Behind the scenes and into the past at 30th Street Station

Philadelphia’s train station, recently renamed the William H. Gray III 30th Street Station, has meaning for this city far beyond the long-defunct railroad company it was built to glorify.

Its soaring Corinthian columns anchor the western edge of Center City and serve as a gateway to the growing University City. It is one of two secular temples paired on opposite banks of the Schuylkill. Like the Museum of Art, completed in 1928, just six years before the train station, it is an immediately recognizable neoclassical landmark, a place used in movies from Witness to this year’s Glass to announce “This is Philadelphia.”

Unlike the sacred quiet of the Art Museum, though, 30th Street Station is bustling. About 38,000 people come and go from Amtrak’s 10 tracks each workday, hurrying beneath 95-foot coffered ceilings. Modernity bumps up against the past in this steel and Alabama limestone palace, where people’s faces are lit by the electric blue glow of smart phones from below and the soft glow of art deco chandeliers from above. A new digital arrivals and departures sign may have finally silenced the iconic rattle of the old Solari board, but it can’t completely mute the whispers of whistle-stops and the distant click of a conductor’s ticket puncher evoked by the vast, echoing concourse.

Just this year, the concourse became only the fourth indoor space to be historically protected by the city. The exterior of the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and the Philadelphia register in 1980.

The Pennsylvania Railroad, established in 1846, had existed for nearly a century when the station was completed in 1934. In the 20th century, it made more money and carried more traffic than any of its competitors. Before it opened, Philadelphia had Pennsylvania Railroad service at Broad Street, West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia Stations. The company wanted to consolidate, and the new station was situated to provide a hub for travel in every direction. The Pennsylvania Railroad also built Suburban Station to serve regional and commuter rail.

Like a Roman temple expanded to gargantuan proportions, 30th Street Station rose at a bend in the river as a monument to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s power. Designed by the architecture firm Graham, Anderson, Probst, & White, the station’s construction was part of a larger Philadelphia improvement effort amid the Great Depression. The space is built to its bones for trains. Even the height of the stairs leading to the platforms were designed with passengers carrying luggage or children in mind, said Johnette Davies, lead historic preservation specialist at the station.

“Historically, this was your statement,” Davies said. “And the statement is, ‘We are successful, and we are going to be here forever.’”

Then, planes and highways came to America. Thirty-four years after the station was complete, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with the New York Central Railroad to form the Penn Central Railroad, which quickly went bankrupt. The government takeover of passenger rail service led to Amtrak, which owns the station today.

From the outside, the station looks much as it has for decades, but parts of the building that most passengers don’t see have been transformed. A space called the chapel was once a waiting room for people accompanying the remains of a loved one on a final journey. It’s a conference room now. A game room filled with pinball machines is gone, and a bowling alley burned down in 1991. The office of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s vice president is a conference room now, too, though its dark wood paneling still lends it an ominous vibe. It looks like a place the VP’s underlings would be nervous to enter.

So much has changed. The haze of cigarette smoke is long gone, and the vendors now include an Au Bon Pain and a Taco Bell. Other moments and sights, though, are timeless and allow a traveler to imagine an era when a second world war was something to be avoided and a nuclear age was the stuff of science fiction. A person still sells flowers in a station corner, and hurried footsteps are always clacking against Tennessee marble as riders race to make their trains. The building still offers welcome when a long trip ends and the thrill of adventure when a new one begins.