Broad Street and beyond: The deep history of Philly’s Rail Park
This is an adaptation of a tour for Philadelphia Rail Park Tours, an affiliated company of Popular History. The tour begins just north of Callowhill & Broad.
Why are we here?
No, I don’t mean existentially, I mean here at the beginning of Phase 1? What’s special about this spot? The reason lies beneath the surface.
Across Philadelphia, ancient waterways branching from the Schuykill and Delaware Rivers lay buried in culverts and sealed off as sewers and drainage pipes. Some geologists believe these waterways at one point may even have formed a major conduit between the Schuykill and Delaware.
We’ll focus on two creeks in particular that served as vital connections between the two waterfronts: Pegg’s Run and Minnow Run, at either side of what is today Center City. Pegg’s Run was nearest the Rail Park, and today it runs as a sewer under Willow Street (approaching the Delaware River). The Spring Garden “spring” was fed by the same source as Pegg’s Run and it too was near where the Rail Park is today.
In the 1790s, engineers chose this location–because of the natural right-of-way formed by the streams between the rivers–to build a canal from the Schuylkill River to the Delaware River.
The Delaware and Schuylkill Navigation Company incorporated in 1792 as what is considered the first public canal project in the United States. The canal would run all the way from Philadelphia seventeen miles to Norristown.
Portions of the route were dug along what would become Pennsylvania Avenue towards Broad Street, a trench about 15′ by 5′. Work stopped when investors lost faith and the company bankrupted in the 1790’s. It’s not coincidental that principal Robert Morris was going through personal financial troubles at this time, too.
By 1834, the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad had laid tracks on the canal’s right-of-way. However, the portions along the Schuykill remained extremely active and valuable until the later 1800’s, when the silt accumulation became too much for the dredges to handle. Today many Philadelphians are familiar with the canal portion thanks to the Manyaunk Canal Towpath trail.
Back in Callowhill, with undeveloped space plus access to the rivers and points beyond, the neighborhood criss-crossed with rail track became home to companies like the Baldwin Locomotive Works, whose factories came to be centered at Broad and Hamilton Streets. Matthias Baldwin opened his first facility there in 1836.
The Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad was consolidated into the Pennsylvania Railroad by 1850, although the Philadelphia portion went to the Reading Railroad. The Reading Railroad Broad Street Depot was built in 1861 where the Terminal Commerce Building stands today.
In the 1890’s. the Reading Railroad completed the City Branch tunnel and trench to bury the tracks coming into the city, creating the Pennsylvania Avenue megastructure structure we know today.
This right of way remained active until the 1990’s, and was even considered for mass transit use in more recent years.
Over a million cubic yards of earth were excavated to create this sunken line, which is apparently the first subway project in downtown Philadelphia.
As this big dig was happening, construction of the Reading Terminal was also underway, that famous Italian Renaissance Revival style headhouse built on the spot of an existing open air market (that would find new home and identity as the Reading Terminal Market). The headhouse was designed by F. H. Kimball while Wilson Brothers designed the station. At the time of construction the train shed was one of the largest single-span arched roof structures in the world.
The last train left the station in 1984 leading up to the construction of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Built next at the Broad & Callowhill intersection was the Elverson building, named after James Elverson Jr, who had been his father’s right hand man for many years. Known as Colonel Elverson he was tight with politicians and experienced in the newsroom.
Elverson never forget his training as a reporter. One evening he was at the Union League when a fire broke out across the street. He rang the city editor, who offered to send a reporter, but Elverson said he’d just cover it himself.
A technical challenge with the new building was supporting the immense weight of the pressroom while keeping the train tracks clear underneath. Construction of the $10 million building began in July 1923 and was completed two years later. On July 13, 1925, the first issue of The Inquirer produced there came off the huge presses that were visible from the street.
The paper left the building in 2011. The structure is currently undergoing renovation to become the new headquarters for the Philadelphia Police Department.
