Urban Planning

The Pennsylvania Railroads Philadelphia Improvements, Part II

Last month we looked at the Pennsylvania Railroads Philadelphia Improvements starting with the construction of Suburban Station followed by construction of the north wing of 30th Street Station, which opened September 28, 1930. Despite the Depression, construction would continue on the remaining major portion of 30th Street Station. From the outset, the Pennsylvania Railroad intended the station to be a magnificent structure. After soliciting numerous design proposals, the railroad finally settled on the architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White for their design of a Grecian style station built of structural steel and concrete faced with Alabama limestone.1

Two aerial photographs and show the early stages of construction. It should be noted that the date of 1934 for these photographs is incorrect since the station was already in partial service by 1933.2 By comparing numerous aerial photographs documenting the progress of the station’s construction, a more accurate date for the first photograph is February of 1931 and the second photograph would be late spring of 1931. The first aerial photograph shows the completed suburban wing of the station. Adjacent to the suburban wing (directly below it in the photograph) one can see that the tracks formerly used to enter Broad Street Station via the three railroad bridges have been removed. The second aerial photograph, taken a few months later, shows the area adjacent to the suburban wing as a white rectangular area. This represents the construction of the street level floor of the station.

Tracks entering the station are below this level. In order to accommodate the tracks a large amount of earth was first excavated from this area. This was not without incident, as it was discovered that the area was used as a burial site for 17th century Quakers and a number of coffins were unearthed and had to be relocated. After the earth had been excavated, securing the foundation required that 5000 pipes be driven into the ground some 80 feet deep to encounter bedrock. Once the pipes were filled with concrete, assembly of the structural steel could begin.3 Concomitant with work on the building, much of the site to the north and south of the building needed to be cleared for railroad tracks. In the aerial photographs, the buildings just north of the newly completed suburban wing were stockyards and an abattoir that had been razed for construction.

By the end of 1931, the structural steel framework of the building was near completion and the outer limestone walls were being erected. When completed the station was indeed magnificent. At each end of the concourse on the outside were porticoes, one facing 30th street the other the Schuylkill River and downtown Philadelphia. Each portico has ten Corinthian columns measuring 71 feet tall and 11 feet in diameter.4 Inside the station, the main concourse is 290 feet long and 135 feet wide. The ceiling towers some 95 feet above the Tennessee marble floor. Much of the ornamentation within the station represents a beautiful example of art deco design.5 Work continued on the station for the next two years, and the station was fully opened on December 15, 1933. The station remains active today and is Amtrak’s third busiest railroad station behind only Penn Station in New York and Union Station in Washington D.C.

While the station remains intact, a number of dramatic changes have occurred in the last few years. The most significant is the construction of the Cira Building just north of the suburban wing. A final note concerns the steam generation plant for 30th Street Station with its very tall smokestack visible in the aerial photographs and on the extreme left in the photograph of the portico. Built in 1929, it has apparently become expendable and is scheduled for implosion in November 2009, thus removing a familiar landmark from the West Philadelphia skyline.


[1] Underkofler, Allen P. The Philadelphia Improvements Part II: 30th Street Station. The High Line, Vol. 3, Nos. 1 & 2 (Sep. 1980), p. 6

[2] Ibid., p. 11

[3] Ibid., p. 11

[4] Ibid., p. 7

[5] Ibid., p. 6