As the Industrial Revolution dawned, Philadelphia began rapid expansion from the small greene country towne in William Penn’s vision to the Workshop of the World popularized by scholars and contemporaries of the 20th century. Areas west, south, north, and northeast of Center City saw construction of new industrial buildings that would drive the city’s population up considerably. By Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the city’s 18-year-old horse-drawn street railways were the best the city had to offer for public transit. Given that Philadelphia had become a sprawling city with a population nearing a million, this mode of transit was no longer sufficient.
To accommodate its own growth, Philadelphia required a robust system of transportation that was inexpensive, efficient, and could span long distances. It had to serve both its swelling population and the movement of market goods from manufacturing areas like Kensington, Frankford, and Germantown to Center City and other commercial hubs. Between 1880 and 1890, the city established several alternatives to the horse-drawn street railways. A steam railway, cable powered streetcars, steam-powered streetcars, and even an electric trolley system moved in. These systems provided some relief to the burgeoning city, but they were often too expensive or inefficient to serve as a proper solution to Philadelphia’s transit problems.
To ease the tensions of the transportation issues in the city, Philadelphia adopted two steam-powered solutions around the turn of the 20th century. The first was modeled after London’s subway line, while the second was modeled after New York’s elevated line. The plan to build the Market-Frankford Elevated Line, referred to today as the El by locals, was approved in 1901 after nearly a decade of debates and political machinations.
The Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (RTC) was contracted for the project and began construction of the Market Street line around 1902. The first section of the line extended into West Philadelphia. This western branch of the El began operating by 1905. The northeastern stretch would not be completed until much later due to the RTC exhausting its capital on the initial stretch of railway. As a result, the plans to extend the line into the northeastern section of the city were put on hold until an agreement was made whereby the City of Philadelphia would finance the elevated line and gain limited oversight over the operation and construction. This oversight dramatically increased with the passing of the Transit Enabling Act of 1913, which removed the privatization requirements for the construction, furnishing, and supplying transit facilities and services.
When completed in 1922, the new line helped reduce trolley traffic, ease movement to and from the city center, and increase foot traffic to the commercial districts of Market Street, Kensington, and Allegheny.
Under the original plan, 12 stations would dot the six miles of elevated rail that extended into Northeast Philadelphia. These were Fairmount Avenue, Girard Avenue, Berks Street, York and Dauphin Streets, Huntingdon Street, Somerset Street, Allegheny Avenue, Tioga Street, Torresdale Avenue, Ruan and Church Streets, Margaret and Orthodox Streets, and Bridge Street. By the 1920s most of these stations were under contract, but their level of completion varied. Only two were finished and operational, specifically those at Orthodox Street and Church Street.
The stations along the eastern section of the Market Line were unique for their time. Typically, train stations were constructed underneath a metal guideway, with stairs that led to the sidewalks. However, the stations along the Market-Frankford Line were built on the corner of intersecting streets, which helped reduce the foot traffic along the sidewalk. Often the stations were primarily stair super-structures leading to and from the elevated platform where ticketing and boarding was handled. While these stations paled in comparison to the grand stations of Center City, the architecture was heavily influenced by Beaux Arts design, which originated in France and blended Gothic and Renaissance elements using 19th century materials such as glass and iron. This style was popular in the Mid-Atlantic region from the end of the 19th century to about the 1930s.
Much of the original transit project from the turn of the century has changed over the last 100 years. The most dramatic of these changes came in the late 1980s, when SEPTA began a nearly $500 million reconstruction project that would renovate the platforms, elevators, overpasses, and stations. Among many of the changes made as a result of this project was the dismantling of the large headhouses that marked the entrance and exits onto the elevated line and replacing them with far more uniform and modern architectural style buildings that properly met ADA accessibility requirements.
All of the headhouses would be replaced or demolished in this way, except for one located on the eastbound side of Kensington Avenue and Tioga Street in the Harrowgate neighborhood of Kensington. Finished in 1922, the headhouse at Tioga Street fit with the standard 1920s Beaux Arts architecture of the city and blended into the neighborhood expertly by only standing slightly taller than most of the rowhouses surrounding it. The open air headhouse features large Georgian style glass paned windows and a simple staircase that climbs along the wall of the interior, pausing at a landing and then continuing to the train platform above. This layout gives the building a spacious and grand appearance, despite not being much larger than a standard Philadelphia rowhouse. The building’s stone archways on opposite ends form a tunnel, shaping a view of Harrowgate Park from the Tioga and K Street intersection and a view straight down the length of K Street from inside the park.
Finding records that name the architects or designers credited for the station is difficult. Considering that the City of Philadelphia took over most of the construction of the El from the RTC after 1915, it is likely that a city architect or team of architects were used for all the station buildings. This theory is further bolstered by the fact that all the headhouses along the eastern section of the El were very similar in design, shape, height, and architectural influence, as many photos from the 1920s reveal.
Despite still standing at its original location, this last remaining headhouse has not escaped change altogether. The stone archways have been blocked off by steel security gates, barring entry on the eastbound side of Tioga Station. This location is only used as an exit for the platforms above. Gratings have been placed on the windows to protect them from the daily wear and tear of people moving through the building. Security lamps and spotlights have been added on the outside of the building and large pendant lights have been placed on the inside of the building.
For now, this last architectural fossil of the original Market-Frankford Line remains standing and can be seen by anyone visiting Harrowgate today.