devils received a $22,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Donor Advised Fund at Legacy Foundation.
The grant is the latest financial contribution the foundation has made to Gary since it pledged to help the struggling city in 2010. That’s when the foundation announced that it will invest up to $2.5 million in an endowed fund to foster an “informed, engaged” Gary area over the next seven years through the Legacy Foundation, Inc., Lake County’s community foundation.
In 2016, Delta Institute was awarded $385,000 for Steel City Salvage to build a reuse facility to reclaim building materials from vacant Gary homes before they are demolished.
Last December, ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen opened on 5th Avenue near the Gary Steelyard after the Knight’s Rebuild Foundation awarded it a $650,000 grant. Opened in early December, the facility is formerly a vacant space in downtown Gary that is now a culinary incubator and cafe. By late spring or early summer, one of three Gary finalists will share up to $5 million in funds for their projects. One of those projects includes repurposing the vacant City Methodist Church building on 6th Avenue.
For the historic Gary train station, the art makeover comes at the right time. The landmark is one of several that the city is considering for its first-ever historic walking tour that will begin in May. Seeking to erase negative images about Gary, historians and city leaders hope Gary’s history will inspire tourists to visit the city more often.
Located near the old schoolhouse, Gary’s Union Train Station was built in 1910 when the city was predominantly white. Erected decades before the Interstate 90 tollway, the station was built at a time when railroad travel was the only form of transportation. The train station became essential to the founding of Gary. As the railroads were laid across the Midwest, Chicago and Detroit were key centers of business and manufacturing.
Chairman of United States Steel, Judge Elbert H. Gary, noticed this as well as the easy access to the lake for more transport options. Gary purchased 12,000 acres and built a $100,000 plant to produce steel. Gary needed workers for his plant. Since most of the land around the plant lay undeveloped, Gary and U.S. Steel planned a city just outside the gates of the mill. Gary, IN was born. Fifteen years earlier in 1893, the station’s neoclassical Beau Arts design was inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Once a bustling hub for passengers and freight, the station has been vacant and unused for 67 years. It closed in 1950 at a time when new highways gave people other ways to travel. Like Detroit’s prominent Michigan City Station, the building has become an empty shell that has drawn many revitalization plans that never came to fruition.
The train station is actually two buildings. The entrance to the building faces west toward Broadway. The roof in the main building has collapsed and all the windows were broken by vandals decades ago.
Despite decades of neglect, the building’s elegant façade remains intact. Historians say steel-reinforced concrete made up most of the construction and has helped the building weather time and the elements.