Tracing The ‘Chinese Wall’ In Center City

October 2, 2013 | by Nicholas Phillippi


Penn Center may be a mixed bag, but at least it's not a giant "Chinese Wall" splitting Center City in half -- like it used to | Photo: PhillyHistory.org

Penn Center may be a mixed bag, but at least it’s not a giant “Chinese Wall” splitting Center City in half — like it did seen here in the 1940s | Photo: PhillyHistory.org

Since the commencement of service on its first rail line in 1852, the Pennsylvania Railroad played a substantial role in Philadelphia’s evolution into the “Workshop of the World.” However direct access to Philadelphia’s center remained an elusive goal until the mid twentieth century. Railroad companies operating in Philadelphia had to make use of City owned track running along Market Street.

Thanks to a city ordinance at the time which banned steam locomotives from the center of town, trains had to stop at the Schuylkill River where the locomotive was unhitched and the cars pulled along by teams of oxen. PRR’s early depots at Eighth and Market Streets, and later 11th and Market, were accessed by this means. Starting in 1864, trains called from a new depot at 31st and Market, allowing for arrivals and departures without the need for a changeover of motive power. Passengers used horse drawn streetcar routes and carrages for the final leg of the journey towards downtown destinations. As the Centennial Exposition approached in nearby Fairmount Park, PRR opened a new depot at 32nd and Market Streets on May 6, 1876. Though this station was bigger and better than before people still had to reach the middle of town via other means. As a result of this growth, the element of prestige for a downtown terminal also grew. Only the issue of getting trains there in an efficient manner remained.

Thus, in 1879, plans were set forth for the Filbert Street Extension, a large viaduct that began with a new bridge across the Schuylkill and ended at the imposing Broad Street Station directly across from City Hall. More than 200 buildings were razed between 15th and 21st streets along the south side of Filbert, and the viaduct which replaced them were fitted with stone arches spanning the intersecting numbered streets. Designed by the Wilson Brothers, an architectural and engineering firm whose projects included several Centennial structures, Broad Street Station was opened December 5th, 1881. A five-story Victorian Gothic headhouse facing City Hall contained offices and a second floor waiting room. Behind this sat a twin arched train shed covering eight tracks that stretched to 16th Street. This was adjacent to a four-track freight terminal situated on the viaduct at 15th and Market. Almost from the get-go, however, crowds began to overwhelm the new station. Growing service along the existing lines coupled with the opening of the Chestnut Hill branch in 1883-4 and the Schuylkill Division to Pottsville by 1886 brought increased passenger traffic. A project to widen the viaduct which involved moving the freight station west to 17th and Market was completed in 1889. Still, this was not enough to keep up with explosive growth. As if things weren’t bad enough, the PRR’s arch rival Philadelphia and Reading Railroad neared realization of plans for its palatial new terminal at 12th and Market.

In 1887 work began on the dramatic enlargement of Broad Street Station with the demolition of the “Coffee House Block,” allowing the footprint of the enlarged head house to span the entire block of Broad Street from Market to Filbert. An immense ten story wing was constructed in 1892-3 with the design of acclaimed architect Frank Furness, who used granite brick and terra cotta to provide his own unique interpretation of the newly emerging Beaux-Arts style. A new train shed was constructed that was the largest in the world, exceeding that of the newly completed Reading Terminal. This consisted of a single arch spanning 16 tracks allowing for twice the capacity.

Broad Street Station in it's urban context ca 1920 | Photo courtesy Ariel Viewpoint, retrieved from PlanPhilly

Broad Street Station in its urban context c. 1920 | Photo by Aerial Viewpoint, retrieved from PlanPhilly

For all the grandeur the enlarged Broad Street Station presented, capacity remained an issue. It also contained a major flaw: since all PRR lines ran west of the Schuylkill, all through trains had to make their Philadelphia stop by backing into the station along the viaduct, adding a considerable amount of time to the schedule. A new station near Broad and Glenwood in North Philadelphia was opened in 1901, and with the completion of the New York-Pittsburgh Subway three years later, it was more efficient to have this station serve as the Philadelphia stop on the line between those two cities. Also a new West Philadelphia Station, built near the site of the Centennial Depot in 1903, played a similar role for New York-Washington trains.

