Philadelphia does right by 30th Street

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, April 25, 2019

An undated (but captioned 'New 30th St. Main Sta.' by the photographer) view looks west in the main concourse of PRR's 30th Street Station, Philadelphia, opened in 1933. Although many elements have been added during seven decades of intensive use, the monumental space retains its character today. Thomas Emden
Here’s an opinion I’ve shared before: Amtrak’s 30th Street Station in Philadelphia is America’s finest railway terminal. It’s nearly unique in offering a rich combination of history, architecture, commuter service, and long-distance trains, all in a downtown building that remains substantially unchanged from the day it opened its doors. 

When I say “nearly unique,” I’m hedging a bit because Los Angeles Union Station might make the same claim to greatness. Maybe Washington Union Station as well. Still, I give the edge to Philadelphia.  

From 30th Street’s platforms you can board a SEPTA train to Haverford or an Amtrak sleeping car to Hattiesburg. You can marvel at the Tuscan-red-and-gold coffered ceiling soaring 95 feet above the vast concourse, or marvel at the Pennsylvania Railroad keystones that bejewel the balustrades. You can hear that distinctive rumble beneath the floor when your train arrives. All this in a place that looks pretty much like it did when the PRR opened the Neo-Classical monument in 1933.

What brings all this to mind is the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s announcement last week that the interior of 30th Street has been placed on the city’s historical register, a move that protects the space from major modification. 

Bravo! The powers that be in Philadelphia, as well as Amtrak, deserve congratulations for a truly enlightened move. A consultant for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Ben Leech, cited the interior’s historical and architectural significance, and its status as one of Philadelphia’s “most iconic and trafficked public spaces.”

Leech is on to something there. Not only does the station continue to do a beautiful job of providing the city with high-capacity rail service, it also cements Philadelphia’s bond with the late, great Pennsylvania Railroad. Talk about iconic. The story of the PRR’s influence in Philadelphia and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania need neither exaggeration nor embellishment. 

In mid-2010, a view from the east balcony shows 30th Street's concourse, busy with Amtrak passengers. Greg McDonnell
This was a company whose lobbyist in Harrisburg was known as the “51st senator.” As PRR historian Dan Cupper has written, “A story, possibly apocryphal but probably rooted in truth, holds that sessions often closed with this dismissal announcement: ‘The Pennsylvania Railroad having no more business to come before this body, the Senate stands adjourned.’”

It was a company that could hand out dividends to stockholders for more than 100 years, still a record in U.S. business. It was a company that, in 1920s and ’30s, could spend tens of millions to electrify its New York–Washington and Philadelphia–Harrisburg main lines, making possible today’s Northeast Corridor. It was a railroad that, for generations, would build its own steam locomotives. 

All that power, all that influence, is exemplified in the austere but magnificent interior of 30th Street, built between 1929 and 1933 during the tenure of PRR President W. W. Atterbury and designed by Alfred Shaw of the blue chip architectural firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. The building had already been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. Now the all-important interior has similar status.  

It’s a testament to the thoroughness of the city’s preservation process that several specific features of the station are designated as untouchable, including the station’s travertine walls and Corinthian columns, its vast marble floor, that wonderful coffered ceiling, and its distinctive octagonal light fixtures. Also protected are two of 30th Street’s unique works of public sculpture: Walker Hancock’s 28-foot-high bronze Angel of Resurrectionat the east end of the concourse, honoring PRR’s World War II dead; and Karl Bitter’s Spirit of Transportation, saved from the old Broad Street Station.

Pennsylvania Railroad keystones and Amtrak's Acela logo provide a study in branding across the decades. A recent historical designation ensures that the symbols of the PRR will endure. Greg McDonnell
Alas, one of my old friends there, the Solari arrivals-and-departures board, famous for its chattering flip-boards, did not meet the qualifications of the preservation status. It was too new — installed by Amtrak sometime after 1971. Workmen removed the board several weeks ago, replacing it with a digital impostor. 

Not everyone loved 30th Street, at least not at first. In his landmark book The Railroad Station(Yale University Press, 1956), architectural historian Carroll L.V. Meeks had this to say: “The concourse encloses more cubic feet than that of the Pennsylvania Station in New York; the columns are exceptionally huge, the use of marble remarkably lavish. All that was lacking was a fresh touch to change it from the chilly graveyard it is. As in many other stations, the functionally excellent plan and the direct and simple circulation are interred in an uninspired mausoleum.”  

I’m not qualified to debate Professor Meeks. He probably has a point. Thirtieth Street does tend to overwhelm, especially on first visit, but if it seems imperious, that’s just the way the PRR wanted it. And in 1933, nobody in Philadelphia dared question the PRR’s good judgment.

Meanwhile, given the whole sorry history of railroad station preservation in the U.S. over the past 50-plus years, I’ll take my familiar old mausoleum. Besides, it can be a very warm, inviting place when you curl up on one of its benches, Inquirerand cheesesteak in hand, waiting once again to feel your train rumbling beneath the floor. 

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