Facebook Page
Indianapolis Union Station Trip Report

Train Station Turned Upscale Hotel

An Inside Look at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Trip Taken: October 31-November 1, 2015 // Published: November 16, 2015



Guests can spend the night in authentic train cars (renovated with modern amenities) at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station hotel
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

All aboard... time to check out the train-themed Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Union Station. It's hard to believe, but Thanksgiving Week is coming next week... and so is the busy holiday travel season. If you are like us, your calendar is filling up quickly. But don't forget, it's always important to put some time aside to plan a special holiday "get away" for yourself, you and your spouse, or maybe even with some of your railfan friends. We have the prefect place for you to spend a night or two -- the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station. We actually stumbled across this hotel on the internet this past summer while randomly searching for places to stay near Amtrak's Indianapolis station (you can't get much closer than this hotel, by the way!). We saw they have more than two dozen hotel rooms that allow you to sleep inside historic rail cars. We were actually hoping to stay there while trying out Iowa Pacific's new "Hoosier State" train service between Chicago and Indianapolis on a trip we did during the second weekend in August (you can read that trip report here), but this and just about every other hotel was booked due to the Indiana State Fair, an event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and a country music concert... all in the same weekend. We ended up staying in Lafayette for that trip, however, that gave us an excuse to come back to Indianapolis... and that is exactly what we did the weekend of Saturday, October 31st and Sunday, November 1st, 2015. We wanted to see if we could get an "inside" tour of the hotel, so we aimed for a date for this trip a few months out... and then contacted members of the hotel staff who were more than happy to agree to share some of the history of this amazing property. We also did this trip with our railfan friend (and fellow APRHF Rail Rangers Interpretive Guide) Kathy Bruecker, who lives up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.



Some exterior views of the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station Hotel
(Photos by Robert Tabern & Kathy Bruecker)

After flying to Indianapolis mid-afternoon on Saturday, October 31st, we met up with the Manager-on-Duty, Terry Shields. (The hotel's Sales & Marketing Manager, J.J. DeBrosse, could not be present, but was nice enough to set up this tour with Terry for us and had information sheets about the property printed up for us upon our check-in.)  Terry took us on about a one hour walking tour so we could see all of the historic parts of the hotel... and so that our readers here on TrainWeb could also get a look, too.

Let's first start off with a little bit about Indianapolis railroad history, Union Station (the first of its kind in the country!), and how this beautiful railroad-themed hotel came to be.

The first railroad to reach Indianapolis was the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad, which began service there in 1847. Competing railroads began connecting Indianapolis to other locations, but each had its own station in various parts of the city; this created problems for passengers, especially those wishing to transfer between train companies on their journey across the country. This problem was actually common to many cities (including Chicago), but Indianapolis was the very first to solve it with the construction of a "Union Station", which all railroads were to use. In August 1849, the Union Railway Company was formed, and it began to lay tracks to connect the various railroads. By 1853, it built a large brick train shed at the point where all the lines met, thus becoming the first "Union Station" in the country. (This pre-dates Chicago's Union Station by a few decades, by the way!) 

A sketch of the original Indianapolis Union Station that was used during the mid-1800's.
(Courtesy: Bass Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Abraham Lincoln visited the new station (seen in the above sketch) on his way to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration in 1861. Just four years later, Lincoln's funeral train passed through again, as it mournfully brought the body of the slain 16th president home to Illinois. In the same year (1865), Thomas Edison, at the age of 17, was employed by a telegraph operator at the Western Union office here at Indianapolis Union Station, but was fired for conducting too many "useless" experiments.

Indianapolis Union Station was a stop on Abraham Lincoln's Funeral Train; the above map shows the route from Springfield, IL to Washington, DC

(Courtesy: National Park Service, Lincoln Home National Historical Site, Springfield, Illinois)

