Still Chugging Along: Exploring Philadelphia’s Other Broad Street Station

 

The Reading Railroad’s North Broad Street Station opened in 1929. It was designed by Horace Trumbauer and his chief designer Julian Abele. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Most native Philadelphians have seen a photo of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s imposing Frank Furness-designed Broad Street Station, demolished in 1953 to make way for Penn Center. Perhaps they even remember it or have heard stories of the role it played in their family’s lives. This writer’s parents, for example, were engaged to be married in the station’s waiting room. But fewer are aware that there is another Broad Street Station and that the building still exists, although it is no longer used as a railroad station.

Expanding an Empire of Transportation 

The genesis of the station near Lehigh Avenue, officially named North Broad Street Station by the Reading, oddly enough has its origins in the City of Philadelphia’s creation of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Parkway’s impact on plans by the PRR to expand Broad Street Station. This station had been built in 1881 as a replacement for the PRR’s 1876 Centennial Station that was located at 32nd and Market Streets. It was built next to the new City Hall on Centre Square at the epicenter of Philadelphia’s fast growing down town.

Alas, it proved even more popular than the PRR had imagined, necessitating a major expansion in 1893 with the addition of the elaborate Frank Furness-designed head house built for additional waiting rooms and the railroad’s corporate headquarters. Within 10 years the PRR had to add two stations– North Philadelphia Station at 15th Street and Glenwood Avenue and West Philadelphia Station at 32nd and Market Streets–to augment its capacity. By 1910, when its 18-acre, one block-wide approach corridor, known as the Chinese Wall, was widened for additional tracks, the PRR knew that drastic steps would be necessary.

Broad Street Station was built in 1881 and designed by Frank Furness. It was demolished in 1953. | Image courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

PRR’s options for expanding Broad Street Station had now become quite limited by its proximity to its new neighbor, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and to a lesser extent by the City Parks Association’s proposal to extend East and West River Drives (today’s Kelly and King Drives) further to South Street, where a new bridge built across the Schuylkill River would complete a loop road system extending back to the Falls Bridge. The Parkway, a bold diagonal slicing across the city’s street grid from Fairmount Park to City Hall, was placed on the City Plan in 1903. Construction began in 1907 and was completed as a roadway by 1919, although it would take several decades to finish all the public buildings proposed to line it. Inspired by Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exhibition, the Parkway was nurtured during a period of revived civic beautification through classicism, a movement known as “The City Beautiful.” When planning began to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the nation’s Declaration of Independence in 1922 the Parkway was the Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition Association’s first choice of venue for its temporary buildings.

The PRR’s initial interest in expanding westward toward the Schuylkill River was blocked by the plans being formulated for East River Drive, and it could not encroach onto the Parkway. One might think that the PRR’s influence over a corrupt and contented City Hall would suffice to counter the Parkway’s supporters, but the PRR itself had also become entranced by The City Beautiful movement, which left Rococco-style Broad Street Station looking woefully out of date in comparison. The PRR’s first foray into the Neoclassical movement occurred in Chicago, where it joined three other railroads in designing and constructing that city’s Union Station. It concluded that the answer for Philadelphia congestion would be an entire new station of Neoclassical design on the Schuylkill River’s west bank at 30th and Market Streets. It would be the centerpiece of a series of projects known to the PRR collectively as the Philadelphia Improvements, among them Suburban Station. In July, 1925, the PRR and the City entered into a terminal agreement defining the scope of these improvements and assigning responsibilities for their implementation with the City on the hook for highway access infrastructure like bridge construction. An ancillary benefit of the new station was elimination of a large abatoir and cattle, hog, and sheep stock yards at 31st Street and its odors that often wafted into Center City.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Philadelphia Passenger Station at 26th and Chestnut Streets was also designed by Frank Furness. Date of photo unknown. | Image courtesy Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

The PRR had a nearby competitor for the north-south rail business, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), Its station was located in another Frank Furness-designed building at 26th and Chestnut Streets. The B&O owned the Reading Railroad at this time and routed its traffic through Philadelphia onto the Reading Line for the ride up to Newark, handing off its cars near Pennsylvania Avenue just above what would be the site of the Philadelphia Art Museum. On the railroad this point was called Park Junction. From there the train proceeded north along the Schuylkill River up to Wayne Junction and beyond. The B&O came in a poor second to the PRR because it did not have direct “single seat” access to Manhattan like the PRR’s tunnel-served Penn Station, although it tried to compensate with superior service amenities on its Royal Blue Line trains.

The B&O intently observed its rival’s maneuvers and began making plans of its own. It was also aware of the City’s interest in extending East River Drive to South Street, which would necessitate removal of their main Philadelphia passenger station. Its options appeared to be either create a new station or exit the Philadelphia passenger market. It decided to have its subsidiary, Reading Railroad, solve this riddle by building a new station that it could use. The Reading’s answer was North Broad Street Station.

