University City Historical Society

30th Street Station

also known as West Philadelphia Station, Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Pennsylvania Station 30th Street, Penn Central Station, Penn Central 30th Street Station

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places June 7, 1978


Built during the Great Depression, the 30th Street Station has served for more than forty years as Philadelphia's principal passenger station. Once used as the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the station and its attendant trackage have undergone little change since the completion of their construction in 1934.

30th Street Station viewed from the east, 1978.
30th Street Station viewed from the east, 1978.

The present station represents one in a series of designs proposed for the site between 1925 and 1929. This final design exhibited a post and beam aesthetic and represented a transformation from, the then dominant, neo-classicism to a more modernized style. Representative of this transformation was the different treatments given to the exterior and interior. While the exterior maintained a strict neo-classicism, the interior reflected a more freely interpreted classicism. Further, the station incorporated several features which were novel to station design at the time, including a chapel, a mortuary, and 3,300 square feet of hospital space. The reinforced concrete roof of the concourse section was designed to allow a landing space for small aircraft. An elaborate buzzer and intercom system and a pneumatic tube network for internal communications were incorporated into the station, providing an efficient communication system without compromising the desired monumentality. These features have either been altered to satisfy changing functional needs or are no longer used. The chapel, mortuary and hospital space have since been converted to office space, a conference room, and a ConRail infirmary, respectively; while the landing space and internal communication system are no longer used.

The Chicago firm of Graham Anderson Probst and White, the successor office to D. H. Burnham and Co., was responsible for the final design. The Pennsylvania Railroad's commission for the station came to the firm after the death in 1924 of their chief designer, Beaux-Arts trained Pierce Anderson. Accordingly, the ultimate design which integrated new ideas into the classical vocabulary, was probably the product of younger men in the firm such as Alfred Shaw, Charles T. Murphy, and Sigurd Naess, all of whom were associated with the firm by 1930.

The evolution of the station design reflected variations of the classical style evolving during the late 1920's. These variations expressed the prevailing optimism about and commitment to progress through industrialization. As first envisioned in 1927, the station was to have been a Beaux-Arts structure inspired by the Baths of Caracalla. Based on the interplay of two axes, as in the present structure, the original design employed a steel arched structural system together with doubled columniation and Baroque ornamentation on the east facade.

A later concept, although indicative of the Beaux-Arts style, was more reflective of industrial technology. Using a plan similar to the one first proposed for the station but of more extravagant proportions, this scheme called for an enormous central area spanned by arching iron trusswork and a more restrained treatment of the exterior ornamentation. The proposed "grand concourse," a room twenty-five feet wider and one hundred seventy feet longer than the existing concourse would have combined the waiting room with the arrival and departure concourse in to one monumental space.

While the building is an impressive architectural statement in its own right, it takes on particular significance when viewed in the context of the history of American railroading and urban planning. One of the last of the former "gateways" to major American cities, the station was part of an overall central city improvement program begun in 1925 by both the City of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Planned as a replacement to the landmark train shed terminal in center city, the 30th Street Station marked the commitment of the railroad to electricity as a preferable energy source for trains.

The old Broad Street Station, built in 1881 in the city center about one mile from the main line tracks, was by 1920 the center of the heaviest passenger traffic of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was a sub station, however, necessitating a half-hour delay, as trains had to travel to the yard west of the Schuylkill to turn around. As early as 1910, when the plan for a diagonal parkway from City Hall to Fairmount Park challenged any expansion of Broad Street Station, the railroad began to study the possibilities for a new station site.

In June, 1925, the company entered into an agreement with the City of Philadelphia whereby, in return for tunnel rights to 15th Street, the railroad agreed to surrender for the parkway certain land near City Hall and for new development the corridor occupied by its elevated tracks to Broad Street Station. The railroad further agreed to build a central station for suburban passengers as well as a new station west of the Schuylkill.

The site on the west bank of the Schuylkill gave the railroad the opportunity to lay out loop tracks in an area south of the station so that New York trains bound for the west could be turned around within the terminal area in a continuous movement.

Construction on the major portion of the station started almost simultaneously with the onset of the Great Depression, resulting in economic problems, which had not been anticipated in 1925. Consequently, what had begun as a model agreement between government and private enterprise became increasingly government dominated as the Public Works Administration intervened to finance the completion of the electrification work and the station building itself.

The slow recovery from the Depression, coupled with the delay in construction work during World War II, postponed development east of the river. Accordingly, the reconstruction of the Filbert Street corridor was not realized until the 1960's. Now, the 30th Street Station stands as a monumental terminus to a boulevard only recently completed. While the station complex is in large part surrounded by an elevated highway unanticipated in 1925, the absolute scale of the station allows it to retain its architectural integrity and forceful presence despite the changing conditions of the cityscape.

The 30th Street Station National Register Nomination was researched and prepared by Edward Dunson.

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