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A New, Transit-Centered Neighborhood for Philadelphia

A 90-year-old train station will anchor a $10 billion investment in urban development that could result in as much as 18 million square feet of new commercial and residential space over the next several decades.

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The main concourse at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.
(Photographs by David Kidd)
In Brief:
  • Philadelphia’s iconic train station opened 90 years ago.
  • 30th Street Station will be the centerpiece of a new transit-oriented neighborhood.
  • Restoration work at the station will be finished in 2026.

  • A century ago, in the waning years of the City Beautiful Movement, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and the city of Philadelphia were jointly developing planned improvements to their transportation infrastructure. Collectively known as the “Philadelphia Improvements Project,” civic leaders sought to build a grand parkway, not far from where the PRR would construct a monumental new station on the city’s west side.

    Considered to be one of the last of the great train stations to be built, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station opened to the public in 1933. Clad in Alabama limestone, its classical revival exterior features a towering portico on the west and east facade, each featuring 10 Corinthian columns, 71 feet tall and 11 feet in diameter.

    The classical revival theme continues inside but is less austere, thanks to the addition of 1930s-era modern accents and decorations. Monumental colonnades anchor the east and west ends of the cavernous main concourse. Walls covered in travertine limestone are punctuated by four- and five-story-high windows on every side. Ten massive art deco light fixtures, each measuring 18 feet tall, hang from a coffered ceiling painted in shades of burgundy, salmon, cream and gold, soaring 95 feet above the Tennessee marble floors.
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    The 30-foot long “Spirit of Transportation” was originally installed in another, since-demolished station.
    Neither classical nor art deco, a 30-foot plaster frieze adorns the wall of an adjacent waiting room. Created in 1895, the work was originally installed in an older Philadelphia station — since demolished — before moving to its current location in 1933. Titled “Spirit of Transportation,” the sculpture depicts the “progression of progress,” prophetically led by a child carrying a model airship. The artist was run over by a car in 1915.

    Despite an outward appearance inspired by the past, Philadelphia’s newest station had several advanced features for its time including an elaborate intercom system and pneumatic tube messaging network. The building also included more than 3,000 square feet of hospital space and a chapel that was later used as a temporary morgue during World War II. The roof over the main concourse was reinforced so that it could support small aircraft, although it was never put to the test.
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    The station’s classical revival exterior reflects the era when railroads dominated America's transportation sector.

    Changing but Unchanged

    After 90 years of service, 30th Street Station is still an important part of Philadelphia’s intercity and commuter transportation network, serving also as a hub for local subway, trolley and bus routes. Well over 100,000 people pass through the complex on a typical weekday. It is Amtrak’s third busiest station, after New York and Washington.

    Remarkably, the station looks today much as it did in 1933. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been changes. The facility continued as a busy commuter hub after the war years, but train traffic declined as people increasingly opted to travel by car and plane. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Railroad struggled to stay current, installing it’s first “electronic ticket center” at 30th Street Station in 1955. The New York Times described the new way to purchase tickets as “a transaction involving electronics, facsimile machines, photo-electric cells, electrically sensitive paper, and prefabricated matrices that print the tickets fresh for each customer.”
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    30th Street Station is Amtrak’s third busiest, behind New York and Washington.
    At one time the largest corporation in the world, the Pennsylvania Railroad went bankrupt in 1976 and ownership of Philadelphia’s train station transferred to Amtrak. After decades of neglect, a $100 million renovation was completed in 1991. Ceilings, walls, fixtures and the floor were cleaned and repaired. New shops and food vendors were installed, and Amtrak office space brought up to date.

    An Amtrak publication at the time commemorated the project’s completion as “just the beginning for a far reaching and ambitious plan to transform almost 100 acres of the city into an international center of business, commerce, arts, entertainment and living spaces.” This was just one of several plans and proposals to develop the area around 30th Street Station since it opened in 1933, all of them falling short of expectations.
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    The station’s interior combines classical themes with art deco details that were popular when it was built.

    Planning for the Future

    Unveiled in 2016, the “Philadelphia 30th Street Station District Plan” is by far the most ambitious vision yet for the station and its surroundings. Led by Amtrak, Brandywine Realty Trust, Drexel University, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the plan is “a comprehensive vision for the future of the 30th Street Station District in the year 2050 and beyond.”

    With $10 billion in public and private investment, the joint master plan foresees an entirely new neighborhood of residential and commercial office towers, retail, cultural amenities and 40 acres of open public space, all of it built atop railyards and on land adjacent to the station. In total the massive project could result in as much as 18 million square feet of new development. The district plan is expected to proceed incrementally over several decades, in order to be economically feasible.
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    The District Plan envisions an entirely new neighborhood, centered around the 90-year-old train station.
    As the new neighborhood’s centerpiece, work has already begun on a complete renovation and modernization of the station, seen as a critical first step toward fulfilling the district plan. The transit hub was recently renamed the “William H. Gray III 30th Street Station,” in honor of the late Pennsylvania congressman. New signage has been installed, reflecting the change, and the exterior has undergone cleaning and restoration.

    Renovation work is now underway on the historic station’s interior, incorporating modern amenities and the improved operational efficiencies needed to handle a projected doubling of passenger volume over the next 25 years. “We're taking a very sensitive approach as to how we chose materials for the new stuff,” says Gail Barman, Amtrak program manager for the Gray 30th Street Station redevelopment project. “Everything is intended to maintain the historic core and character of the building.” Work is expected to be completed by the end of 2026.
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    Workers test cleaning methods on a section of the station's travertine wall.

    Gone but not Forgotten

    Despite the restoration’s attention to historic detail, some things long associated with the William H. Gray III 30th Street Station have left the building. In the 1970s, Amtrak installed a mechanical split-flap departures board that made a distinctive clickety-clack sound as it updated boarding and gate information. It was the last of its kind in use on the entire Amtrak system. Citing ADA non-compliance, the board was taken down from its perch a few years ago and shipped off to a museum.

    The newsstand was once an indispensable feature of the main concourse. Today, the station’s remaining pared-down newsstand still sells magazines, books, candy and souvenirs. But as of last month, they no longer carry newspapers. No one was buying them.

    Barring a renewed interest in newsprint, picking up a newspaper inside 30th Street Station is an activity likely never to return. The old-fashioned departure board, however, will be back. Amtrak has promised to rescue the beloved clicking contraption from its temporary museum home and reinstall it in the main concourse, but only as a decorative reminder of the grand station’s past.
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    A broad selection of food options will replace today’s meager offerings when work on the station is completed.
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    The District Plan promises new life for an old station.
    David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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