Inside SEPTA’s Unused Underground Concourse, To Be Restored

 

| Photo: Chandra Lampreich

With the Center City Concourse Improvement Program SEPTA plans to fill a number of abandoned pedestrian tunnels with shops, public artwork, and event programming like weekly farmers’ markets. Tunnels like this one are likely to remain empty. | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

The underground Center City Concourse system has provided pedestrians with a way to avoid walking at street level for almost 90 years. Originally built by the Philadelphia Transit Company, these tunnels were sold to the City in 1968 when the newly formed Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority couldn’t afford to purchase the vast subterranean system from the PTC. The abandoned stretch of tunnels, photographed by Chandra Lampreich for this series, is located roughly between Arch and Race Streets along the east side of Broad Street. Much of the concourse has been closed for 40 years. But last year SEPTA launched the Center City Concourse Improvement Program, a $68.2 million plan to reenergize the empty concourse along Broad and Market Streets by 2021 with infrastructure upgrades, interactive transit signage, new storefronts, and the development of creative placemaking for public artwork, farmers’ markets, and special events. However, there are no tentative plans for the concourse tunnels documented in this piece. As far as we know they will remain empty.

The underground walkways date to 1930, with the opening of Suburban Station. The first iteration of tunnels wasn’t originally intended to be a pedestrian walkway to avoid weather. The labyrinth was instead used during the construction of the subway system—a divergence from the typical “cut-and-cover” technique often followed by other cities. Instead of creating a trench to be filled with a tunnel, workers dug underground to construct the subway tunnels from below without disrupting the flow of traffic at street level, with the original concourse used to aid in the movement of construction materials and equipment. By the 1950s, the proposed innovative commuter tunnel—connecting Jefferson and Suburban and overseen by the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission Edmund Bacon—provided opportunities to expand the system of walkways. The tunnel expansion with included concourses were intended to draw middle class visitors into the vast system of retail stores below. Although the commuter tunnel was not completed until 1984, work began on the concourses immediately. The Gallery opened in 1977, providing a valuable bookend to the vendors who occupied the network of underground walkways.

| Photo: Chandra Lampreich

Entrance to the empty offices of the Philadelphia Police Transit Unit. The division was replaced by SEPTA’s own 220-officer transit police force. | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

Over time, a total of three and a half miles of tunnels and hidden hallways have been added to the system below the city, stretching from 8th Street to 18th Street and South Street to Walnut and Locust Streets. These tunnels included shops, entrances to buildings above, and a division of law enforcement, the Philadelphia Police Transit Unit. This division preceded SEPTA’s own transit police and operated separately even after SEPTA’s was put into service. Now called the Concourse Unit, you may have seen officers patrolling the tunnels with their black Transit Unit gear on. Vast swaths of these walkways have since been closed with commuters, fearing crime underground, preferring streets, according to a survey conducted by SEPTA in 2012. Other sections of the tunnels never opened to the public due to private ownership and maintenance usage.

SEPTA has leased the concourse from the City for the past 30 years. Phase One of SEPTA’s four phase enter City Concourse Improvement Program has already begun with the replacement of the 8th Street and 15th Street escalators, as well as the elevator connecting 8th Street Station to the street. The first major concourse work started in 2015 when SEPTA closed the tunnels that connected South Broad Street to Market and 8th Streets. The overhaul will see 20,000 square feet updated, reconfigured, and repaired. During this phase, “Philadelphia Then and Now,” a mural originally installed in the Gallery, will be moved to the Market Street section of the concourse, fairly close to its original location.

Photographer Chandra Lampreich provides an urban spelunker’s view inside the empty Center City Concourse tunnels.

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About the author

Samantha Smyth is originally from Calgary, Canada, but she's currently working on a degree in history at Temple University. With a particular interest in early America, she hopes to become a public historian in the future. In her spare time you can find her reading books about royal families, writing, and exploring Philadelphia.

Chandra Lampreich became interested in photography in high school, and then continued her training at Antonelli Institute where she received an associates degree in photography. She specializes in architecture photography, and has a passion for shooting old, dilapidated buildings. Her photographs can be seen on Flickr here.



26 Comments


  1. Thanks Samantha and Chandra, this is really cool. The revitalization sounds like a great project.

  2. Great story! Any chance you can whip up a map for visual representation of this labyrinth?

  3. The tunnel connecting Jefferson Station and Suburban station was built and opened in 1984 after being encouraged by Edmund Bacon in the 1950’s. The Race and Arch street tunnel was nice to use during rainy days but not safe to walk in due to so few people using it. As long as we find a viable use for the concourses by adding life in the former of business and event use, then it is worth it to invest in renovations.

    • was this Race and Arch st. tunnel just a northern extension of the S. Broad st. concourse, or was it more or less a stand only feature?

