Urban Planning

The Pennsylvania Railroads Philadelphia Improvements, Part I

During the early 1920s, the Pennsylvania Railroad began planning for major changes to its infrastructure in the busy Philadelphia area, with the goal of expediting passenger traffic. While Broad Street Station presented an ideal location for the termination of inbound commuter traffic, a major drawback was its stub-ended design, which forced through trains destined for other cities to retrace their steps to West Philadelphia Station before continuing their journey.
To resolve this problem, the railroad planned two large construction projects.1 The first part of the plan was to replace the company headquarters housed in Broad Street Station with a new building adjacent to the station, along what is now JFK Boulevard between 19th and 20th Streets. Beneath this building, a station would be constructed that would serve as the terminus for electric commuter cars coming in from the outlying areas of Philadelphia. This new station would be known as Broad Street Suburban Station or just “Suburban Station”.

Not wishing to retain the street-obstructing elevated trackage leading into Broad Street, often referred to as the “Chinese Wall”, the planner chose to have the tracks from West Philadelphia quickly descend below street level after they had crossed to the east bank of the Schuylkill River. In order to dig this subway, buildings between Filbert and Cuthbert Streets from 15th Street west to the Schuylkill River were demolished. The second part of the plan was to replace West Philadelphia Station with a large passenger station on the grand scale, similar to Penn Station or Grand Central Station in New York City.2 The plans were approved by the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Board of Directors and agreed upon by the City in 1925. Major construction, however, did not begin until 1927.

The Suburban Station office building was completed in 1929. It represents an absolutely beautiful example of Art Deco design. The first two floors are polished black granite, while the remaining 20 floors are made of Alabama limestone and sandstone.3 Adorning the first floor is bronze work, complete with the familiar Pennsylvania Railroad keystone logo. The station below the building was opened on September 28, 1930. Commuter trains leaving Suburban Station crossed the Schuylkill River on a newly constructed stone arch bridge that would eventually serve as the replacement for the three separate railroad bridges that carried trains into Broad Street Station.4

Interestingly, the only portion of 30th Street Station that was constructed at the time Suburban Station was opened was the north wing, intended for commuter trains. Construction of the main portion of the station had only just been started, partly because of protracted negotiations with the city and the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT) regarding the Market Street Elevated Line that would run along the south side of the station.5 As originally planned, the elevated would have passed through a south wing of 30th Street, symmetrical with the suburban north wing of the station. However, the Pennsylvania Railroad felt that the bridges of the elevated line would detract from the appearance of the station and negotiated with the City and PRT to place the elevated line in a subway instead. Unfortunately, as this 1949 picture shows, it took many years for the City to do this and the railroad was left with the rather unsightly elevated line running by its magnificent station.

Next month, we will look at the construction of 30th Street Station. In retrospect, looking at the scale of these projects and the fact that the nation was now at the height of its worst economic depression, it is a tribute to the Pennsylvania Railroad that it was able to complete them under such dire circumstances.


[1] Underkofler, Allen P. The Philadelphia Improvements Part I: The Idea & Projects East of the Schuylkill River. The High Line, Vol. 2, Nos. 2 & 3 (May 1979).

[2] Underkofler, Allen P. The Philadelphia Improvements Part II: 30th Street Station. The High Line, Vol. 3, Nos. 1 & 2 (Sep. 1980).

[3] Messer, David W. Triumph III: Philadelphia Terminal 1838-2000. Baltimore, MD: Barnard, Roberts & Co., 2000, p 52.

[4] Ibid., p. 64.

[5] Ibid., p. 65.