Headhouse In Harrowgate the Last of its Kind

May 25, 2021 | by Jacob Downs

A view under the Market-Frankford Elevated Line (aka the El) at 44th and Market Streets in 1925. | Image courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

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.

A page from the November 1922 issues of Electric Railway Journal showing architectural features of the new Frankford El. Captions are as follows: The Superstructure and Stations Present a Finished Appearance. Here and There Along Frankford Elevated. 1: Where Frankford Elevated Line joins P.R.T.’s Market Street Line. 2: Tioga Street Station tvpical of architectural design. 3: Attractive interior of Allegheny Avenue Station. 4: View from the Bridge Street Station platform. 5: Train pulling out from island platform at Bridge Street terminal. Copper-covered signal tower and remote control house in foreground. 6: Center-column type superstructure in Frankford Avenue section. 7-Longitudinal trusses have flat tension members. Concrete-slab walkway on top chord. | Image: Archives.org

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.

Allegheny Station and headhouse (demolished) in 1922. | Image courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

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.

A photograph from 1922 shows the pedestrian bridge connecting the Torresdale Station’s headhouse to the platform of El. | Image courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

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.

Commuters wait for the train on the elevated platform at 60th and Market Streets in 1971. | Image courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

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.

Tioga Station and headhouse (extant) in 1922. | Image courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

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.

Tioga Station’s headhouse in 2021. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.


About the Author

Jacob Downs is a Philadelphia native who was born and raised in the city's far Northeast. As an undergraduate, he studied American history and political science. He continued his history education with a master’s degree focusing on perceptions of gender during Philadelphia’s industrial past.


  1. William Zuggi says:

    I have lived in Harrowgate Park for sixty years and I can remember this station and the Erie Torresdale stops. It’s a shame of what has happened to these monuments of our last when this was a proud industrial area.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Fantastic read!

  3. Richard Spor says:

    I lived at “I” and Tioga from 1956! We moved there from port Richmond
    I was 8 years old when we moved there. My friends and I used the el a lot for transportation but we used to ride back and forth for fun when not in school! Out to 69th street then back to Bridge and Pratt! As a teenager we sang in the head house as the echo was great and we harmonized to the latest hits from the radio!
    Lots of great memories

    1. Jacob Downs says:

      What a fantastic memory. The headhouse in Harrowgate certainly has some tremendous echo.

  4. Jim Clar says:

    Memories. I use to ride the el quite a bit once I got into high school. All of those stops pictured here I remember well. Neat article thank you.

  5. Robert Bross says:

    Excellent research & photos! Thanks!

  6. MelD1982 says:

    I grew up riding the el and still take it today as an adult bearing 40. I remember the head houses just didnt know that’s what they were called. This was a very interesting and eye opening article. I hope to read more like this about the history of the city and neighborhoods I’ve grown up in…

  7. James says:

    Nice the Tioga headhouse are preserved!

  8. Judy SeidemanFilipkowski says:

    Jacob Downs, a student of mine at Comly School along with some of his siblings. HI! Are you teaching?

    1. Jacob Downs says:

      Oh wow. I am actually a software developer now but I studied Philadelphia history as an undergraduate and graduate student.

  9. Alstarid says:

    Historical Philly for transit buffs allot of this former stuff efficient during consolidated. Industries sadly Philly” never emulated high density regions oppose Brooklyn,Antwerp,Boston and Mumbai. Cities
    rezoned taller buildings emphasize…making mass transit effective,during “Cold war” migration to suburban. Regions mass transit Philly not obsolete contrived due lack of riders once thanks. For the memories Philly always remember “Blue Manufacture City” no
    longer urban. Blight as Baltimore,St.Louis and Cleveland remembered years “Elevated remains” ridership has decrease. Northeast Philly no
    longer segregated due economics region has become stagnated. Anyhow great site bought back members Philly’s transit suffered…due cars fear. Majority of crime Kensington line sparse ridership I grew up this region. Residing Tacoma and Canada show us,
    routes and former lines of trolleys and elevated. Thank you.

  10. Florence Patrick says:

    Thank you for all the wonderful history. I also rode the El to Frankford High School . We would love “my friends and I very shy girls” when the North Catholic boys would get on. It did always smell in the late 60s and 70s like a bathroom. You would also hope a pigeon did not drop a surprise.

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