In October, with the intention of encouraging greater commercial and residential density in Center City and the wide-ranging boundary of Washington Avenue, Spring Garden Street, and both rivers, City Council approved a bill that allows for a 17 foot increase in the height of corner buildings zoned CMX-2 (neighborhood commercial mixed-use) and sided by three streets.
It is uncertain how the bill will affect Center City’s industrial fabric. The height increase from 38 feet to 55 feet could likely spur rooftop additions to existing industrial concerns, which, in itself, is not a terrible compromise when considering the inherent vulnerability of legacy working class buildings to total demolition.
There is, however, one virtually indestructible commercial building in the bill’s footprint that will hardly be bothered by the new legislation: the Terminal Commerce Building at 401 North Broad Street. This massive structure at Broad and Callowhill Streets, undergoing a $70 million upgrade, is a combined office and warehouse complex totaling over 1.3 million square feet that now serves as the East Coast’s largest telecom server hotel.
The building extends 528 feet from Broad to 13th Street and 225 feet along from Callowhill to Noble Street. Thirty acres of floor space once housed offices and showrooms for numerous firms headquartered there. When it was completed in 1930, the Art Deco building was proudly touted as being the largest and most modern commercial warehouse building in the nation.
Built With Unbreakable Bones
This hulking pile—also known as the Reading Terminal Commerce Building and the North American Building—was constructed for $4 million by the Reading Company. William Steele & Sons, a longstanding Philadelphia construction firm that started as a carpentry company, built the massive warehouse with designs by Clark Dillenbeck, chief engineer of the Reading Railroad.
Steele & Sons was influential in the early development of reinforced concrete structures and specialized in large-scale commercial and industrial buildings around Philadelphia, including the Market Street National Bank at 1325 Market Street and Shibe Park at 21st and Lehigh (demolished in 1976), among many others.
From the basement level to the third floor, the Terminal Commerce Building is made of structural steel and fireproofed with concrete. The steel framing required 7,611 tons of steel in total and the building employs steel girders of unprecedented size in its second and third floor levels. Above the third floor, the building is primarily made of flat slab reinforced concrete.
Steele & Sons’ handling of steel and concrete was meant to be indestructible. The Terminal Commerce Building was so tough that military tanks were reputedly assembled in it during World War II. It was large enough to have its own post office, and later, its own zip code. The structure’s size and strength helps account for both its longevity and for its primary current-day use as a major East Coast telecommunications data carrier hub.
Terminal Commerce straddled a freight station. The station, built as an integral part of the warehouse, replaced the North Broad Street Freight Station previously on the site, which served the Reading Railroad’s City Branch line along Noble Street. That earlier station included two 525 foot long freight warehouses along with an accompanying seven-track railyard. Prior to the North Broad Street Freight Station, the site was occupied by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Broad Street Depot, a cavernous structure built in 1861.
The Terminal Commerce Building’s overall design was unique for its time. It was the first warehouse in the country with a freight station beneath it. The basement level station had three 500 foot long loading platforms and included a railyard with five stub tracks that could store sixty railcars. The Pennsylvania Railroad was finishing the construction of Thirtieth Street Station around the same time as Terminal Commerce was completed and accomplished much of the same novel layout, with the addition of a passenger station above the mainline tracks.
The rail infrastructure already in place at 401 North Broad was ideal for the type of multi-purpose facility the Reading Company desired as a commercial counterpart to nearby Reading Terminal. It was designed to be an industrial and office park all in one building.
The Terminal Commerce Building is essentially five buildings in one. It furnished businesses with office and storage space within the same structure, located close to Center City, with convenient access to major streets and the Reading Railroad. A tenant could therefore run their entire business operation on a single floor—from space for offices and display rooms, to rooms for light manufacturing, warehousing and distribution centers. This was an early example of what later became known as “flex-space.” Tenants could also enjoy lower insurance rates due to the building’s fireproof construction and structural integrity.
Art Deco and Heavy Duty Design
Terminal Commerce has 228 foundation footings, ranging from 13 to 50 feet in depth and three to seven feet in diameter. These footings are made of concrete carried down in steel caissons to bedrock, which enables each one to handle a maximum load of almost 4,000,000 pounds. The large foundations impeded vibrations from hundreds of train movements every day along the Reading’s City Branch. The onetime Inquirer-Elverson Building was also built on top of the City Branch line and has similar foundations that prevented vibrations from affecting printing operations in the building.
The western front of 401 North Broad is faced up to the third-floor with light brown, unglazed terra-cotta. Yellow Kittanning brick continues above. The main entrance bay along Broad Street is surrounded in terra cotta, which was restored in 2007 after having been been altered decades ago. Today, the replacement terra cotta is just barely distinguishable from the original.
The western front also contains a central tower that once held water tanks for automatic fire sprinklers and general water supply. Rising 41 feet above the roofline, the windowless tower is faced with polychromatic glazed terra cotta and encompasses all of the top story on that side of the building. This lustrous and colorful terra cotta detail consists of abstract Mayan-inspired forms of plants, flowers, zigzags, and chevrons typical of the Art Deco style. It is the structure’s most distinctive external feature.
The second floor along Broad Street was omitted from the building’s design layout to allow a ceiling height of 25 feet to the first floor, which was intended for office and showroom purposes. The upper stories have a clear headroom of twelve feet and were used for offices, showrooms, and warehouse space. Before the building was even completed, the Reading Company had already leased most of this versatile space.
