A ride on the Reading Railroad

(Not much about language, but mostly about my life, train travel, and train stations.)

From Ann Burlingham, this card in the game of Monopoly, which she posted on Facebook in connection with a story about the Koch Brothers’ campaign against high-speed rail in the U.S.:


I grew up in a suburb of Reading PA, from which the Reading Railroad got its name, and I traveled often on the railroad in my childhood and young adult years. It was the route to Philadelphia, and, beyond that, to Princeton and on to New York City.

The Reading train station still stands. In the old days, the trains came by on a level grade crossing in the middle of town, so they halted traffic on the main street (Penn Street) when they went through.

A story from the 5/19/08 Reading Eagle: “New Role sought for Reading train station: Commercial use seen for downtown landmark” by Darrin Youker, which began by noting the craftsmanship of the old station:

the original tiles, crafted in Italy and transported by ship and rail, are still intact. Decorative arches over lofty windows have withstood the test of time.

The train station has stood on Franklin Street since 1929 but has been vacant since 1981, when passenger rail service ended in Reading.

Yet the building is still sound.

In the high days of rail travel in this country, even small stations were gems. Larger stations were castles.

In any case, in those days, my parents and I took trips to NYC (for their jewelry shop business), starting from the Reading train station and going on to the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia and further on by the Reading Railroad to the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where there was a connection to the Pennsylvania Railroad north to the old Pennsylvania Station in NYC (not the current mingy, claustrophobic “Penn Station” underground beneath Madison Square Garden, the successor to the grand old station when it was demolished). Later, I used a version of this route to get from Reading to Princeton and back.

Ok, from Reading to the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia. From Wikipedia:

The Reading Terminal … is a complex of buildings located in the Market East section of Center City in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. It is composed of three parts: the Reading Terminal Headhouse, the Reading Terminal Trainshed, and the Reading Terminal Market (under the trainshed).

… The headhouse was designed in 1891 by Francis H. Kimball, and the train shed by Wilson Brothers & Company. Construction began that same year, and the station opened on January 29, 1893.

… The complex was fronted on Market [Street] by an eight-story headhouse that housed the passenger station and company headquarters. Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the headhouse has brick bearing walls with cast-iron columns and timber floors. Interior finishes include molded ornamental plaster and marble with cast-iron detailing.

… Reading Terminal served the railroad’s inter-city and regional rail trains

But then the Reading Railroad declared bankruptcy, on November 23rd, 1971. The local lines have mostly been folded into Philadelphia’s SEPTA system.

Then the 30th Street Station. From Wikipedia:

The 30th Street Station is the main railroad station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

… The Chicago architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, the successor to D.H. Burnham & Company, designed the structure, originally known as Pennsylvania Station–30th Street in accord with the naming style of other Pennsylvania Stations.

… Construction began in 1927 and the station opened in 1933, starting with two platform tracks. The vast waiting room is faced with marble and the coffered ceiling is painted gold, red and cream.

The stations got grander and grander, until the trip culminated in the old Penn Station. Again from Wikipedia:

Pennsylvania Station was a historic railroad station, named for the Pennsylvania Railroad, its builder and original tenant, and shared its name with several stations in other cities. It was designed by McKim, Mead, and White and completed in 1910. The original Pennsylvania Station was considered a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style and one of the architectural jewels of New York City.

… [PRR president Alexander Johnston] Cassatt was inspired by the Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts style station in Paris, though he planned for the new terminal to his railway to be twice as large.

Cassatt commissioned Charles McKim of the New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White to design the terminal. McKim envisioned a space that would celebrate “the entrance to one of the great metropolitan cities of the world.” He studied role of public buildings in Ancient Rome, including the Baths of Caracalla. Cassatt and McKim worked closely together to define the structure of the station.

The concourse at Penn Station:


I can still remember being bowled over by the place the first time I experienced it. (I was, I think, 11.)