A Station Rises On North Broad Street

The 1920s saw a flurry of railroad station construction, highway grade crossing elimination, and track electrification. One might ask why railroads found this investment so attractive, given that automobiles and trucks were already eating into their revenue business. The answer lies in a curious piece of legislation, the 1920 Transportation Act. The legislation was quite revolutionary for its time, as it stipulated that railroads could pay no more than a six percent annual dividend. Any amount above that would be forfeited. In the era of the Red Scare, this legislation must have struck railroad executives as rampant socialism. Railroads evaded the prohibition by plowing their profits into improvements that would enhance the value of their property to the stockholders, while avoiding the excess profits forfeiture. Today we reap the benefits of this investment.

The Reading embarked on a review of potential sites for this new passenger station and soon focused on its Huntington Street station, which dated from 1887. The area around it was industrialized with a major Ford Motor Company plant on Lehigh Avenue and various printing businesses nearby, as well a National League baseball stadium across the street, which had opened for the Phillies’ 1887 season. It became known as the Baker Bowl after a Phillies’ owner. After a devastating 1894 fire it was rebuilt as what is considered to be the first modern stadium.

Rising passenger traffic encouraged the Reading to replace Huntington Street Station in 1909, the same year that the American League Philadelphia Athletics baseball stadium was constructed seven blocks away at 21st Street and Lehigh Avenue. Other benefits of this site for yet another new station were its proximity to the just completed Broad Street Subway and a short walk to the PRR’s North Philadelphia Station.

The Reading hired Horace Trumbauer, Philadelphia’s go-to Gilded Age architect, to design the station in the Neoclassical style like its competitor. Trumbauer’s previous commissions had included the neighboring Elkins Park mansions of business partners William L. Elkins and Peter A.B. Widener, the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, and Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central branch on Logan Square. In 1923 he designed Jenkintown Station for the Reading. For this new project, Trumbauer would be assisted by his chief designer Julian Abele, the first African American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture.

North Broad Street Station at Broad Street and Lehigh Avenue. Date of photos unknown. | Images courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

On August 1, 1928, ground was broken on North Broad Street Station with Mayor Harry Arista Mackey wielding the silver spade. Construction of this $2 million building spanned 14 months. The steel framed structure with a frontage of 180 feet to a depth of 100 feet rose a maximum of 50 feet above the grade of Broad Street. Set back 22 feet from the street, the station presented a facade of Indiana limestone set on a Milford pink granite base, with a colonnade of 12 Doric columns 30 feet high holding a narrow portico leading to the main entrance. Its waiting room measured 120 feet long and 40 feet wide, with a ceiling with three chandeliers 47 feet above a floor of pink Tennessee marble. An interesting decoration included the addition of large bronze medallions atop the side walls depicting various forms of transportation from the covered wagon to the zeppelin, an idea that the Reading borrowed from the PRR’s “Spirit of Transportation” bas relief plaque originally designed by Karl Bitter for Broad Street Station  and later relocated to 30th Street Station. This was far more ornamental embellishment than the Reading had provided its signature Reading Terminal on Market Street.

The south end of the station was occupied by a lunch room and restaurant, and the station’s north end contained a barber shop, smoking room, and lavatories. Its trackside elevation was marked by a broad marquee of ornamental iron extending over the walkway leading to the back two entrances to the station. Parking and a taxi stand was also provided

The track layout included four main line tracks–two outbound and two inbound served by two low intermediate platforms long enough for a train of 12 passenger coaches, a rare occurrence on the Reading. Each platform had a 50-foot-long glass-enclosed waiting room, accessed by a passenger tunnel extending under the tracks and back to the station. One of the tunnels continued to the subway station at Lehigh Avenue. Its provision for accommodating passenger trains of 12 coaches was evidence that the station was intended for a much greater level of service than its Huntington Street local traffic warranted.

Opening day’s celebration occurred on September 30, 1929 with Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon as the featured guest speaker. Ironically, within a month the United States wouild be plunged into the Great Depression beginning on Black Friday, October 29, and most economists and historians lay no small measure of blame for it on the policies of the featured guest speaker. Throughout the 1920s, Mellon pursued a Captain Ahab-esque fixation with eliminating the federal debt, even at the time when public spending of borrowed funds might have lessened the intensity of the economic maelstrom. That lesson would be learned and applied by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The B&O never completed its share of improvements that would have allowed it to conveniently access North Broad Street Station. Its track along the east side of the Schuylkill River in Center City and Fairmount would have needed to have a northeast-facing tunnel dug to connect it to the Reading’s Subway or the City Branch, today the focus of a possible future phase of the Rail Park project, and a trestle to connect it to the Reading’s 9th Street Viaduct. But these connections were never undertaken, and Wayne Junction continued to be the Philadelphia stop on the Reading for their Royal Blue Line service. Nor was there any movement by the City to extend East River Drive to South Street and threaten Chestnut Street Station with condemnation. The City could not cope with the economic burden of the Depression, and civic beautification projects fell to the bottom of its budget. Delayed by the Depression and WWII, the PRR’s Philadelphia Improvements were not completed until 1952.

