Remembering Philadelphia's Broad Street Station

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As a boy, Ted Xaras's father took him to one of the nation's great train depots, Broad Street Station, located in downtown Philadelphia. 

We went out on the platform and one of the steam locomotives had just pulled in. He picked me up and held me up to the height of the top rim of one of the driving wheels to impress me with the immense size of it,” said Xaras, who now teaches portrait painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. “Needless to say, I was impressed. He also cautioned me not to reach my hand out to touch it as it was really hot from brake shoe resistance.

The whole atmosphere was exciting, with sounds of pumps, generators, steam, bells, the smell of coal smoke, oil, grease, etc. We might have actually been embarking on a trip to the shore that day. I believe my mother was standing next to me. This was probably around 1948 or so.”

Five years later, the station was gone, and only a Pennsylvania Historical Marker at 15th and Market Streets and a few surviving artifacts prove it existed.

One of the largest and busiest trains stations in the country, Broad Street Station was also headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), which was one of the world's largest corporations, with more than 200,000 employees. 


Philadelphia’s ‘Chinese Wall’

In the 1870s, the PRR's primary depot in Philadelphia was at 32nd and Market Streets, but it wanted a venue closer to the center of the city. It hired the architectural firm Wilson Brothers to design a station with accompanying tracks. Because tunnels were not ideal for steam-powered trains, and street-level tracks were potentially dangerous, the railroad built a two-story, 2,000-foot long, 55-foot wide viaduct that led to the station. It was nicknamed “The Chinese Wall.”

The station opened in December 1881, at a cost of $4,272,268.53, according to Broad Street Station: 1881-1952 by Harry Albrecht. It was four stories tall, and featured four tracks, each with its own shed to protect travelers. About 160 trains passed through the station, and by 1886 a million passengers a month were using it (in addition to national routes, the PRR offered regional rail lines from Philadelphia's suburbs to the station). A larger station was needed.

The railroad hired famed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness to design an expansion that was completed in 1893. It featured a 10-story tower to house the company's main offices on the upper floors, and leased office space for businesses on the lower floors. The number of tracks was increased to 16. 

Instead of individual sheds covering each track, one huge shed, measuring 306 feet wide and 591 feet long was built. The roof was made of wood and glass, and at its highest point stood 100 feet above the ground. The Reading Railroad's main depot, only a few blocks from Broad Street Station, had a 300-foot wide shed, and the PRR wanted to surpass it. The PRR shed was destroyed in a fire in 1923; it was one of the biggest fires the city had seen, but no lives were lost and service was restored nine days later.

In 1910, there were 578 arrivals and departures daily, more than one-tenth of all the PRR's trains. The company sold postcards with the station's image on them. Samples can be found on Ebay.

Broad Street Station as a symbol of power

As both the main station in its hometown and its headquarters, Broad Street Station was the consummate symbol of the nation’s most powerful railroad, one that carried 10 percent of all freight and 20 percent of all passengers in the U.S.,” said Dan Cupper, editor of Railroad History, the journal of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society and the author of several books on the railroad. 

Philadelphia sat at the nexus of the railroad’s two most important routes – New York to Washington (today’s Amtrak Northeast Corridor) and Philadelphia to the Midwest (Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Detroit). In its heyday, the PRR operated 5,000 trains a day,” he said. 

In a television documentary on vanished buildings in Philadelphia, Xaras said, “The railroad station, the grand terminals of the cites, really in a sense were the modern cathedrals, the modern temples. They would be to a city, let's say, what the triumphal arches was to Rome or the Acropolis to Greece. I don't think I'm exaggerating, it was a temple of transportation.”

Preston Thayer in The Railroad Designs of Frank Furness, wrote how Furness' concepts were “intensely powerful, sometimes almost deliberately perverse, full of unexpected juxtapositions of the gentle and the tough, the big and the small, the refined and the raw. These elements come together as a complex, energetic whole, and it is no exaggeration to speak of Furness’s buildings as embracing the whole scope of 19th-century American culture. It seems right and natural that Furness’s father’s close friends were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman: honesty and passion are the themes of his architecture, as much as space and light.” 

Broad Street Station was made of brick and terra cotta, and its Gothic quality was reminiscent of medieval castles, complete with spires. 

To decorate the building and viaduct, Austria-born sculptor Karl Bitter created numerous friezes and sculptures, some in allegorical form, placed on the exteriors and in the station's main lobby.

The trouble with Broad Street Station

In the 1920s, the railroad made plans for a larger, more modern station, and by 1933, 30th Street Station was completed about a mile and a half from Broad Street Station. It also accommodated electric trains. The Great Depression, and later World War II, delayed the destruction of Broad Street Station, as troops on the way to basic training camps or Europe and the Pacific passed through it. By 1952, plans for the station's demise were put into effect. 

A construction firm run by Mathew H. McCloskey (who later became U.S. Ambassador to Ireland) was paid $157,500 to demolish the station; included in the contract was a provision the company could sell off what it could salvage. 

An estimated 30,000 truckloads of rubble were carted to South Philadelphia and used to lay the foundation for a pier. 