As Indianapolis and its railroad traffic grew, the limitations of the original station structure became increasingly obvious; a new station was completed in 1888 by architect Thomas Rodd. The new "head house" is recognized as one of America's finest and Indiana's first Romanesque Revival-style structures. It was referred to as a "geometric phenomenon" because every shape imaginable was used during its construction. During the following year, 320,996 passenger train cars and 861,991 freight cars passed through the station. In 1893, approximately 25,000 passengers rode an average of 120 passenger trains daily. By 1900, over 200 trains a day were serviced. In fact, the volume of trains and passengers had increased so greatly that it was necessary to expand Union Station. The 1912 plan included the revolutionary idea of elevating the twelve train tracks behind the original structure, as well as adding a concourse to handle additional passengers and freight. The expansion project cost three million dollars and was completed in 1918, with the exception of the roof over the elevated tracks. The demand for materials during World War I took first priority, and the train shed roof was not completed until 1922. When all was said and done, the seven acre train shed complex was considered to be a major achievement in traffic engineering, and is among less than a dozen surviving structures still in existence in the United States today. The elevation of the train tracks eliminated the traffic problem in downtown streets and made boarding, disembarking, and transferring trains easier and safer. Indianapolis became second only to Chicago's Union Station as a Midwest railroad hub. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were among the prominent figures to walk Union Station's concourses. Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, author of such poems as "Little Orphan Annie", lived in Indianapolis and often traveled through the station.


Historical Post Cards from Indianapolis Union Station's heyday
(Images courtesy: Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station)

A timetable cover from Indianapolis Union Station, from May 12, 1918
(Image courtesy: Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station)

As early as the 1920's, other forms of transportation (mainly highways) became more popular, and business at Union Station began to diminish. During World War II, rail traffic was briefly revived through government usage. Thousand of troops were sent off, welcomed, or laid over for a few hours at Indianapolis Union Station's very popular "Canteen", staffed continuously by local volunteers.

A historical photo at the hotel shows the station's famous "Canteen" during World War II
(Image courtesy: Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station)

The post war years ushered in renewed competition for train travel as airlines and highway systems expended. Throughout the 1960's and well into the post-Amtrak era, the number of train passengers declined to such a trickle that in cities where rail stations didn't serve commuter traffic (like Indianapolis), most were allowed to physically decline to a point where many were closed and some demolished. Indianapolis' Union Station almost suffered that fate. By 1963, there were just 19 stops daily through Union Station and only two railroad companies using the station.Travelers who had once filled the platforms and the corridors had found new (and faster) ways to travel, and industries found new ways to transport their goods. During the 1970's, Union Station had become a dark and destered ghost of its prosperous past. The Indianapolis Union Station Company was faced with high upkeep costs and intended to demolish the decrepit Grand Hall, which had been boarded up and heavily vandalized.

Local business and political leaders began looking for some way to preserve the historic structure and transform it into a vital part of the city again. The "Committee to Save Union Station" was formed to gain public support for saving the old landmark. The committee proceeded to assemble fundamental plans for a new use for Union Station, however, the city was unsuccessful finding a developer to bring that plan to life until 1982. At that time, local developers Robert and Sandra Borns pursued their interest in downtown projects and produced an expanded version of previous renovation plans, along with a financing package to back it up. The station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 14, 1982. In 1984, the facility began to be converted to the Festival Marketplace. Fifty million dollars and four year later, Indianapolis' historic Union Station was once again the focus of activity on downtown's near south side. The station featured a collection of restaurants, nightclubs, and specialty stores (which even included a model train retailer!) As part of the renovation, the train shed was converted into what is now the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The hotel was built on Tracks #1-8, leaving Tracks #9-11 operational and running just south of the hotel; these are the train lines used today by Amtrak's Hoosier State and Cardinal... as well as by freight trains.

A 1986 newspaper article discussing the transformation to the Festival Marketplace
(Image courtesy: Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station)

Sadly, things were extremely short lived for the Festival Marketplace. Terry, the hotel's Manger-on-Duty for the Crowne Plaza, who gave us the walking tour, explained that a new mall had opened just down the street in 1995. This "new" mall quickly became a lot more popular with shoppers than the revitalized Union Station, resulting in more and more retailers pulling out of their leases and relocating there. The Festival Marketplace was just 11 years old in 1997... but by that time... the last non-hotel and non-transportation tenant, a Hooter's restaurant, relocated to another nearby downtown building. In 1999, the facility re-opened as Crowne Plaza's Grand Hall and Conference Center.