Across the street from the Inquirer Building, the Terminal Commerce building was completed in 1930. Constructed for $4 million by the Reading Company, Philadephia firm William Steele & Sons constructed the building with designs by Clark Dillenbeck, chief engineer of the Reading Railroad. William Steele & Sons also built Shibe Park (1909).
The foundation has 228 footings up to 50 feet deep and 20 feet round. Each can withstand millions of pounds, helping to keep the building stay still despite vibration from the passing trains.
The building dominates a lot from Broad to 13th and Noble to Callowhill. It has undergone a major revival since 1997, when Inquirer reporter Michael Rozansky wrote, “The hulking building at Broad and Callowhill Streets in Philadelphia almost begs to be ignored.” The building went by its other name, the North American Building, in this article.
When filled with automobile dealers, its own post office, and innumerable other vendors, the glorified warehouse would have been a spectacle in its day.
In 1948, Inquirer publisher Walter Annenberg, who was about to launch TV Guide, constructed a sprawling new building adjacent to the original newsroom tower building on Broad Street.
This structure was originally designed by Albert Kahn, who is most famous nationally for his Detroit factories, but more recognizable locally as the architect of the Packard Motor Company Building that lies just south of the Inquirer tower on Broad Street.
The new building housed rotogravure presses used to print Sunday Inquirer sections as well as TV Guide and Seventeen, another Annenberg publication.
Later the building was used by the Inquirer and Daily News advertising department. Today the School District of Philadelphia runs out of the building. Some transportation advocates want the city to demolish the later-built storage space that now connects the rotogravure building with the tower building (note the lack of windows on this portion of the structure), providing visibility down the Cut.
Currently parked at the end of Noble Street is Reading Railroad Car #1186, which later served as a dining car on the Iron Horse Rambles that ran from Philadelphia through Pennsylvania’s Anthracite region. The car was constructed in 1927 and reconstructed in 1948-49 with a round roof.
The car was sold in the late 1970s and brought to Philadelphia from Reading, PA. The car was a steak and bagel shop (affiliated with Old Original Levis) until 2012.
Old Original Levis, by the way, was a offshoot of Abe Levis historic establishment in South Philly.
The next building on Noble Street is the Lasher Printing Company Building, which Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron described as “a gorgeous art deco castle.”
Explains Saffron of architect Phillip S. Tyre:
Trained as an engineer, Tyre was acclaimed for his industrial buildings and was already designing an addition to the Packard Motor Car Co. at Broad and Wood. That project maintained the look of Albert Kahn’s original car factory, but Tyre staked out completely new architectural ground for Lasher’s printing plant.
Treating reinforced concrete like clay, Tyre sculpted a gorgeous art deco castle. The Noble Street facade is divided into seven bays, separated by flat columns topped with tiered brick, wedding cake-shaped crowns. The central bay is embedded in a series of accordion folds and bookended by trianglular columns. The entrance bay culminates in a 12-sided tower meant to hide the water tank. A frieze of stylized chevrons above the first floor suggests that Tyre, like many art deco architects, was inspired by Native American motifs.
Lasher opened in 1927, just as the Broad Street Subway was finishing construction. This building contributed to the attainment of the Callowhill Industrial Historic District in 2012 after the owners of the nearby Heid Building initiated the process to secure tax credits for the renovation of that structure.
That brings us to the Rail Park.
Pulitzer Prize winning architecture columnist Inga Saffron has been writing about the Rail Park for the Inquirer since 2004, when it was known as the “viaduct”.
In 2005 while discussing an art exhibit, Groundswell, about urban renewal, Saffron drew comparisons to when parks were needed to provide refuge from “belching factories and crowded slums.” On viewing the MoMA exhibit, she remarked, “it is hard not to be struck by Philadelphia’s rote approach to its landscape problems. The city administration has not yet begun serious planning for the Reading Viaduct park, which is the brainchild of volunteers. Yet, an elevated park could be a catalyst for repopulating the fledgling Loft District north of Vine Street and North Philadelphia.”