Station artifacts saved, available to view

Another of the station's surviving artifacts is still in working order.  A large clock was installed in the four-story tower in 1881, and ran until April 27, 1952. 

According to Dodie L. Robbins, collections manager for the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum, this clock was manufactured specifically for Broad Street Station. In 1952, the clock was acquired by Publicker Industries and stored in the company’s warehouse. The clock was donated to the Railroad Museum in 1982. It was restored and converted from mechanical to electric. It was installed on the exterior of the museum's front entrance and dedicated on Jan. 22, 1983. 

With the renovation of the museum's front entrance in 2006, the clock was temporarily removed, and, reinstalled at the museum's front entrance clock tower and rededicated in 2007. 

One man made model of station

One of the most passionate of the station's fans is Chuck Denlinger. He saw a book about the station, and began making a model of it. Decades later, the model, lets us see in three dimensions what the station looked like when it existed.  Denlinger isn't finished with the model. He added a bridge that spanned Market Street to an office building (since demolished). It took him 30 hours to make the causeway.

Denlinger used a wealth of photos of the station's exterior to construct the model, built mostly at 1/160th scale. 

The model has been displayed at The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, the University of Pennsylvania and other venues.

Probably the most challenging part was finding materials that reasonably represented the various architectural shapes,” said Denlinger, who retired after working 30 years for Verizon. 

At certain points, the scale “is so small that instead of duplication of a specific detail, I often chose a material that I hoped would capture the look or feel of an area. The model is generally viewed from several feet away and I like to think this approach worked.” said Denlinger. 

Denlinger added minute detail:  a Bitter sculpture over an entrance, “Faith, Hope and Charity” surrounding a clock, is visible. While that clock doesn't work, the one he has in the station's tower does. Denlinger says it's powered by a battery for a lady's wristwatch. It took months to find something acceptable, he said. (Incidentally, the clock in the sculpture on Broad Street Station was illuminated at night.)

On the streets outside the station are trolleys and pedestrians (which would have been a daily sight during the station's existence). Locomotives are positioned on the tracks.

As the model was built based on images I found or was offered, it is a blend of different eras from 1881-1923,” he said. “The 1881 building had so much detail that I wanted to represent that as built. Undated floor plans were used as a guide for that interior, which has been added. Modifications were made if there was information conflicting with them.”

Furness designs for the interior were “the same as the exterior, with a similar attitude about composition and form.” said Whitacker. “A sense of expression of materials, certain juxtaposition, one material against each other, exaggerated of proportion and scale; There was fine woodwork on the interior.”

One of the most important features inside the station was the Savarin Restaurant, one of the better dining options in center city Philadelphia for many years. 

(One a personal note, my mother, Anna Caroulis, had a job in downtown Philadelphia after WWII, and she and co-workers would walk via underground tunnels to have lunch at the Savarin. On one visit she ordered a salad with blue cheese dressing. “It was the first time I had that, and I always went back and ordered it again,” she said. She also remembers the station having a candy store and a dry cleaners.) 

Other eating and drinking establishments were a diner-type restaurant, and a small bar called “A Hole in the Wall.” There was a tailor shop where travelers could have clothes repaired and train porters had their uniforms mended. 

For those who wished to make a phone call, Bell Telephone had several operators at a counter.  A customer would write down the number they wished to call and give it to a supervisor, who passed it to a switchboard operator. The customer would go to a phone booth, and when their party was on the line, the operator would connect them. When the call was completed, the time was calculated and the customer would pay for the call. Ed Zwick said his aunt Muriel, who worked as a supervisor at the phone counter, and operators kept a scrapbook of autographs of prominent people who used the phones. He said then-General Dwight Eisenhower, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Carol Channing were some of the celebrities who signed the scrapbook. 

One of the earliest businesses at the station, Stoever's Pharmacy, offered medicines and fountain sodas made at its counter, which was a first. 

In Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains, Anne Cooper Funderburg wrote, “At the turn of the century, virtually all soda fountains were wall models – that is, the back of the apparatus sat flush against a wall. In 1903, the American Soda Foundation Company introduced the first modern counter-service fountain called the Innovation. The first Innovation was installed in J.W. Stoever's pharmacy in the Broad Street railway station in Philadelphia. All the syrup pumps and soda drafts were attached to the counter, where customers sat.”

In the main lobby was a huge map of Pennsylvania, showing the PRR's tracks across the state. The last scheduled departure from Broad Street Station was train 431 to Washington, D.C. at 1:10 a.m. on  April 27, 1952. About 20 hours later, ceremonies began to mark the end of the station.

The ceremony included “souvenir” tickets for the special final train, speakers, and orchestra hat played while passengers with tickets, and members of the orchestra had boarded a seven-coach symbolic “final” train at 9:57 p.m.. The train rode to 30th Street Station, then on to the PRR's North Broad Street Station, the last stop of the last train to mark the end of the station's service.

The following morning, Mayor Clark and McCloskey together held a crowbar and pried a brick from a terra cotta railing on the station's roof, the symbolic first blow in the station's destruction.


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