Electrification of commuter lines (starting with the Paoli line in 1915) allowed for multiple unit trains that did not require a locomotive to push/pull them into Broad Street. This allowed for smoother operation, but PRR was still weighed down by the obsolete terminal. The Filbert Street Viaduct was derogatorily referred to as the “Chinese Wall,” taking up blocks of valuable real estate and stunting development north and west of Center City. Streets were spanned by short stone arches that proved to be an obstruction to most forms traffic.

Starting in December 1910, PRR began discussing for their Philadelphia Improvements. Multiple proposals were suggested for further enlargements of Broad Street as well as centralized passenger services in West Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the City was putting forth its own plans for a new parkway stretching from Logan Square to Fairmount Park.

Around 1am on June 11, 1923, a fire broke out underneath one of the platforms and soon engulfed the entire train shed. This intense inferno required a response from virtually the entire Philadelphia Fire department and continued to burn for the next two days. In what can easily be described as a Herculean effort, rebuilding began almost immediately the next day. Repair crews worked alongside firefighters who were still hosing down the smoldering remnants of the previous night’s blaze. Unbelievably, PRR managed to accommodate all 530 trains scheduled on June 12th using temporary platforms that were hastily built or by termintaing then at North or West Philadelphia. The train shed’s iron frame remained upright, however its members were warped and weakened to such an extent that it was declared a total loss. Dismantling was completed later that year.

If anything, this fire served as the impetus to fast-track discussions of the proposed Improvements. Traffic was escalating, the viaduct land (which PRR had to pay taxes for) kept increasing in value, and the viaduct itself became more of a blight on the landscape. West Philadelphia station was becoming a more popular stop, however commuter demand still necessitated the continuing use of a station in Center City.

In the mid 1920’s PRR and the City realized that a jointly developed plan could solve the ills of each party. The revised Philadelphia Improvements called for a grand new station at 30th street situated along the main line running north/south, to serve as the stop for trains on this route as well those to and from the west. (The latter would be able to enter at either end thanks to a double tracked turning loop.) Commuter trains heading downtown would also stop at 30th Street on an upper level, then cross the Schuylkill on a new bridge and enter a tunnel directly north of the old viaduct, stopping at the underground Broad Street Suburban Station at 16th and Filbert Streets. Both the classical revival 30th Street Station and art deco Suburban Station buildings were designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White.

Under this plan, “Old Broad” would be removed entirely and its site and the properties abutting the Chinese Wall would be redeveloped for new buildings. (The new tunnel was braced for future construction overhead.) This would earn the PRR extra profits from real estate and—at last—allow for development along West Market Street and points north. The City would widen Filbert Street into “Pennsylvania Boulevard” that would run from City Hall and cross the river to terminate at the main portico at the new PRR main station. A new highway would run below the portico and, travel parallel to the PRR yards to connect with the West River Drive in Fairmount Park.

Construction on some components of the Improvements, including a 14 story building to house PRR’s general offices at 32nd and Market, as well as some track and facility work began in 1925. However it was not until mid 1927 that the necessary property along between Filbert and Cuthbert Streets was acquired, cleared, and excavated. Ground was broken in July with major work underway by December.

Suburban Station with Penn Center buildings behind | Photo: Shadowbat

Suburban Station in its modern, Penn Center context | Photo: Shadowbat

Suburban Station opened Sept 28, 1930 featuring two levels below ground. The first contained the concourse, waiting room, and ticket office reached by stairs to the street as well as direct access to the city’s new underground concourse network where local mass transit lines could be reached under cover. To get to the trains themselves, passengers went down another flight to any one of four platforms serving seven tracks (designed to be expanded to twelve tracks and six platforms once Old Broad was cleared). The 20-story art deco building that housed PRR’s executive offices and boardroom, along with additional office space for rent, had opened the previous April. Departing trains traveled through a four-track “subway” which emerged at 20th Street onto a new viaduct and bridge over the river to stop at the suburban platforms at the PRR main station before joining in with existing lines.

