Last week, the Philadelphia Museum of Art broke ground on the first major renovation and expansion at the museum since opening in 1928. The $196 million “Core Project,” designed by internationally renown architect Frank Gehry, is part of a $525 million dollar campaign to remap the interior of the museum for the 21st century. PMA officials say 62 percent of the project is funded, mostly through private donations. Renovations are scheduled for completion in 2020 and will create 67,000-square feet of new public space and 23,000-square feet of gallery space. Included in the renovations is the entrance and corridor to the so-called “Art Museum Station,” a ghost transit station that was never put into service.
Dreams In Transit
Mass transit planner A. Merritt Taylor was appointed as the first commissioner of the new Department of City Transit in 1912 to pursue a mass transit expansion in Philadelphia. Taylor released his recommendations for new subways and elevated railways for the city the following year (read the full 1913 report HERE). Taylor was a visionary planner and, perhaps, a bit ahead of his time.
The “Taylor Plan” outlined creating subway lines along Chestnut, Walnut and Arch Streets, a loop to distribute riders of the Broad Street Subway around City Center, a spur into Northeast Philadelphia on Roosevelt Boulevard, and a line along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to points north. In his plan, Taylor outlined this Parkway line as an extension of the Broad Street Line, which eventually opened with service from City Hall to Olney Avenue on September 1, 1928. The Parkway-Roxborough (or Northwestern) line would have started as an subway at City Hall and then proceed below the Parkway to 29th Street, where it would have continued as an elevated line to Henry Avenue, following that road north past Wissahickon Creek. Space for the transit line was incorporated into the bridge over the Wissahickon; box tunnels that were never used are still inside each flank of the Wissahickon Memorial Bridge, built in 1932. This route originally was to have followed Ridge Avenue, but revisions moved it to Henry Avenue due to concerns about steep grades.
A cavernous entrance to a subway station was built on the ground level of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for this proposed line. The expectation was that visitors would arrive at the museum through this underground “Art Museum Station.” With its 24-foot high vaulted ceiling and limestone walls, the vaulted walkway was intended to be a transit entryway and a third main entrance to the museum, with elevators to the upper floors. The actual subway was probably planned to pass underneath this space.
The 640-feet long corridor has been closed to the public for roughly 50 years, used thereafter for storage by the museum. It runs north-to-south beneath the building’s southeastern foundation, under the iconic “Rocky Steps.” The PMA’s subsurface expansion will serve as an entrance to the main building, as originally proposed, through a new public area that will be opened up by the removal of the museum’s auditorium. An open plaza three stories high will be built in place of the auditorium. Additional gallery space will be excavated underneath the Rocky Steps.
Can’t Get There From Here
The majority of Taylor’s planned routes never came to be. A. Merritt Taylor was replaced in 1916 by a more pragmatic transit commissioner, William S. Twining, who took exception to many of Taylor’s ideas. Where Taylor saw transit as a stimulant of growth, Twinning believed that lines should only be built where there was already demand.
World War I stunted the development of Philadelphia’s rapid transit system even further as labor became scarce, construction costs increased, and materials were in short supply. The City had also recently spent large sums on building the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and hosting the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition of 1926.
There was persistent wrangling among Philadelphia’s bicameral City Councils and the mayor about which subway lines should receive priority. Endless studies of the lines and their expected profitability, not to mention a incessant rearranging of routes, slowed transit expansion to a crawl.
Legal complications with the awarding of contracts made matters worse. Much of that trouble arose from the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, predecessor of SEPTA, which was persistently at odds with city government. The PRTC rejected proposals to build any subway line that the company saw as potentially unprofitable or that would compete against one of their own trolley routes. The transit company even balked at offers by the City to build subway lines at the taxpayer’s expense, with PRTC merely operating them.
The last gasp of an enhanced mass transit system came in July of 1929 when Mayor Harry Mackey signed an ordinance for a ten-year transit program that included the Ridge Avenue subway line, the Locust Street subway line, and several other never-built transit routes. The Mayor authorized a $55,000,000 loan that never materialized. Unlike New York City, Philadelphia did not move forward with subway expansion projects to alleviate the city’s crushing unemployment rate during the Great Depression.
When prosperity returned to Philadelphia after World War II, highway construction and urban renewal efforts took priority over new mass transit projects.