A 50-foot tree and hundreds of ornaments: How Union Station is transformed for the holidays

A little to the left. A little to the right.

Christmas tree perfectionists can relate to the desire to apportion ornaments correctly.

But in Maria Delgado's case, it's essential because the tree she's helping to decorate at Chicago Union Station stands a colossal 50 feet tall.

“It's hard to see up there,” explained Delgado, who gives directions to workers in mechanical lifts high above passing Metra commuters and Amtrak customers.

“We believe this is the tallest indoor tree in Chicago,” said Marc Magliari, spokesman for Amtrak, which owns Union Station.

So, how complicated is it to transform the Great Hall from a bustling passenger center to a hub of holiday joie de vivre?

Think of “12 Days of Christmas” logistics, only with 150 resin balls, up to 18 workers, 15-hour days, six months of planning and one Erie Lackawanna Railway ornament.

The process takes five days, and the tree is the most labor-intensive part, said Anna Koutoupis, CEO and founder of Khloros Plants interior landscapers.

“We spend one day putting the inner tree frame up, and typically two days for the outer frame,” she said during a site tour in mid-November.

“They keep going up in a cone shape, and when you get to the top of the tree, there is a small tree you plop on top.”

It's worth noting, the 7-foot “small tree” requires two strong-armed workers in a lift.

Then, there's a day for branches and another for ornaments, Koutoupis said.

The branches, already adorned with LED lights, come in sections that are attached to the metal frame.

“Before it goes up, each branch gets tested and fluffed. We have a whole bunch of elves making sure they're fluffed,” she added.

When that's complete, workers climb in the lift again to wire myriad illuminated balls and pendants to the tree.

On the ground, decorators like Delgado help navigate ornament placement because perspective gets lost in the sea of branches. “Once you're up there, you can't really tell what you're seeing,” Koutoupis said.

Adding to the eye candy are placards with vintage and current railroad logos.

“The train buffs are very fond of the fact there also is hanging train memorabilia on the tree — signs from either long-dead or long-absorbed railroads and (Amtrak) too, which is neither,” Magliari said.

Of course, railfans will “try to bust us,” he explained. “They'll say, 'The Erie Lackawanna Railway never went to Union Station.' We say, 'Yes but we're honoring it.'”

Each year, a new innovation is introduced. In 2023, it's giant lit-up snowflakes shimmering in the recently reopened Clinton Street entrance.

“I just looked up and saw the space was a bit dark,” Koutoupis said. “I thought it would be really pretty to be illuminated in there. Snowflakes are a seasonal thing versus holiday-specific, so it's for everyone.”

Station decorations also include a giant menorah for Hanukkah plus Diwali and Kwanzaa displays.

Koutoupis' favorite part arrives when the tree is ready and families start posing for photos. “Little kids come in with outfits on ... you get to share the joy,” she said.

The goal is to complete decorating before the Thanksgiving holidays when Amtrak's two busiest days occur.

Travel “doesn't always go perfectly,” Magliari said. “This makes people smile and makes people happy to be here.”

You should know

Speaking of railroads, U.S. Surface Transportation Board Chair Marty Oberman announced last month “that he has decided not to seek reappointment and will continue to serve several months into next year, which is within his one-year holdover period,” STB spokesman Michael Booth said.

Oberman is a former Metra chairman and Chicago alderman.

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  Joe Moore uses a lift to add decorations to a giant Christmas tree at Union Station's Great Hall in Chicago. The 50-foot tree is thought to be tallest indoor holiday tree in Chicago. Brian Hill/
  With the help of a lift, Joe Moore adds an ornament to the giant Christmas tree at Union Station's Great Hall in Chicago. Brian Hill/
  Khloros CEO Anna Koutoupis holds one of many giant Christmas decorations brightening Union Station's Great Hall in Chicago. Brian Hill/
  Christmas decorations, including many train-centric ornaments, are part of the holiday display at Union Station's Great Hall in Chicago. Brian Hill/
  Travelers enter the Great Hall at Union Station in Chicago. Brian Hill/
  Christmas decorations are reflected in the window as a traveler leaves Union Station's Great Hall in Chicago. Brian Hill/
  Seasonal snowflakes decorate the newly reopened Clinton Street entrance at Union Station in Chicago. The snowflakes are new this year. Marni Pyke/
A photo of the completed Christmas tree in Union Station's Great Hall. Courtesy of Khloros
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