Although the Suburban wing was open, the central portion of the station was held up by extended negotiations with the Philadelphia Rapid Transit company (the SEPTA of the time) in regards to relocation the Market Street Elevated on the south side of the site. It was not until March 12, 1933 that the new Pennsylvania Station was fully open. This facility quickly became known as 30th Street and the name stuck. Under the plan there would be ten tracks for passenger trains with five platforms, in addition to seven tracks for mail serving the new post office across Market Street. It had been hoped that this building would serve as Philadelphia’s Union Station with both the Reading and B & O stopping here, but both railroads backed out during planning.

By the time 30th Street opened however, the Great Depression was well underway and even the mighty PRR was feeling the pinch. Only two tracks of the grand facility were put in service. Although additional tracks were installed in 1937, many through runs including the New York “Clockers” and the Seashore line to the South Jersey shore continued to operate from Broad Street in order to stay competitive with the B&O and Reading, both of whom maintained a downtown presence. Temporary crossover tracks between 20th and 21st Streets allowed broad Street trains use of the new bridge, allowing for the removal of the old river crossings.

World War II delayed the project further and it was not until 1950 that work was able to resume. By early 1952 all ten through tracks were put into service, allowing for the closure of Broad Street 22 years late. At 1:10 in the morning on April 27th, Train #431 had the honor of making the last departure from Broad Street with the Philadelphia Orchestra performing a ceremonial sendoff. A ceremonial demolition occurred later that morning when a sledgehammer was taken to the granite base of the facade; this hit failed to even leave a mark. It took workers with mechanized equipment over two years to raze the head house. Rubble was dumped in the Delaware River in South Philadelphia to facilitate construction of a new pier at PRR’s Greenwich yards.

The JFK Boulevard bridge make use the old PRR viaduct for its west abutment | Photo: Shadowbat

The JFK Boulevard bridge make use the old PRR viaduct for its west abutment | Photo: Shadowbat

With demolition complete, construction began on the Penn Center complex. This consisted of two office buildings on the station site, the Penn Center House apartments, a Sheraton Hotel atop the rail tunnel itself, and an underground bus terminal, all of which were completed by 1957. They also all fronted onto the new Pennsylvania Boulevard, renamed John F. Kennedy Boulevard in 1964 a year after the president was slain. An additional office building was completed the following year, and by the late 1960s the Sterling and Kennedy House were built atop the final two spaces above the tunnel with three more office buildings and a hotel (Penn Center Inn) rounding out the development.

Despite urban renewal’s extreme makeover of Center City’s western end, several remnants of the PRR’s Chinese Wall still exist. West of 20th street, JFK Boulevard rides top of the former Chinese Wall uninterrupted to 30th Street Station. On the northern side, the original stone retaining walls are still visible between the Boulevard and the Suburban Station approach at 20th. In the narrow strip of grass and trees on the north side of JFK, brick and concrete fragments still stick out along with some jagged chunks of steel that were part of the base for the overhead catenary installed during electrification. As well, during Broad Street Station’s demolition, Karl Bitter’s Spirit of Transportation, a large bas relief sculpture commissioned by Frank Furness for Old Broad’s waiting room, was salvaged and reinstalled in its present location at 30th Street Station’s waiting room.


Spirit of Transportation by Karl Bitter salvaged from Broad Street Station and installed in 30th Street | Photo: Shadowbat

Eventually, the mighty Pennsy ceased to exist. After losing money in the advent of highway and air travel, PRR entered a disastrous merger with the New York Central and ultimately declared bankruptcy. Its lines in Philadelphia are now used by Amtrak, Septa, and New jersey Transit. Suburban Station remains an important transit hub, even more so after the Center City tunnel joined its tracks with that of the former Reading lines. Penn Center continued to evolve during the office boom of the 1980s and early 90s with Liberty Place, Commerce Square, BNY Mellon Center (replacing the underground bus terminal), Blue Cross building (replacing Penn Center Inn), and other “trophy towers” that elevated the Philadelphia skyline to what it is today. The former Sheraton is now the site of Comcast Center. After decades of neglect, 30th Street Station was restored to its former glory in 1991 after a two and a half year project. Suburban Station was itself refurbished in the mid 2000s.