Some of this initial interest may have stemmed from a controversy around 2000 about the proposed placement of the new Phillies stadium right on the phase 1 right of way.
John Struble, a major opponent of the stadium, would play a role in the Freinds of the Rail Park. This was actually one of a few different sites proposed for the stadium, see the rest of them here.
In 2011 for the Inquirer, Saffron discussed a study that found it would cost $50 million to demolish the viaduct structure, but $36 million to retrofit it as a park – with higher appreciations for nearby real estate to boot.
Not everyone was a fan, though; according to a Daily News report that same year, John Chin of the Chinatown Development Corporation favored tearing down the viaduct: “It’s the dark shadows; it’s the trash. There’s more crime in this area around the viaduct. Many bad things have been associated with the viaduct and the fact that it overshadows the streets.”
In November 2012, Saffron reported that there were two competing long-term visions for use of the “cut” or the depressed railroad bed that lays between the Rail Park and the Pennsylvania Avenue tunnel nearby the Art Museum Target. This year, local TV personality Mike Jerrick endorsed the concept of a Viaduct Park as his “one great idea” for the Daily News feature.
One proposal would turn the “lowline” into a Bus Rapid Transit corridor, the other was the viaduct project known at that time as “Viaduct Greene”. Viaduct Greene was a brainchild of Paul vanMeter, an early advocate of a wild-like experience for the viaduct structure. vanMeter passed in 2014 from cardiac arrest, and by that time he had a parting of ways with the organization that would become Friends of the Rail Park. However, he and Liz Maillie were key forces in the popularization of what they branded as “viaductgreene” (in their preferred capitalization).
After vanMeter’s passing in 2014, the Viaduct Greene project merged with Friends of the Rail Park, started by Sarah McEneaney and John Struble, local artist and furniture-maker, respectively. By that time, the William Penn Foundation had already begun to study feasibility and pledging money to the effort.
In March 2015, Saffron reported about the teaming up to grant the Rail Park $1 million. At the time, Paul Levy’s Center City District was said to be managing the construction but would not be running the park.
“The William Penn Foundation has long been the dominant force in the creation of new parks around the city. It spends about $13 million a year to underwrite park design and construction, and is responsible for launching Sister Cities Park, the Race Street Pier, and last summer’s Spruce Street Harbor Park.”
There was some pushback, with Scott Cameron writing a letter to the editor about what he posed as the paramount question: “Will there be any artists left to occupy the studios the city envisioned forming a new SoHo, or will it be like so many other things we have painfully seen transpire, in which progress becomes merely a giveaway to the developers who have always put art and artists’ needs down the list after their interests and profits?”
In July 2016, Inga reported about the change to “Rail Park” branding. This year Inquirer columnist called it, “one of the last places in our changing city that still feels undiscovered. Like a secret.” But things were beginning to change, with the Rail Park becoming more mainstream as it achieved publicity through things like its collaboration with Heineken and the National Trust for Historic Preservation around a Bruno Mars concert/fundraiser (the goal was $12k in donations, according to the brief by Jacob Adelman).
Inga covered the park’s opening in a April prospective. The opening was held June 14, 2018. Said Mayor Kenney at the event: “I can’t overstate how important this park is to the Callowhill neighborhood and the city as a whole.”
Festivities were scored by a saxophone quartet from the Philadelphia
Pops, and a traditional dragon dance was provided by representatives
from neighboring Chinatown.
“This park it will connect people, it will connect communities, it will connect—ultimately when it extends the entire three miles which is the great vision for this Rail Park—it will connect our whole city,” said Philly Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott-Lovell.
Center City District CEO Paul Levy, an early advocate of the park,
said that donations were collected from 297 organizations and
individuals. The largest funding came from the State of Pennsylvania,
William Penn Foundation, and Knight Foundation.
