Monday, June 11, 2012

Broad Street Station: What Should Have Been

Broad Street Station Shed Fire, 11 June 1923
(Photo at

Over at PhillyHistory, Ken Finkel has a nice little blog post about the raging inferno, 89 years ago today, that destroyed the train shed at the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broad Street Station at 15th and Market Streets in Center City Philadelphia.  This glass and steel shed, designed by the Wilson Brothers and Company, had been for decades the world's largest single-span structure, a staggering 300-foot-8-inch-wide, 589-foot-2-inch-long, 108-foot-tall, and tipping the scales at 7,000,000 pounds. 

Though the shed was dismantled and the tracks and platforms restored in an amazing five days (!) by a workforce of 3500 men (Think this could be accomplished today? Think again), the fire represented the veritable handwriting on the wall for the great station, which later was rendered redundant by the Pennsy's construction of the Suburban Station at 16th and Filbert in 1930 and 30th Street Station in 1933.  Nevertheless, the station was given a reprieve for a time due to the Great Depression and World War II, and ultimately lasted until 1952.  To show how eagerly the city and the railroad were to be rid of the behemoth-like relic, demolition began a mere two hours after Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra serenaded the final departing train with "Auld Lang Syne" on 27 April that year.

I am not old enough to have had the fortune of seeing Broad Street Station while it was still extant.  However, I do remember being told over and over again by my elders what a horridly awful building it was, and how the "Chinese Wall" (the viaduct carrying the tracks  from the station across the Schuylkill on its way to the railroad's "Main Line") was more effective, and less pleasing to the eye, than its ancient counterpart north of Beijing.  How wonderful it was, so I was told ad nauseum, that the new Penn Center office towers (so much "cleaner") had taken its place.

Well, even as a child, I was not impressed by the Bacon/Kling Penn Center.  Today, my indifference has turned to revulsion.  For, you see, my study of Philadelphia's history has convinced me that the old Broad Street Station is THE most significant architectural loss in the history of a city who has demolished more great buildings than any other American city still has standing.

The brothers Wilson constructed the original, brick and granite station in 1882 in the then-fashionable Gothic style, directly across 15th street from City Hall, in the 11th of the 30 years it took for that masterpiece to be constructed.

Broad Street Station, circa 1882

After only a few years, the Pennsy's exponential growth, along with (reading between the lines) competition with the Reading Railroad — whose impressive head house and shed remain as the cornerstone of the Pennsylvania Convention Center — demanded a larger facility.  As a result, they hired the city's greatest architect, Frank Furness, to enlarge the station.  The results were, to say the least, impressive.

Postcard from author's personal collection, postmarked 22 April 1930

Facade Detail, Broad Street Station (Pennsylvania Railroad Photo [])

Karl Bitter's bas-relief, The Spirit of Transportation,
originally in Broad Street Station, now in 30th Street Station
(photo courtesy of the author)

I, of course, understand the economic and civic exigencies that led to the loss of Broad Street Station.  The "Chinese Wall," in particular, cut off the northwestern quadrant of Center City from the rest of downtown.  Though the attribution of this sector's economic vicissitudes to the presence of the wall is, in my view, best described as "not proven," one cannot but doubt the aesthetic drag it exerted over the neighborhood.

"Chinese Wall," 1929 (photo at
My Alma Mater, Philadelphia College of Bible,
occupied the 1890 YWCA building (Addison Hutton) at 18th and Arch
when I attended there in the 1970s. It is on the right
between the INA Building and Bell Telephone Building.
I still remember the Fidelity Storage Warehouse as
the last remaining vestige of the area among the ruins
before redevelopment in the 1960s.

My beef with Philadelphia City Planner Edmund Bacon (father of actor Kevin Bacon, in case you didn't know) and his cronies is their lack of imagination.  Such modernist thinkers knew of but one method of operation, one that can only be described as a scorched-earth policy (one they, and the federal government, used with somewhat happier results — though still severely flawed, in my thinking — in Society Hill and the Independence National Historical Park).  It apparently didn't occur to any of them that the Broad Street Station head house could have been saved and renovated as the centerpiece of new development.  But of course these were the same folks who wanted to demolish the peerless City Hall, which was saved only because of the prohibitive costs involved in tearing down such a structure.  And the replacements? Concrete-and-glass, rectangular monstrosities plopped down in barren plazas that will continue to blight the western half of Center City for the foreseeable future.  Bacon's generation may have been dubbed "The Greatest Generation" by Tom Brokaw because of their role in saving western civilization.  That I will grant.  But they certainly weren't the greatest when it came to aesthetics and architecture. 

Penn Center today.  What were they thinking?

The story of Broad Street Station is a cautionary tale.  My (surely pie-in-the-sky) hope is that those of us who love Philadelphia will work hard lest any more of the city's peerless architectural heritage is wantonly destroyed in the interests of philistinism and crass commerce.


  1. My dad worked for Kling! After Penn Center, of course.

  2. I saw a sketch of a conception of Penn Center drawn in 1925 that preserved Broad Street Station (albeit truncated) and added nice looking buildings where the old train tracks were. To bad something like that wasn't done.

  3. Today is June 11, 2013. The 90th anniversary of this extremely important event in the history of Philadelphia. Thank you for your excellent blog post and your thoughts on this topic.

  4. Regarding the last thing about pie-in-the-sky hopes, did they actually carry out the Stern & Ass. drawn "changes" to that big Museum of Art?

  5. The Broad Street Station will always hold a fond place in my mind since my great-grand father was the general supervisor (of maintenance) of the PRR offices in the building. My great-grand father worked in this position for the majority of his 48 years of service with the PRR. Sadly, the building was demolished before I was born, so I never got the chance to ever enter its doors but I still have a warm feeling when I look at photos of this grand building knowing that my great-grandfather and his staff had so much to do with maintaining this beautiful building. It is truly a great shame that something could not have been done to save some portion of the station for the future generations to behold!