And then the end:

The Pennsylvania Railroad optioned the air rights of Penn Station in the 1950s. The option called for the demolition of the head house and train shed, to be replaced by an office complex and a new sports complex. The tracks of the station, perhaps fifty feet below street level, would remain untouched. Plans for the new Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden were announced in 1962. In exchange for the air rights to Penn Station, the Pennsylvania Railroad would get a brand-new, air-conditioned, smaller station completely below street level at no cost, and a 25 percent stake in the new Madison Square Garden Complex.

A point made in the defense of the demolition of the old Penn Station at the time was that the cost of maintaining the old structure had become prohibitive. The question of whether it made sense to preserve a building, intended to be a cost-effective and functional piece of the city’s infrastructure, simply as a monument to the past was raised in defense of the plans to demolish it. As a New York Times editorial critical of the demolition noted at the time, a “city gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves.” Modern architects rushed to save the ornate building, although it was contrary to their own styles. They called the station a treasure and chanted “Don’t Amputate – Renovate” at rallies.

Under the presidency of Pennsylvania Railroad’s Stuart T. Saunders (who later headed ill-fated Penn Central Transportation), demolition of the above-ground station house began in October 1963…

The demolition of the head house — although considered by some to be justified as progressive at a time of declining rail passenger service — created international outrage. As dismantling of the structure began, The New York Times editorially lamented, “Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.”

Its destruction left a lasting wound in the architectural consciousness of the city. A famous photograph by Eddie Hausner of the ruined sculpture “Day” by Adolph Alexander Weinman in a landfill of the New Jersey Meadowlands struck a guilty chord. One of the sculpted clock surrounds, whose figures were based on model Audrey Munson, still survives as the Eagle Scout Memorial Fountain in Kansas City, Missouri. Another clock sculpture, “Night,” is in the sculpture garden at the Brooklyn Museum, and 14 of the 22 original eagle ornaments still exist. Ottawa’s Union Station, built in 1912, a year after Penn Station, is another replica of the Baths of Caracalla; its departure hall now provides an idea of what the interior of Penn Station looked like (at half the scale). Chicago Union Station is also based on the design of these earlier structures.

The photographs don’t do the place justice, because they don’t capture its size and spaciousness.

I graduated from Princeton in 1962, just before the demolition got underway. The opening of Frank Lloyd Wright’s stunning Guggenheim Museum in 1959 was no compensation, especially for rail travelers.

4 Responses to “A ride on the Reading Railroad”

  1. Brian Ashurst Says:

    A sad story which was recounted in a recent PBS documentary. It reminds me of the “reconstruction” of Euston Station, London, in 1962, which also involved loss of priceless interior grandeur in favor of modern “office block” style. The famous Euston Arch was also demolished–but there may be a happy ending after all, as recounted in Wikipedia: “In March 2014 it was announced that a revived £1.2bn scheme to rebuild London’s Euston station as the gateway to the High Speed 2 line might include reconstruction of the Euston Arch. The Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “I will … ask HS2 Ltd and Network Rail to develop more comprehensive proposals for the redevelopment of Euston, working with the rail industry and the local community. This work should include proposals for the Euston arch, which should never have been knocked down and which I would like to see rebuilt.”
    All the stonework for the arch has been recovered (it was used to fill in a disused canal) so it may once again be the original arch.

    –Brian Ashurst

  2. chrishansenhome Says:

    I used the “new” Penn Station regularly in 1970-1991 when I lived in New York, attending Columbia and then living in the city until I moved to Chicago. I don’t know when you used it last, but they have done some very good renovation inside. It’s not the Baths of Caracalla, but signage is good, there are good food shops, and the connections to NJ Transit have improved markedly from what they were. The pimple inside is the kiosk with the Amtrak police station.

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    The Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, as I expect you know, has been repurposed as a large indoor multi-vendor food market.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Oh yes, indeed. I’ve been there.

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