  4. This is amazing, thanks for sharing this. I love tunnels like these, and I’m struck by how similar in style these are to the closed-off sections of PATCO’s City Hall stop. I went on a tour of those sections with some DRPA personnel earlier this year, and it all looks very similar. https://southjerseyist.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/ghosts-of-city-hall-the-patco-station-youve-never-seen/

  5. Great article. However, “hidden hallways have been added to the system below the city, stretching from 8th Street to 18th Street and South Street to Walnut and Locust Streets.” Is inaccurate. I believe the concourse goes as far south spruce st

    • You are right. The southern end of the concourse is at Spruce St. I’d like to add that that last stretch of the concourse between Locust & Spruce is quite desolate. There are usually homeless people sleeping there and, occasionally, kids on bikes or skateboards weaving among the pillars with no regard for pedestrians.

  6. I can smell the pee from here.

    • ..lol. I found myself holding my breath while reading the article.
      The history is fascinating and great to hear about the improvements.

  7. I use to walk the Broad St concourse from city hall to Vine St to get to the Inquirer day and night. It was lonely but never any trouble back then.
    I, however, wonder what happened to the RT 50 trolley underground station (5th St) after it was closed.

  8. I’ve enjoyed viewing a part of my history I thought I’d never see again. The Broad St tunnel was a discreet way to get to the peep shows and other things that were on Arch St.Joseph thanks for the viewing of Patco’so City Hall station. As a kid I remember the stories but never got to see. Roman a few years back some tunnel lovers got to view the station as property inspectors view it for sale.Unfortunately it’s been revealed but will encourage some of the TL’s to post their pics here.

  9. They really need to bring back that art deco typeface, the arrows, and the green/black/white palette. And thank heaven they are saving the Larry Rivers mural — hooray! Kudos to whoever convinced the powers-that-be to restore that excellent piece of city and art history. Now to get them to stop cutting into the beautiful mosaic tilework in Market East station just to build more disgusting bathrooms.

  10. Lots of info online on planned and partly dug subway tunnels, including one extending from the BSS 8th St station south to Locust and then west to Broad. The recent expansion of Pa. Hospital and Jeff would be well served if we had this line now.

    When, oh when will the BSS be extended to the Navy Yard? How did all the Yard workers get there during WWII? My dad worked at the Yard during the war but we lived in Passyunk Homes and so the commute was easy.

    • My dad worked at the Navy Yard til he died in ’70. We lived in Olney. He took the Subway from Fernrock to Snyder (before it was extended to Pattison), and took a bus the rest of the way.

    • BSS tunnel from 8th to Locust and west to Broad is what Patco uses, no?

      • Yes, that is correct.

        Although several routing options were considered for both Center City and West Philadelphia, only this tunnel segment was ever built. Construction was concurrent with the south Broad Street extension of the Broad Street Subway (BSS). However, no track was installed and it then sat dormant until service was initiated in 1952. Operated as an extension of the BSS, ridership was predictably low.

        The Broad-Ridge Spur was rerouted into the upper level single-track platform in 1968 to accommodate the conversion of this tunnel segment by PATCO, which opened for service in 1969.

        Of the possible routes west beyond the end of tunnel at 18th & Locust, the plan to tunnel west under the Schuylkill River before following the course of Woodland Avenue using both tunnel and elevated structures is the only option that had any momentum behind it. Cost and lack of political will (sound familiar) among other issues caused the project to be abandoned.

  11. Great idea to refurbish the concourse system. You could walk from Broad and Vine to Eighth and Market, especially nice on bitter cold days when the concourse was a refuge from the cold. Likewise in the blazing heat of Summer, the concourse, provided shade and a more moderate temperature in which to walk.

    One oddity is the very dense fog which would form in parts of the concourse in early Spring, when the first warm days would arrive. The result of warm, moist air coming into contact with the relatively cold surfaces in the concourse. This gave the concourse a ‘ghostly’ appearance.

    Look forward to the restoration.

    • I saw many spots that I walked as a K-9 Officer assigned to the Transit Police..That was Phila Police K-9..Spent many a night walking those corridors..It would be nice if they were brought back to life..Started walking in 1973 and ended my time in the Transit unit in 1980..

  12. Etien De Lamothe Cassel

    Ideal for bums.

  13. What a great place to hold a 5K, the proceeds could help with the revitalization

  14. Yeah.. didn’t think about the pee smell.. maybe they can hand out face masks

  15. Putting food down there is a disgusting idea. How would they ever be kept clean, as the ones in use are generally filthy? Bad air. Bad ideas.

  16. It would be great to have a definitive mapping added to Google Maps, possibly including streetview. Streetview has been extended to include some commercial buildings, airports and museums. I believe that this would need to be initiated by the City or Septa as appropriate. They would send somebody with a specialized back-mounted 360 degree camera to provide a continuous view.

  17. Loved this story, as well as Joseph’s link in the comments about Camden…
    Back in the mid-sixties, I used to come to Center City every week to visit my girlfriend, on a PRR train to 30th Street Station, and transfer to a local to get to Suburban Station, and I learned my way around some of these tunnels pretty well.
    I used to go home to NYC some times late at night, and walked thru these passageways which included a direct entrance into the multi-level Penn Center Greyhound Terminal. It was neat how the buses had that underground roadway that they accessed from 19th and Commerce, between Kennedy Blvd. and Market Street. I believe that tunnel is still in use for trucks making local deliveries, but the bus terminal was demolished many years ago.

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