The future is looking bright and shiny for SEPTA’s dingy underground lair. Dubbed “Downtown Link,” the project is essentially a contemporary rebranding of Center City’s weather-protected underground pedestrian concourse network. If you haven’t already, you will soon see large signs for this directional and wayfinding system on the walls of transit stations and the many passages interconnecting those stations throughout Center City. SEPTA has been in the process of refreshing and heavily renovating the pedestrian concourse network—a desperately-needed move—so giving the network a formal name is really not a bad idea.
SEPTA launched its $164 million repair and improvement program with the adding of modern escalators, elevators, and other uplifting embellishments. New trash and recycling cans, brighter lighting, and updated signage are also elements of SEPTA’s Center City Concourse Program. It’s just too bad that “Downtown Link” doesn’t have a Philadelphia vibe to it, as, say, “Center City Link” or “Crosstown Concourse” might, but that that train has already left, so to speak.
The following is a short description and history of Philadelphia’s subsurface pedestrian concourse network, as excerpted from my forthcoming book, Underground Philadelphia, co-authored with Joel Spivak, a local transit authority. The book is an investigation of the stories behind the underground utility (water, sewer, gas, steam, electric and telephone) and transit infrastructure systems of Center City, as well as a look at cave-dwelling, prison-breaking, and other peculiar aspects of Philadelphia’s subterranean experience. The concourse network is a central theme of the book, which will take readers on a subterranean trek through the obscured elements of the “hidden city” of Philadelphia. The Arcadia Publishing and History Press title will be out by Summer 2018, perhaps sooner.
Making Connections in the Underground
The Market-Frankford Line’s original, twin pedestrian concourses, running east-west from 11th to 13th Streets along both the north and south sides of the Market Street Tunnel, were the genesis of Center City’s expansive concourse network. They were built when the subway was installed in 1907-08, and the northern one apparently stretched further east to 8th Street before the Gallery was built. The origins of these pedestrian tunnels, however, had more to do with commerce than with keeping transit riders dry in wet weather or safe from street traffic.
Department store owners—John Wanamaker, the Gimbel family, the Lit brothers, the Snellenburg family, and the Strawbridge & Clothier clan—were the Quaker City’s movers and shakers in the early 20th century. Their stores were located along the largest retail corridor in the United States, if not the world–both sides of Market Street between Broad and 8th Streets. The imperious merchants requested (more like demanded) that a subway stop be placed adjacent to each of their department stores. This accounts for the incipient pedestrian mezzanines and for why El stops east of City Hall are so annoyingly close to one another–annoying because those stops make a ride on the Blue Line that much longer.
Department stores proceeded to alter their basement levels into shopping space for working-class Philadelphians. Shoppers from West Philadelphia, and later from Northeast Philadelphia, would use the Market Street Line to get to Center City and then walk from subway trains straight into the stores. There was hardly a reason to visit an upper floor. This development correlates to the rise of “bargain basements” at these stores.
Since opening in the 1930s, the Girard Trust Company Building (now the Ritz-Carlton Hotel) has had an entrance from the pedestrian concourse network that the public could use to enter the adjacent Girard Trust Bank (at Broad and Chestnut). The underground passage was on the same level as vaults in the bank’s basement. Today, this subsurface space contains the Ritz-Carlton’s Grand Ballroom, and hotel employees can access the hotel’s basement via the concourse entryway. Looking up through a large crystal chandelier, there is an oculus that opens to the top of the lobby rotunda. Another oculus above gives a view of the sky.
The Market Street Tunnel’s south-side pedestrian concourse provides an entrance to SEPTA’s Headquarters at 1234 Market Street. A connecting tunnel between the concourses on either side of Market Street was once accessible from the basement of SEPTA’s building. Hard as it may be to believe, this passageway took pedestrians under the tracks of the Market Street Subway. Visionary Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon had commended plans for this deep tunnel in his book Design of Cities because it would allow pedestrians to walk from 1234 Market to a bank across the street without encountering surface traffic. However, the risky underpass did not last long. It has been sealed since the early 1980s on account of crime concerns.
An Art Deco sign in the ceiling of the southern concourse draws attention to a bricked-up entrance into the architecturally-famous PSFS Building, now a Loews Hotel. This stretch of both the north and south concourses is lined with glass blocks, although the reason for this aesthetic treatment is not apparent. And at 11th Street, near where the concourse network reaches its easternmost point, is a pedestrian crossover original to the Market Street Tunnel of 1908. Crammed into the constricted space beneath Market Street and sporting 1970s-era stainless steel cladding, the crossing looks like a scene from Star Wars or Dr. Who.
To the south, along Broad Street, is the South Broad Street Concourse, running above the subway and below the street surface from City Hall to Spruce Street. Steel grates on the concourse floor permit a view down to the Broad Street Subway’s tracks and the roofs of trains as they screech to and from City Hall Station. The concourse intersects with the Locust Street Subway mezzanine, since the Broad Street Line crosses perpendicularly over the PATCO Hi-Speedline at Broad and Locust.
South Broad Concourse, completed in 1930 and fully functional by 1934, is rather frightening in its enormity. The green-and-white-tiled place is longer than three football fields and as wide as Broad Street (and its sidewalks) above. A forest of hundreds of steel pillars support an inexorable number of ceiling arches. Back in 1941, several young women were attacked and robbed in the mezzanine, which only became more dangerous as the years passed. Coupled with the din of subway trains careening below, the overall effect is surreal.
In the 1930s, the relatively cool space granted people a haven during heat spells, and during World War II, the mezzanine was declared an overnight air raid shelter. Even before the war, at the time when London’s Tube was used as an aerial shelter, the components of the concourse system was calculated to hold 200,000 Philadelphians in refuge.
