And with a flick of the wrist, 30th Street Station was no more. On August 8, 2014, President Barack Obama signed bill P.L. 113-158 into law, officially renaming Philadelphia’s most important transit hub “William H. Gray III 30th Street Station.” The bill, honoring the late U.S. Representative who served Pennsylvania’s 2nd District from 1979 to 1991, came from the desk of the man who presently holds Gray’s seat, Chaka Fattah, with the support of the entire PA House and Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey. Four months later, Amtrak installed a prominent, and costly, new sign facing Center City. It reads, “30th Street Station.”
Would that new sign have to be replaced now that the station had been renamed? Should it? Incidentally, it was never really 30th Street Station. The enormous terminal, third busiest in the United States, opened in 1933 as Pennsylvania Station–30th Street. The distinction was important, differentiating it from the Pennsylvania Railroad’s other Philadelphia stations at Broad Street and North Philadelphia, and it followed the nomenclature of the PRR’s other “Penn Stations” in New York, Newark, Baltimore, and elsewhere.
The building’s elegant blend of Classical and Moderne architecture came from Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, the descendant firm of influential Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. They delivered the PRR an optimistic design with an enormous, elongated waiting room of travertine walls and a coffered ceiling painted red, gold, and cream. Walker Hancock’s 39-foot bronze sculpture Angel of the Resurrection flanks the eastern colonnade of the waiting room and honors the PRR’s 1,307 employees who died in World War II. Karl Bitter’s terra cotta relief Spirit of Transportation adorns the wall of the smaller northern waiting room, relocated there from PRR’s Broad Street Station, where it was installed in 1895.
On June 7, 1978, the station was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its nomination, prepared by Edward Dunson, contained five different historic names and a “common” name, “30th Street Station.”
Indeed, the colloquial “30th Street Station” eventually became its common title. Amtrak, which has 11 lines including its indispensable Northeast Corridor using the station each day, and SEPTA, whose 13 Regional Rail trains, plus Market-Frankford and Subway-Surface Trolley Lines, all use the station, call it “30th Street Station.” New Jersey Transit, with 25 Atlantic City Rail Line trains per day, calls it “Philadelphia 30th Street.”
For a fleeting moment a decade ago, the station almost took another name—one for a Philadelphian more widely known than Congressman Bill Gray. In 2005, Pew Charitable Trusts engaged Amtrak to consider renaming it “Ben Franklin Station” in advance of the founding father’s 300th birthday in 2006. But the discussion derailed after public outcry, Pew abandoned its plan, and “Ben Station” never came to be.
Last June, Fattah introduced a bill to Congress to rename the station for his predecessor. In a statement, Fattah lauded Gray, as Chairman of the House Budget Committee, for leading the fight against proposed cuts to eliminate Amtrak in 1985, and later, securing millions to renovate 30th Street Station.
As with the Franklin proposal, the railroad community did not approve. A change.org petition against the renaming gathered over 1,000 signatures, and one particular enthusiast penned a letter to the editor of the Inquirer suggesting four other names with a connection to the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Its author, Bennett Levin, is a character on Philadelphia’s historic stage. The straight-shooting former L&I Commissioner offered a 90-minute testimony ripping his former department and the Nutter Administration in a hearing on the 22nd & Market building collapse. His list of railroad aficionado bona fides is extensive and includes the position of President at both the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society and the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners. As one might imagine, it takes a little money to own and restore private railroad cars, of which Levin owns three. He made his with his own engineering firm, founded in 1966. One job in that capacity was for an eight-story building at Eighth and Cecil B. Moore in North Philadelphia. Called Gray Manor, it was named for Gray’s father William Gray, Jr.
“I knew Bill Gray,” Levin says. “He was a nice guy and a fine person. . . but he had nothing to do with 30th Street, okay? It should be Pennsylvania Station–30th Street, Philadelphia. Period. Business like this only reinforces the negative stereotypes that people in Congress have. It’s no wonder their approval rating is 20%.” (The latest Gallup poll has that figure at 16%.)
Fattah told the Inquirer last July that he expected most people would still call it 30th Street Station, and that markers inside the station would honor Gray. But his communications director Ally Freeman suggests it’s slightly more official than that.
“The bill officially renames the station, it is not just an honorary designation,” she says. “A local committee is being organized to move forward with details on how the former Congressman will be recognized at the station, and the protocol will largely follow what was done when the Wilmington train station was renamed in honor of Vice President Biden.”
In 2011, the Frank Furness-designed train station in Wilmington, Delaware was renamed for the sitting Vice President, who famously earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” from his commute to Washington during his tenure as U.S. Senator. But while it’s officially named “Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Railroad Station,” standard operations such as signage and announcements refer to it simply as Wilmington Station.
While the local committee determines the most appropriate manner for recognizing Bill Gray, who died in July 2013, Amtrak will carry on its status quo. “From an Amtrak operations and signage perspective the station will be referred to as ’30th Street Station,’ though its official name will be William H. Gray III 30th Street Station,” says Craig Schulz, Amtrak’s senior communications officer.
SEPTA, fresh off a major overhaul of its own after Thomas Jefferson University’s purchase of naming rights for Market East Station, will proceed similarly. “For operations purposes, we will continue to refer to the William H. Gray III 30th Street Station as 30th Street Station,” Kristin Geiger, SEPTA’s Public Information Manager, says. “[But] if SEPTA were to change the name of the station on its printed materials, SEPTA would pay for it.”
Given these early indications, in addition to the always difficult financial situations of both Amtrak and SEPTA, such an expensive overhaul seems unlikely. Besides, Amtrak hasn’t even completed its current 30th Street signage project.
The exterior sign, installed in mid-December, is part of the larger 30th Street Station Intermodal Signage Program, a graphics master plan for the station adopted prior to Fattah’s bill. The $1.875 million plan, a collaboration of Amtrak, SEPTA, and PennDOT—paid for by PennDOT—was designed by Calori & Vanden-Eynden (C&VE) and provides uniform graphical displays for information displays, kiosks, maps, pylons, and signs. The typeface and colors come from Amtrak (the scheme is used in all of Amtrak’s stations), while the symbols and icons come from SEPTA. C&VE also handled the signage for the Cira Centre complex on either side of the station, providing a subtle styling to the burgeoning gateway between Center City and University City.
And of course Amtrak’s signage project doesn’t include the likes of The Porch at 30th Street Station, PennDOT’s highway signs, or the 30th Street Station District Plan, the partnership between Amtrak, Brandywine Realty Trust, Drexel University, and SEPTA being driven by Skidmore Owings & Merrill.
“30th Street is a monumental structure,” Levin says. “It’s got magnificent architecture with great public spaces and two wonderful pieces of statuary. And,” he emphasizes, “it was paid for wholly with private money, not by the government.
“Why not name the federal building across the street (the former U.S. Post Office Main Branch built to complement 30th Street Station) for Bill Gray?” Bennett Levin asks. “It’s now the I.R.S. When you pay your taxes, why not have a reminder that your money is going to the government?”