It may have taken several tries over numerous decades for PRR to find the right station site in Philadelphia, but the end result is a network that seems so well thought out that it is tough to see how Philadelphia would work without it. Indeed there would have been no “Center City” as it is known today and certainly not “University City.” As the Improvements were being planned it was envisioned that downtown would expand to the west, and now it seems that vision is finally becoming reality with the Cira Centre and Drexel developments planned for the area around 30th Street. Suburban should see growth as well if new towers proposed for the immediate area see the light of day.


30th Street Station with suburban bridge and platforms to the right and JFK Boulevard to the left. Taken looking west from the former Chinese Wall abutment | Photo: Shadowbat

Typical arched overpass in the Chinese Wall viaduct | Photo: Phillyhistory.org

Typical arched overpass in the Chinese Wall viaduct | Photo: PhillyHistory.org

LEFT: Kennedy House apartments with Penn Center House to the right and the Sterling behind. Both Kennedy House and the Sterling were built atop the PRR subway as air rights development; RIGHT: This piece of steel was part of a support pole that held up the overhead wires atop the Chinese Wall viaduct. The viaduct itself is now partially used to support JFK Boulevard | Photos: Shadowbat

LEFT: Kennedy House apartments with Penn Center House to the right and the Sterling behind. Both Kennedy House and the Sterling were built atop the PRR subway as air rights development; RIGHT: This piece of steel was part of a support pole that held up the overhead wires atop the Chinese Wall viaduct. The viaduct itself is now partially used to support JFK Boulevard | Photos: Shadowbat

LEFT: Stone wall that held up the old Filbert Street viaduct AKA the Chinese Wall; RIGHT: Old Filbert Street viaduct wall to the left and Suburban Station approach behind wall to the right | Photos: Shadowbat

LEFT: Stone wall that held up the old Filbert Street viaduct AKA the Chinese Wall; RIGHT: Old Filbert Street viaduct wall to the left and Suburban Station approach behind wall to the right | Photos: Shadowbat



  1. Davis says:

    I well remember when on the Paoli Local one would hear the conductor shout out – “Pennsylvania Station 30th Street”.

  2. George says:

    I used to walk south on 16th St under the block long arch to the orthodontist, and return via Nedix after an orange drink and a glazed donut, to Suburban St Station and on to home. The memory that still burns in my heas is that of the Hugh passenger elevator that traveled in an open shaft and , I guess could carry 50-100 people from the first to the train level floor. I could have watched it for hours, as all those traveler departed from and returned to center city. It sure was damp and smelled moldy walking thru that long archway. Much better today.

  3. Pat Ryan says:

    My Dad worked at the Railway Express office which is pictured in the photo of Market St. I went there on Fridays with him before I started school.

  4. Elliott says:

    What a great article. Always heard my grandfather talk about the old chinese wall, but never understood how we could have had a huge stone wall running through center city, and how that could have turned into what we have today. Also, neat to see how individual decisions & projects over time eventually turn into our current reality which does now seem inevitable but clearly wasn’t. Good stuff.

  5. Christian says:

    Great article Shadowbat, I saw a picture a few years ago of the “chinese wall” and wondered why in an era of such industrialism they would severe the city’s west half in order to get to center city. It’s any wonder why they didn’t make the arches higher or lower the roads leading under the wall…
    I took my time reading this over coffee during several evenings and using google maps to follow along… This’ll be a nice segue into digging deeper…

  6. Doug says:

    Wish I could have seen Broad Street when the big train shed was in use. I have a couple of photos showing train conductors standing under the arch entrance so it’s easy to see the huge scale of the structure.

  7. Brian Epp says:

    Tracing The ‘Chinese Wall’ In Center City is an interesting article! Ultimately, this allowed Philadelphia to develop and grow into the vibrant city that we know today!

  8. Peter Good says:

    The legacy of this project can still be seen today, with portions of the Chinese Wall still visible throughout Center City.

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