Interior views of North Broad Street Station. Date of photos unknown. | Images courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

The Reading found itself saddled with an expensive station serving far fewer users than had been originally expected. It enjoyed seasonal baseball traffic, luckily opening just in time for the thousands of fans who attended the 1929 World Series, which featured the Athletics versus the Chicago Cubs. The station would continue to serve baseball fans until Connie Mack Stadium closed in 1970. The factories located within walking distance of the station went into decline after World War II as their multi-story design proved too cumbersome and inefficient. The nearby Ford plant relocated to a waterfront location in Chester. As ridership dwindled, the Reading put North Broad Street Station up for sale in August 1960, with an asking price of $181,000.00. The station continued to function as a railroad stop, accessed by the building’s driveway.

The B&O Railroad finally terminated their Royal Blue Line passenger service to Newark on April 27, 1958, leaving the market to its rival PRR. However, the Reading continued providing a Philadelphia-Newark passenger service from Reading Terminal, with North Broad Street remaining a stop for its “Crusader” and “Wall Street” Budd Company-built diesel-electric coaches until the advent of Conrail in 1976. In its final years, the Reading was a friendly and cheap alternative to Amtrak. Its route is now used for high speed double stack container service.

By the time that the Reading had put North Broad Street Station up for sale, the neighborhood surrounding it had experienced rapid ethnic change. The two census tracts north of it (173 and 174) had experienced “white flight” with their numbers declining from over 7,000 in 1960 to less than 1,500 by 1970, while the African American population grew from 3,600 to almost 10,000 by 1970. Black entrepreneurs saw the vacant station as a business opportunity with the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration’s Expo planning underway and converted the station into the Inn Towner Motor Hotel as the center of Afrocentric “Blaxpo” events.

The rail line running past the station, known as the 9th Street Branch linking Reading Terminal with Wayne Junction, was the subject of a major renovation by SEPTA in 1992, part of its Rail Works project. When the line reopened in 1993 “North Broad” became the stop’s official name. 1996 was an auspicious year for the old station building when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and acquired by Volunteers of America who undertook a $8.3 renovation creating 108 housing units, originally for people transitioning out of homeless shelters. Today it functions as a halfway house for prisoners nearing the end of their sentences.

About the author

Edward W. Duffy is the author of "Philadelphia: A Railroad History" (Camino Books, 2013) and "Philadelphia Celebrates: Three Great Anniversaries - 1876-1926-1976" (Camino Books, 2017).



6 Comments


  1. Thanks for explaining how the B&O would get to the North Broad Street station – I was wondering before, because there wasn’t any direct route without some backing maneuvers. But North Broad seems far from downtown to make a great location (about 3 miles). Much like 30th Street, you’d have to take the subway or a commuter train to get downtown, but 30th Street is only about 1 mile from City Hall.
    Why didn’t they build a station on the City Branch at Broad Street? Was the Baldwin Locomotive works still in the way there?

  2. Great observation. The ideal location would have been the northeast corner of Broad and Callowhill Streets where the Reading had a railyard for switching freight on the City or Subway Branch west of Broad and traffic east of Broad on the Noble or Willow Street Branch but the Reading had under simultaneous construction there its 13 story Terminal Commerce Building with a railyard and freight station in its basement. The northwest corner was already taken by the Inquirer’s Elverson Building.

  3. Why haven’t you published my response?

  4. Holy cow. As much as I have studied railroading in Philadelphia, I never came across this magnificent building. Is the waiting room intact? As important as its present use is, there must be something more suitable that is possible. I’d love to hear an orchestra playing there.

    • I visited this building when writing my book ‘Philadelphia Celebrates,’ as it played a role in the 1976 Bicen, an African-American exhibit there called Blaxpo. What I found on my visit was that the waiting room hall, which you appreciate for its original verticality, had been subdivided into floors and on the first floor, ie. Broad Street level, it was now composed of offices with low ceilings. I reached the prison-level floor from the rear, in an area which probably was just under the station’s canopy, hoping to meet with its director former Mayor W. Wilson Goode but was not successful. With only limited access I was not able to explore as much as I had wanted.

  5. I have wondered for years why the rails are the way that they are right now.Before and despite the advent of Uber, I was a Septa user. It’s problemic that your story omits the the issue of the SEPTA user. I have a problem using SEPTA. I don’t like being in the belly of the beast having to deal with the “beast of the belly of the Philadelphia public”. I used to take SEPTA to get to work but it has become so scarey that I have opted to take Uber. Ok, I want to go back to taking the 33 bus to work in order to save money but I am so scared of what happens that I don’t want to be subjected to SEPTA’s total disregard for my safety. Hey SEPTA…what do you say?

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