Immediately following the ribbon cutting ceremony, crowds flooded the park, and enjoyed some pizza donated by nearby Bufad.
Here’s some footage from right after the park opened:
The Friends of the Rail Park is the non-profit fundraising organization that continues to coalesce support and funding for the park.
The organization hired its first executive director, Kevin Dow, in the months leading up to the park’s opening. Prior to joining the Rail Park, Dow had been Senior Vice President of Impact and Innovation at United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
Friends of the Rail Park Board of Directors
- Liz Maillie, Chair
- Sarah McEneaney, Vice Chair
- Michael Garden, Vice Chair
- H. Allen Hall, Treasurer
- Melissa Kim, Secretary
- Sally Elk
- Sunanda Ghosh
- Tiffany Newmuis
- John Struble
The Rail Park was designed by Bryan Hanes through his firm Studio Bryan Hanes. The Hanes project was a collaboration that involved input from numerous stakeholders and residents in the surrounding Callowhill and Chinatown neighborhoods.
Hanes described his vision to Billy Penn: “So your experience in walking the elevated piece can be through a shady grove, out into the sun and meadows, and then back into a grove.” Hanes explained that there are three main layers, with London plane trees as the upper layer; multi-stem oaks, Kentucky coffee, birch and other tree varieties in the medium layer; and a diverse lower level featuring sage, milkweed, sumac, fern, grasses, indigo, petunias, and more.
Previously the park had been dominated by pawlonia trees, a non-native and fast-growing species that came to the States through international trade, wherein pawlonia seeds provided a cheap and lightweight packing materials.
The Rail Park’s construction was overseen by Urban Engineers, and with their help the project saw wholesale transformation of Noble Street from Broad to 12th. Noble Street now features traffic calming measures, sidewalks, and a wire mesh wall and ivy to hide an adjacent parking lot.
The Rail Park couldn’t have been built without private philanthropy, an effort that continues through the Center City District Foundation. Throughout the park you’ll see plaques designation donations from different individuals, families, and companies. Opportunities range from $100,000 for a set of entrance stairs, $50,000 for the interpretive wall or tiered seating, $25,000 for a swing, and then going all the way down to $100 for a shrub or perennial. In addition to the Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation, which served as anchor sponsors, other donors included Poor Richard’s Charitable Trust, the Mclean Contributorship, the Tuttleman Family Foundation, Victor Keen and Jeanne Ruddy, Bank of America, Post Brothers, Five Below, and many others.
The Rail Park also subscribes to the “Percent for Art” program, at this point manifesting through the site-specific artwork Dawn Chorus by Brent Wahl and Laynie Brown. The piece features a repurposed utility pole and seven cast aluminum birds, with a viewing spot paved by stones inscribed with poetry from different languages, including excerpts by Seamus Heaney, Gertrude Stein, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Anna Akhmatova, and many more.
The industrial-looking Rail Park swings also evoke a makeshift ropeswing that used to hang on the other portion of the viaduct, past the current Callowhill cutoff. These swings can support up to 10,000 pounds. All the platforms and benches in the park were built with a durable hardwood called ipe, which is nonflammable, water/mold/scratch-resistant, and imported from South America. The steel is meant to rust just a little bit so there’s an industrial look that should be maintenance free. Phase One of the High Line also used ipe, although Phase Two used recycled teak.
Now let’s talk about some of the buildings we can see from the Rail Park. Looking north from the Rail Park, a twin steeple church stands out on Spring Garden Street.
The Gothic-style Church of the Assumption at 1121 Spring Garden Street is the oldest surviving work of prolific Catholic architect Patrick Keely, who also designed Manayunk’s St. John the Baptist. It is also the building most endangered of demolition currently.
The structure was built 1848-49 and expanded at the end of the 19th century. It closed at the end of the 20th century in 1995. The church has significance in local Catholicism as being the baptismal church of Saint Katherine Drexel, daughter of a wealthy banker who became a missionary to Native Americans and African Americans. St. John Neumann also administered confirmation here twice and, according to lore, also assisted in the church’s consecration.
