Last complete UP roundhouse sees new life in communityWritten by Christy Hemken
That’s when the city began in earnest to restore the historic site.
“When the roundhouse was built in 1912 it only had a lifespan as a roundhouse facility for 30 years,” says Director of Administrative Services for the City of Evanston Jim Davis. “Then they closed it down because trains could travel farther without stopping to be serviced.”
The facility serviced steam locomotives running from Green River to Ogden, Utah.
Although the 28-stall brick roundhouse was closed in 1926, it was reopened in 1927 as a reclamation plant to repair and manufacture parts for UP. “That’s why this roundhouse is still here,” says Jim, who’s worked for the city for nearly three decades.
“The city was not very prosperous as a community in 1972 when we acquired the buildings, and we didn’t have much revenue to do basic services and maintain streets, infrastructure and water,” says Jim. The city didn’t do anything with the roundhouse property or spend any money while it was leased to the rail car repair companies.
Although the city couldn’t make a move immediately, it did recognize in its master planning that the property had potential to be a huge asset for community development. “We’ve been planning for a number of years, figuring out what to do with the site, and in 1998 we started to receive grant funds, and we were able to start on stabilization work,” he explains.
When the city began in earnest to redevelop the old railroad buildings, it began with the machine shop, a 17,000-square-foot building completed in 2004. It’s now a community center used for weddings, junior proms and a variety of other community events.
Walking into the building, lined with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows on all four sides, Jim says everything is basically original, including the brick – which used to be black before cleaning brought out its true yellow color, window frames and wooden beams.
The floor is new, and now includes the heating system for the building. A catering kitchen and restrooms were also added.
The curvatures of the parking lots and sidewalks throughout the complex are all based off the turntable, which still works, says Jim. There are artificial railroad tracks running through the sidewalk concrete where the tracks used to be, accompanied by brick pavers resembling railroad ties.
Following the machine shop, work began on the roundhouse, which recently realized the completion of a quarter of its renovation as open space and meeting rooms. The remaining three-quarters of the half-circle building will be occupied by city hall upon completion.
“Right now the city has staff in three different buildings, and we’d like to be all in one building,” says Jim, noting that it may take Mieke, who is in Administrative Services, and is involved in the project, until she’s 70.
“That’s a lot of grant writing,” she says, laughing.
Next up on the master plan is an Evanston visitor’s center that Mieke’s been working on. “We got some Preserve America money from the federal government to do architectural plans for it,” she says of what has been referred to as the “oil house.”
Evanston holds an annual “Renewal Ball,” which Mieke says for 27 years has brought in funds exclusively for historic preservation. “For the last 10 years the money has come down here to help rehabilitate this area,” she says.
Currently the city is in negotiations with UP on an arrangement to acquire the last historic railroad building on the site, the powerhouse, which used to generate steam heat for the complex.
“Up until 1998 they were using this roundhouse as it was intended, and for being 100 years old that’s amazing,” says Mieke. “Evanston is one of the few places left with a full roundhouse standing exactly as it was built in 1912. Most have fallen down or been torn down.”
Most cities, like Cheyenne with one-quarter section, only have parts of their roundhouses left. The Evanston roundhouse is the last complete structure on the UP line between Omaha, Neb. and Sacramento, Calif.
“The next phase is to come into section two of the roundhouse and remove the lead paint and clean,” says Jim. “If we have to we’ll do it one bite at a time.”
Of the facilities’ contribution to the city, Mieke says the only time the buildings are empty is in event of a last-minute cancellation. “With state and national conventions, weddings and events and our new hotels in town, we’re at the point where Evanston can host significant events,” she says.