Our first stop on Terry's walking tour ended up being at the Grand Hall and Conference Center. He explained that the cost of the plaster reconstruction was equal to the original cost of the entire Union Station. As you stand in the Great Hall, you may notice the gray tint to the wheel windows. This is a result of the windows being "blacked out" with black paint during World War II, which would keep the building from being seen easily from the air in case of German or Japanese raids. In addition to the two beautiful stained glass wheels, the Union Station's ceiling is dominated by over 3,000 square feet of stained glass. We didn't get to spend too much time exploring the Grand Hall because it was all set up for a wedding that was just about to start; apparently the space is so popular, multiple events are going on there every weekend and you have to generally book years in advance to get the date that you want!

A view of the historic Grand Hall of Indianapolis Union Station
(Photo courtesy:

The Grand Hall set up for a meeting
(Image courtesy: Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station)

Kandace, Kathy, and our tour guide Terry (lower right) stand and look into the Grand Hall, which was set up for a wedding (so we were not allowed photos inside)
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

Next, Terry took us for a walk down the hallways of Union Station. This area is normally closed off to the general public unless they are attending a meeting or event in this area of the hotel. We immediately noticed several bricked over stairwells. These stairwells are how travelers would reach their train platforms. Comparing what the hallways and stairways look like today to several historical photos... we were amazed at what little actually changed (except the stairwells being blocked off and no longer going up to the train platforms, of course). Here is what we are talking about:

A view of some of the old train gates, as seen today at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

A historical view of the train gates at Indianapolis Union Station
(Image courtesy: Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station)

Exploring the old gate area of Indianapolis Union Station;  Kandace (left), Robert (center), and Kathy Bruecker (right)
(Photo by Terry Shields)

Another view of the old gate area at Indianapolis Union Station
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

At one point, this area may have contained a board showing train statuses, or possibly a telephone for train crews
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

Notice the hand rail (center of photo)?  There used to be a staircase here going up to the tracks; its blocked off now with white plaster (right side of photo)
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

We were really impressed with all of the old tile work that was restored in the Grand Hall area of the station
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

After the outstanding "inside tour" of the Grand Hall and former gate area of the station, we headed back to the main hotel building. Terry was nice enough to give us some time to walk around and explore the sites while continuing his historical narrative. We also got the keys in the lobby for the train car rooms we would be checking into at the end of the tour.

The lobby area of the hotel; here Kandace and Kathy are getting the keys for our train rooms
(Photo by Robert Tabern)


Two more views of the lobby area of the hotel; you can tell it was once an old train station from the moment that you walk in
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

An area off the lobby where many of the original steel beams from Indianapolis Union Station can be seen
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

One of the features we noticed all over the hotel were what Terry referred to as "ghost statues"; he explained they were once located in the old Festival Market Place. When it closed, they were brought over to the hotel. The mannequins are dressed in authentic clothing from the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's (they heyday of train travel) and fiber glassed over to give them a ghost look.

Kathy checks out a "ghost statue" of two nuns
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

A "ghost statue" of a porter serving drinks is located in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

A "ghost statue" of a conductor checking his watch
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

Before checking in to our rooms, Terry took us upstairs to an areas where we could view the exterior of the historic train shed. You will notice how, sadly, most of the spaces where old tracks were located are now "paved over" and serve as an outdoor area for the hotel for events now; the remaining tracks on the far side are actually live tracks used today by Amtrak and freight trains.

Kathy, Kandace, Terry, and I walk up one of the few remaining old staircases that were not "bricked over"
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

Kathy looks out at the area where trains used to pull into the station; note the two openings that have not been filled in - these are used by Amtrak and freight trains; the paved area used to be all tracks
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

Notice the numbers above the tracks; Tracks #1-7 are part of the hotel; Tracks #8 to 11 are active train tracks; our "train car room" was resting on what was Track #7
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

One of our last stops on the tour was a bar area, called the Iron Horse; it's located in the basement area of Union Station. It once housed a barber shop, a woman's sitting room and was third class steerage. Individuals who were considered to be "beneath" a certain social class would wait on this level until their trains arrived. Up until the 1960's, all African Americans had to wait in this room, too. According to Terry, this room is unique for many reasons: the bricked ceilings are not to be found anywhere else in Indianapolis. The stone "feet" of the building can be seen in this room as well. Located in the southeast corner of the Iron Horse are the beginnings of the underground tunnel system that ran under Union Station. At one time there were three tunnels that ran into the post office, the jail, and the state house. The statehouse tunnel was used by dignitaries who wanted a more direct path to the station. The post office and jail were connected because during that time, mail and prisoners were never taken through the general population. About 40 yards down from the doorway, the tunnel splits into three directions. The first gones towards the Slippery Noodle. This is important because we know that the Noodle has underground tunnels that were used for the Underground Railroad.