The cavernous concourse can be explained by remembering that it was meant to serve several planned transit lines both under and perpendicular to Broad Street—most that went unrealized. Moreover, the business center of Philadelphia was located along South Broad in the 1920s and ’30s, and the street was home to scores of law firms, financial institutions, hotels, and theaters. South Broad Concourse offered underground entryways into many office buildings along the street, thus making it convenient for businessmen to avoid the weather after disembarking commuter trains at Suburban Station and Reading Terminal. Surface street congestion was also reduced through the use of this and other underground walkways.
Many buildings had shops in their basements that opened into South Broad Concourse, much as department stores had inlets along the Market Street Subway. One building had a drugstore, another a newsstand, another a coffee shop, and so on. There was an entrance to a bustling Horn & Hardart at Locust Street and a barber shop at Walnut Street on the basement level of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. These small outfits enjoyed robust business until the construction of Penn Center in the 1960s drove many to close shop. Over time, underground entries to many buildings were sealed and the concourse was utilized less and less.
The dearth of policing and maintenance have made this and other concourses quite dreadful over time. Their piecemeal construction throughout the years adds to the unsavory aura. The concourse’s desolate space gained a sour reputation for its use as a nighttime homeless encampment starting in the late 1980s. Mayor Edward Rendell ordered nocturnal sweeps of this and other concourses and had them locked nightly by 1993. The situation has further improved ever since the Center City District began shouldering responsibility for maintaining the city’s subsurface mezzanines.
As with South Broad Concourse, a pedestrian concourse is under North Broad Street, formerly linking City Hall Station and Race-Vine Station. The passage was a discreet way to get to Arch Street to see the peep shows in that seedy part of town during the 1960s and ’70s. North Broad Concourse is still more or less intact, although certain sections are totally closed to the outside world. Rooms adjoining the forsaken esplanade were used to store food, water, medicine, and other civil defense stockpiles in the 1960s and could take care of about a hundred people as a fallout shelter.
The section from Arch to Race had a drainage problem ever since new. An underground lake emerged on rainy days, making the subsurface walkway almost impassible—and those were days it would have been most useful to pedestrians. In an Inquirer article from 1961, the writer lamented that “a stream not quite as deep as the Wissahickon meanders down the concourse.” During humid weather, drippings from the ceiling and walls formed a succession of pools around which commuters had to maneuver.
North Broad Concourse was generally looked upon as a stench-ridden slum under the streets and a subject of universal derision by the 1960s. A string of fires and other mishaps transpired in this part of the subway during the 1970s, and a severely wounded man was discovered at Race-Vine Station after a probable mugging in 1970. The ensuing death of the victim, David S. Schick, an employee of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, was reported in papers across the country.
The Commuter Rail Tunnel bisected the portion nearest City Hall in the mid-1980s, about which time the entire concourse was shuttered. A stairwell from the meager mezzanine of the Municipal Services Building once provided access to the abandoned passageway, but it was sealed long ago. On the north apron of City Hall, behind the statue of Matthias Baldwin, is a locked entrance leading to both the concourse and the north end of City Hall Station. A secured plywood door at Race-Vine Station is another way into disused North Broad Concourse.
On the west side of City Hall is Penn Center, a canyon of mid-rise towers that is Philadelphia’s version of Lower Manhattan. The pedestrian concourse system begins at the southeast corner of 18th and J.F.K. at a stairwell descending down under the boulevard’s south sidewalk. The entry to these steps still display signage reading “Pennsylvania Railroad Suburban Station” a half century after the Penn Central Railroad’s insolvency following the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central merger of 1968.
Edmund Bacon included in Penn Center’s design a weather-protected underground concourse that connected office, transportation and retail facilities. The network was to have been an audacious esplanade 18 feet below street level, open to the sky, and studded by retail shops. But plans changed and the esplanade was raised to the surface and placed between the buildings at Penn Center, with large openings down to passageways connected to pedestrian tunnels built decades earlier alongside the Market Street Subway and the Broad Street Subway.
By the 1970s, Philadelphia’s pedestrian concourse network was acclaimed as being innovative and influential in the design of other cities. Center City Philadelphia today has three-and-a-half miles of pedestrian mezzanines underneath city streets, usually allied with retail stores.
SEPTA’s Jefferson (Market East) Station on the Regional Rail System is fully integrated with the pedestrian concourse connecting the Market Street Subway, Subway-Surface Lines, and the Broad Street Subway. The Gallery’s basement level adjoins Jefferson Station’s mezzanine and extends the city’s pedestrian concourse all the way to 8th Street. It is thus possible to walk nonstop underground in Center City from 18th Street to 8th Street, along the line of J.F.K. Boulevard and Filbert Streets, paralleling Market Street. The concourse connects to a pathway through the lower level of the Lit Brothers Building, so a walk underground can extend even further east to 7th Street.
What must have been prevailing questions as to the need of the pedestrian concourses, as they existed by 1941, were asked and answered in Philadelphia: A Story of Progress, a four volume history of the city by Herman LeRoy Collins and Wilfred Jordan.
Philadelphia owns a city beneath the city which is another public achievement often criticized. What good does it perform? Why construct miles of subterranean walks beneath and around City Hall, which towers so majestically above? Why create streets beneath surface streets for blocks north, east, south and west?
That city under a city cost millions of dollars and no doubt it will in time yield handsome dividends. These underground streets are now daily used by many thousand pedestrians who thus escape the delays of surface walking, plus the real hazards in congested automobile traffic. At any rate, this labyrinth of walks far below the surface of the city constitutes a definite portion of the average citizen’s ownership in the municipality.
The “handsome dividends” of Philadelphia’s pedestrian concourses—oops, Downtown Link—are still paying out to “average citizens” everyday, now more than ever.