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R.I. depot links past to present

Dispatch/Argus Photo By John Kim

The Quad-Cities owes much of its economic history to the rail lines that stretched like spokes from Rock Island in the early days of railroading. The renovated Rock Island Depot, shown in the background, no longer shelters passengers waiting for numerous trains that passed through the city each day. However, it is still surrounded by rail yards.

ROCK ISLAND -- Although trains no longer stop at the Rock Island Lines Depot, former passengers recall its glory days as the building awaits a new use.

``When I went to school at the University of Iowa in 1945, I rode the Rockets back and forth between Rock Island and Iowa City all the time,'' Al Zimmer of East Moline said. ``The cars usually were jammed with standing room only, even with a reservation.''

Mr. Zimmer boarded those trains Sunday nights from the depot at 3031 5th Ave.

``Most of us were veterans going to school on the GI Bill, so we studied during the hour it took to get there,'' he said. ``We were pretty serious students, except for the trips before and after holidays like Christmas break.''

After one weekend home, Mr. Zimmer boarded Monday morning's train back to school.

``It stopped at every place a chicken cackled, and the trip must have taken three hours,'' he said. ``It also stopped in Wilton or West Liberty so the whole crew could have breakfast.''

Despite that trip, trains were a great way to travel, Mr. Zimmer said. ``I didn't take any photos or save any timetables because everybody took it all for granted.''

Those days are gone, leaving the depot the only remaining building in the city that physically links the railroad and its namesake, the city of Rock Island.

In 1996, the city began a $650,000 restoration to bring the apricot brick and limestone building back to its original state. Under the guidance of Gere/Dismer Architects, improvements included restoring and cleaning the brick and replacing or repairing the windows, foundation, entrance doors and gutters.

The most striking updates came from removing, cleaning and replacing the orange tile roof, installing a clock tower and tearing down the nearby freighthouse.

Ideas for reusing the 3,800-square-foot, Renaissance-revival building include a museum, restaurant and offices.

The building's interior was left for the next developer to finish. During the 1950s, the 30-foot ceiling in the depot's central room was covered with a drop ceiling, architect Jeff Dismer said. Today, visitors can see the ceiling's original plaster egg-and-dart motif, representing life and death.

``We propose adding a mezzanine to increase usable space,'' Mr. Dismer said. ``The center room has dramatic space and form. Its massive plaster moldings define the space, creating a unique setting for adaptive reuse.''

Partly hidden under a layer of grime, a terrazzo-tile floor, its perimeter inlaid with a Greek key motif, strains to show its colors. Light grinding and a sealer would restore it to its former magnificence, Mr. Dismer said.

``It's a grand, old architectural gem no one can think about building today,'' he said. ``I remember when my father would go on business trips to Chicago from here. We'd go and see him off.''

Rock Island Lines cars first stopped in the city on Feb. 22, 1854.

That day, ``thousands of people lined the streets and crowded the doors and windows,'' according to the 1985 Visitor's Guide to the Great River Region. ``The two cities of Rock Island and Davenport were most beautifully illuminated. The windows of stores, private residences and public buildings were lit up on both sides of the river, and the lights reflected back from the bottom of the Mississippi were indefinitely multiplied, the whole presenting a scene of imposing grandeur.''

Rock Island contractor John Volk built the depot in 1901. When the Davenport and Moline train stations eventually closed, the Rock Island station received a new sign, calling it the Quad City Terminal. Passenger service ended in the late-1970s and freight service continued until April 1, 1980, when the depot closed.

The Rock Island Lines is one of the nation's oldest, and was the first to span Illinois from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. In 1982, the depot was placed on the National Registry of Landmarks. Five years later, the Rock Island Preservation Commission designated the site a local landmark.

When the city approves a new use for the building, it will be a testament to the long and storied history of the Rock Island Lines, the city and the important role that railroad played in last century's westward expansion, Mayor Mark Schwiebert said.

``The city is proud that it has been able to restore a reminder of the 19th century,'' he said, ``while giving it new life well into the 21st century.''

The Rock Island Lines Depot:

-- Size: 3,800 square feet

-- Interior height: 30-foot ceiling

-- Property: 1.18-acre site

-- Zoning: B-3, general commercial

-- Architect: Frost and Granger, Chicago

-- Builder: John Volk, Rock Island

-- Style: Renaissance Revival

-- Built: 1901

-- Last departing passenger train: May 31, 1978

-- Closed: April 1, 1980

-- Cost: $75,000

-- By Carol Loretz (February 2, 1998)

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