A view inside the "Iron Horse"
(Photo provided by Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station)

And of course, the real highlight of our stay at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station... and the reason we wanted to come and visit here... was being able to stay in one of the 26 train car rooms. The 13 train cars (divided in half to yield 26 rooms) located on the second floor of the hotel are original 1920's Pullman cars. They were brought from southern Indiana and were driven into the building using the existing railways tracks. After the cars were locked into place, construction of the west wing of the hotel was completed around them. The cars were renovated and turned into guest rooms. Each car has two rooms making a total of 26 unique guest rooms. Terry explained that there is no other hotel in the world that has train cars inside the physical structure of the hotel. The three of us had one whole train car to ourselves; Kandace and I had one room and Kathy had the other; the dividing wall between the train cars provides a door which connects through to the other room, so, if you have friends or family in the next room that you want to visit, you can walk right through the train car. Each train car is named after a famous American; we had rooms #5 and #6. We had a very restful night sleep. Since our train car was right up against the active tracks, we did hear a few freights and Amtrak's Cardinal rumble through about Midnight. It all added to the experience of staying in a former train station.



Our first views of the train themed rooms
(Photos by Robert Tabern & Terry Shields)

A wall was actually built around the coupler of one of the cars; this is inside an employee storage closet, in an area normally "off limits" to guests
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)


More views of the train themed rooms
(Photos by Robert Tabern)


A view of the interior our room; while they are old train car rooms, they are up to modern luxurious hotel standards inside
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

After a very restful night's sleep at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station (especially thanks to the extra hour we got from the fall time change), we got up early and walked around the corner to what remains of the station... that is actually used by the railroad. Again, what Amtrak uses today for its station is just a very, very small part of what was a grand Union Station. We didn't know what the boarding time was going to be for the northbound Hoosier State, so we arrived pretty early and had about 30 minutes or so to wait and check out the train station. It was crowded, however most of the passengers seemed to be waiting for Greyhound buses, which also share the facility now.


A view inside the current Indianapolis Union Station that is used by Amtrak
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

Even with this photo taken in black and white, Amtrak's more modern staircase does not equal the grandeur of the old staircases in Union Station
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

Authors Robert and Kandace Tabern on the current platform at Indianapolis Union Station
(Photo by Kathy Bruecker)

Finally, we caught the 6:00am Hoosier State train to Chicago; we opted for Iowa Pacific's Business Class Service which featured seating in an old 1950's Santa Fe Dome Car. Now this is the way to travel to see and stay at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station!  We had superior service on our ride back to Chicago and actually got into Chicago's Union Station about 20 minutes early. Since we just reviewed the Hoosier State in an article earlier this year, we won't go into too much detail about our ride home.




Our ride home was on the train between Indianapolis and Chicago
(Photos by Robert Tabern, Kandace Tabern, and Kathy Bruecker)

We would like to thank the staff at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station for their hospitality during our stay, especially Sales & Marketing Manager, J.J. DeBrosse, who arranged the tour and provided us with some historical photos and background information for this article... and Terry Shields, the On-Duty Manager, for taking some time out of his busy Saturday afternoon to show us around the hotel... especially areas that are normally not seen by the public. We would highly recommend all history buffs and people who enjoy railroading stay here... especially as a get-away over the upcoming holiday period. You can use the links below to make your reservation now. There are some other helpful links for some sites to see while you are visiting Indianapolis, too.

And, our theme about old Union Stations will continue here at Outside the Rails @ TrainWeb. Our last article of the year for TrainWeb... set to be published sometime in mid-December 2015... will give you a "behind the scenes" tour of Chicago Union Station. Earlier this year Amtrak Government Affairs Manager Derrick James took us on a tour of areas almost never seen by the public.  Stay tuned!


Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station Website | Indianapolis Union Station History

Visit Indy: Official Tourism Site of Indianapolis


Top of this page
| APRHF Rail Rangers Website | APRHF Rail Rangers on Facebook | Robert Tabern on Facebook

Outside the Rails Route Guides on Facebook
| Purchase Copies of Outside the Rails Route Guides

 Silver Rails Country | American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) | | Other Rail Travelogues |