Historic transit infrastructure is one of those overlooked features that make a city feel like a city. Subway signage and entrances in Paris, London, and New York are downright iconic. Grand Central Terminal is as noteworthy a tourist destination in the Big Apple as any. Here in Philly, we certainly have our share of high-style train stations–the grand and imposing 30th Street Station, the delectable Art Deco decor of Suburban Station, and the vampish Victorian stations along the Chestnut Hill Line, to name a few. But there is another, quieter contributor that is both ornate and utilitarian, but often goes unnoticed: the cast iron subway entrances that link the street to the underground.
The history of Philly’s subway system captivated the attention of local transit enthusiasts Nic Baker and Anthony Santaniello. The duo has spent their free time researching, documenting, and taking inventory of the city’s remaining historic subway entrances. After years of information gathering, Baker, a City Planning program graduate from PennDesign with a certificate in historic preservation, submitted a 67-page thematic district nomination, including 59 entrances, to the Philadelphia Historical Commission in October 2009.
The historical significance of the existing subway entrances has been recognized by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which included the entrances on their Endangered Properties List in 2009, particularly those around City Hall, in the City Hall Courtyard, and along the Broad Street Line, which are the oldest and, arguably, the most worthy of protection. Years went by—a little over eight years, to be exact—and the nomination stalled awaiting review by the Historical Commission. This past October, after following up again, Baker was notified by the Historical Commission that that the nomination would likely not be approved. The response was vague, citing the Historical Commission’s inability to review district nominations due to understaffing. The researchers were also told that, due to a change in procedure, the entrances are now leased by SEPTA and that the Commission would not have jurisdiction to regulate them.
Responding to Hidden City Daily for a comment on their decision to reject the nomination, the Historical Commission stated, “The Historical Commission has deferred action on the subway entrance thematic district nomination because of concerns regarding its legal authority to regulate the entrances. The subway entrances are managed by PATCO, an interstate agency, and SEPTA, both of which may challenge the Commission’s authority to impose regulations upon them. Some of these entrances were also likely to have been originally erected via special ordinances, which may also govern their maintenance and alterations. Moreover, most of the entrances are located in the right-of-way and therefore subject to Streets Department approvals and requirements, over which the Historical Commission has no jurisdiction.”
The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia declined to comment on the rejection of the nomination.
The subway entrances were owned by the City at the time the nomination was submitted in 2009. In fact, they still are. The entrances are only being leased by SEPTA, which, presumably, should pose no legal complication in the designation process. Many city-owned properties are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. A number of train stations in Philadelphia are also listed as historical landmarks and therefore subject to the Historical Commission’s review, many of which are owned by SEPTA, Amtrak, and other agencies. Likewise, resources that fall under the jurisdiction of the Streets Department are already regulated by the Commission. A similarly-structured thematic district nomination for historic paved streets was approved by the Commission in 1998.
In theory, City ownership of such properties should make the nomination and designation process easier, not more difficult, rendering the Commission’s reasoning behind rejecting the nomination all the more puzzling. In fact, one of the most precedent-setting United States Supreme Court cases related to historic preservation involved Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The Court ruled in Penn Central v. City of New York in support of the City to designate the property as historic in the interest of the public good, even if it places some financial burden on the property owner, in this case a private railroad company.
Baker’s nomination was submitted just as the Historical Commission effectively put an unofficial moratorium on reviewing and approving historic districts. The decision may have been brought on by political pushback against the proposed Overbrook Farms district, which would have placed protective regulation on hundreds of homes within the proposed boundaries. Currently, five district nominations await review by the Commission, some of which have been on the table for nearly a decade, representing well over 1,000 historic structures that could warrant landmark protection, yet continue to linger unprotected. This number doesn’t include the proposed Spruce Hill Historic District, shut down by Councilwoman Janie Blackwell in the late 1990s nor the proposed Penn Knox Historic District, a neighborhood in Germantown. The nomination was submitted in the late 1990s and went through the first round of review with the Commission, but staff never moved forward with the designation process.
Since the Overbrook debacle, some small districts have been approved, most recently “420 Row,” a group of eight homes comprising a block in Spruce Hill design by famed architectural firm G. W. & W. D. Hewitt. It is worth noting, however, that the row would have also been protected had the Spruce Hill Historic District not been stopped. Nomination of the small district was also supported by all of the property owners.
Eight years is a long time in a rapidly redeveloping city like Philadelphia. Since the nomination was submitted, Santaniello estimates that around 25 percent of the entrances included in the nomination have been replaced, heavily altered, or suffer from neglect. That estimate jumps to over 50 percent if you include the replacement of PATCO’s original sign posts for the Red Line. Santaniello also notes that some stations, in particular the entrances at Logan Station, have recently been completely restored by SEPTA, indicating a willingness and interest in working with the City to preserve and restore, rather than upgrade to entirely new entrances. Whether the Historical Commission is aware these efforts or not is uncertain.
Good for SEPTA to restore the original subway elements than demo and replace with new elements that may not stand the test of time. I like what we have in City Hall as the gray contrasts with the gray rock next to it. I propose this cooperation continue on and wherever possible, adding a new coat of paint to the subway element exit would match the neighborhood and make this attractive for people to notice.
The maintenance on them is atrocious. Once you get close enough to one, you can see that there is no care for them at all, and it is just another layer of paint slapped on top of the existing 45 layers. And done so sloppily.
Why are these structures significant in any way? Certainly if there were an ornate artistic entrance, such as the old City Hall station in NYC, I can understand it, but these are merely functional entrances that have little value other than as entrances and exits. If SEPTA or the City wants to change them, I see no loss to history. Does the author have a problem with Penn inserting a trolley body over a similar station entrance at 37th and Spruce?
Wonderful article, thank you.
Great article, thank you.
Second-to-last paragraph notes that 420 Row is in Chestnut Hill, rather than Spruce Hill.
Thank you for catching that, Austen. The story has been adjusted.
It sounds to me like the Commission scrambled for an answer after Baker requested an update in October. It doesn’t sound like a whole lot of thought went into it.
Thanks for a wonderful article. I love when I come upon one of the original fantastic art deco inspired subway entrances. They have great classic lines and the typeface on them is perfect. This article will go a long way in helping the city to be aware of these simple treasures.
Worth noting is a entrance to Suburban Station at 16th and JFK (SW corner) there is a entrance that says “Pennsylvania Railroad.” Was that one included in this nomination?
The Suburban Station entrances (I believe there are three, one each at 16th, 17th, and 18th) were not included in the nomination. One could hope the Commission might consider them protected under the designation for the station itself, but their track record suggests that’s probably wishful thinking…
An excellent article. Unfortunately, the Historical Commission’s reasoning against designation makes even less sense when one looks at recent projects completed by both Septa and the Streets Department. As the author points out, both agencies appear to have better preservation records and intentions than the Historical Commission realizes or credits. Honestly, when is the last time the Commission spent time actually proactively advocating for preservation, rather than carefully researching and listing reasons for not doing so?
Once again the Historic Commission shows the public its stones, meaning—-the complete lack thereof. How can we the public hope for any meaningful preservation when the HC seems to be in the business of—–what? Its certainly concerned with preservation.
I think these entrances are attractive and classy. I hope the Historic Commission reconsiders their decision or that SEPTA takes over the care.
They’re hardly in the class of the Paris Metropolitain station entrances. So put an example in a museum, that’s what museums are for. Overdoing preservation is its own worst enemy. Functional design, though far more esthetically pleasing in older times, is merely that.
Perhaps we can accept granite subway entrances if it will embellish the neighborhood.