A bank was supposed to have occupied the main floor’s southwest corner, while the rest of the level was to be used for showroom space, primarily for automobiles. The building was designed at the time when North Broad Street was known as Automobile Row. Many automobile makers manufactured and sold cars in buildings along Philadelphia’s main north-south avenue. The Great Depression shut down many of these enterprises, and no bank ever set up shop in the building.
The rear or eastern part of Terminal Commerce was designed to be more of a utilitarian storage space. Twelve stories high and h-shaped, it was constructed as a solid unit all the way to the sixth floor, above which a huge light well extends longitudinally through the center. This feature splits the great warehouse into two rectangular wings joined by a central bridge section about mid-block. Easily seen from the building’s rear, the lightwell allows for the entry of a tremendous amount of natural light, which is beneficial for manufacturing activity. Neighboring walls in the rear lack almost any ornamentation, adding to the starkness of the building from every vantage point but Broad Street.
A paved driveway from 13th Street brought street traffic to the basement level, while another ramp delivered trucks with trailers from 15th Street by means of bridge under Broad Street and an approach that can still be seen parallel to Callowhill Street, alongside the Inquirer Building. The loading docks could handle 140 trucks at one time.
The first floor was served by a driveway extending from Broad Street to 13th Street along and inside the building’s north side. The second floor was originally used exclusively for parking, with enough space for about 500 cars. It even housed a car wash and a gas station. Access to the second floor was granted by an enclosed ramp next to the first floor driveway from Broad Street. The ramp clings to the northern side of the building above the tracks of the City Branch and is still visible today. The entrance is where the old Reading diner car 1186 has rested for decades.
Befitting a building of its size, numerous elevators served all floors of the Terminal Commerce Building, including freight platforms at track (basement) level. There were originally seven heavy duty freight elevators and four passenger elevators. The elevator service was touted as a time and money-saving feature because tenants would not have to ship their finished goods by truck to railroad facilities and could do it all from the production floor.
A Break From Commercial Utility
Commercial rail traffic began to wane after World War II, and companies that depended on railroad transportation vacated the building and left the city for the suburbs. In 1955, the Reading Company sold 401 North Broad and the new owner renamed the building the North American Building. It was next used as the main regional U.S. Army Induction Center from 1959 to 1973. Throughout the Vietnam War, thousands of draftees from the five-county region passed through its doors for induction tests. One can imagine that 401 North Broad struck dread among young men as they entered its halls or as they walked by.
As late as 1974, Terminal Commerce was still the largest single office building in Philadelphia. The Rizzo Administration considered renovating it for a new criminal justice center. Complete city government occupation was planned by 1976, but this did not happen. Instead, federal agencies like the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service moved into much of the building’s office space.
During the early 1980s several floors were retrofitted for hard copy record warehousing for tenants like General Accident Insurance, the Insurance Company of North America, and the City of Philadelphia Records and Archives. The building also housed a training center for handicapped adults. About twenty years ago, a disabled man died after falling 30 feet from a window at the rear of the building.
Tower of Telecommunications
The North American Building’s size and veritable indestructibility led to its widely successful reuse as a telecom carrier hotel, or colocation centre, housing internet servers, routing computers, and data storage service equipment. Large internet servers and huge back up power generators have occupied the building since the 1990s under the direction of The Stillman Group with various telecommunications companies occupying most of the space. The building is a major junction for north-south fiber routes. Most of the nation’s East Coast Internet traffic goes through 401 North Broad. The carrier hotel also boasts a direct connection to Europe through several transatlantic submarine cable systems.
Telecommunications use of the building began when high-tech computer users like Sungard Data Recovery and Amtrak moved large mainframe computer centers into the sturdy building. Industrial buildings of this caliber are often repurposed into data storage and transfer stations. 401 North Broad’s solid floors and high ceilings can accommodate tall, heavy duty servers and allow cooling air to flow. Also, its proximity to Center City consumers and companies like Comcast has made the building increasingly ideal for this reuse.
Some urban planners are not convinced that conversions like this are the best use of old industrial space. Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, told The Inquirer article last month that such repurposed buildings are “urban killers” that “suck the life out of an area because there’s no human activity.”
In 2014, Amerimar Enterprises and Abrams Capital acquired 401 North Broad and will invest some $70 million in building upgrades. The new owners have already begun work cleaning the façades and putting in new windows. The creation of a 25,000 square foot meet-me room (MMR) where data center carriers and clients will have physical access to their networks is also included in the plan.
The future of the Terminal Commerce Building looks bright. The carrier hotel market is solid and Philadelphia is between two of the top data center markets in the country, New York City and northern Virginia. “It’s the premier telecommunications building between Manhattan and Virginia. We’ve got 80 carriers serving the building,” Amerimar CEO Jerry Marshall told The Inquirer.
Passing by, one hears the hum of air conditioning units and cooling fans keeping the servers inside from overheating. Manholes with “MCI” stamped on them can be seen along Noble and Callowhill Streets. Fiber optic lines proceed east under Callowhill and then cross beneath the Delaware River heading to New York and other points north. In 1948, over 5,000 people punched a time clock at Terminal Commerce. Today, few people actually work inside 401 North Broad.
The Terminal Commerce Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 and is a key property in the Callowhill Industrial Historic District. It’s one of the largest buildings in the Eraserhood. With North Broad Street and the surrounding area well on its way to renewal–the Reading Viaduct Rail Park project breaking ground in 2016, the restoration of the Divine Lorraine underway, and RAL Companies’ huge retail and residential development for 13th Street and Fairmont Avenue currently in the planning stages–this beast at Broad and Callowhill will only become more prominent on the list of rediscovered Philadelphia landmarks as the neighborhood reawakens with an historic shift forward.
About the author
Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.
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