Stained glass at the site was designed by George Morgan and the Tyrolese Art Glass Company. There are 9 figurative windows and 33 ornamental windows, although it is not clear that all are intact.
According to Catholic historian Andrew Jackson Reilly, the site is also the location of Ben Franklin’s famous kite flying experiment, and as he explained in an account about the church’s early history: “The kite hovered in the air immediately above the site where the church is to be erected, but as no man can say positively the actual spot, I propose to put up two spires, so that we may say somewhere between these points, happened the most heroic act ever performed in the interests of science.”
Looking east from the Rail Park, you can make out the top of Esslinger’s Brewery.
The complex today encompasses at least 8 distinct buildings ranging in construction date from 1826 to 1964, with major expansion at the end of Prohibition when it became the first Philadelphia brewery to mass produce cans of beer. William F. Koelle designed the “Plant No 1” building to wrap around two tall Victorian era brew houses, the long frontages balancing marketing benefit with accommodating the production line. The building remains active as a soap factory for the company National Chemicals, making one of the industrial building with the longest continuous history in Philadelphia.
Looking south from the Rail Park, the gray and green of the newly renovated “Goldtex” building stands out.
The Goldtex building was built as the Smaltz Building by Ballinger & Perrot for Isaac H. Goodman. Just a few years ago, this building would have been a totally different sight, with the reinforced concrete superstructure visible.
For a time this was the city’s tallest reinforced concrete structure. Goodman used the building for his Smaltz ladies shoe manufacture until selling it to Gold-tex sportswear manufacture who purchased and used the building from the 1950s to 1990s.
The Goldtex building actually wasn’t the first built by Ballinger & Perrot for Goodman, as he had previously commissioned the nearby Goodman Loeb Building from the firm (1909). Today the Goodman Loeb Building goes as the Beaux Arts Lofts, and it stands out as the first building converted to lofts in the neighborhood (1995).
The earliest Ballinger & Perrot building in the area is the Rebman Building near the Noble Street entrance to the Rail Park.
This building was one of the first renovated into condos; prices started at $80,000 but now reach $500,000.
On the other side of the parking lot adjacent the Rail Park (an open space previously occupied by a coal yard until paved for parking in the 1970’s) is the Wolf Building, built at 340 N. 12th Street in 1920 for a paper company that pioneered paper bags for retail use.
Wolf moved operations to the suburbs in 1966, after which a firm Ring Brothers (later Larami Toys) bought the building. It was that that some bright designer invented the super soaker, which the company began manufacturing there in the 1980’s, according to a report by longtime Daily News reporter Gar Joseph. Super soaker production ceased after Hasbro acquired the company in 1992. A group of investors purchased the building in 1997 and began redeveloping it as a cultural and technological hub; the event space Underground Arts occupies space on the lower levels and has been one of the most notable projects by Cornell, Penn, and Wharton trained architect/owner Gary Reuben.
Caddy corner from the Wolf Building, across what was once a portion of Camac Street, is the Heid Building, constructed for Frank P. Heid’s hat and cap manufacturer in just 8 months, from October 15, 1926 to June 15, 1927.
PRDC Properties purchased the building in 2017 and began a $13m renovation to turn the building into 96 luxury apartments, complete with a rooftop terrace, demonstration kitchen, coworking space, and lounge space. As part of construction nearly two dozen students from Benjamin Franklin High School’s Career and Technical Education Vocational Center were given internships and apprenticeships on the project. The Heid Building was designed by J. Franklin Stuckert.
The area around the Rail Park continues to change rapidly, and there are still many other buildings we haven’t mentioned in the post above. Check back here for updates in the future, and visit RailParkTours.com if you’d like to hear all this and more during a 60-minute tour of the park.
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Not quite as captivating as “Hemingway’s Boat”, but perhaps more timeless.
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