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Baltimore City

Encased in wrappings, as well as history, Penn Station’s face lift begins

Charles Street’s Pennsylvania Station is now wrapped in scaffolding and a dark filmy safety material that makes the building pop out. It’s open for business and in the first six months of a planned transformation and expansion designed to make this landmark more of a neighborhood anchor than it already is.

Workers now are repointing its stone walls and checking for structural stress that the historic structure may have suffered during its lengthy existence.

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“We’re finding more mortar damage than we could have foreseen,” said Timothy Pula, a community development official for Beatty Development. “Up, on the scaffolding, you can see the wear and tear you don’t see from the street. It’s 111 years old and the wear is understandable. The mortar joints need repointing.”

Wohlsen Construction is tackling the building stones and stripping paint from the station’s massive windows on the southern facade looking toward the Jones Falls Expressway. When this side is finished, workers will move on to the north-facing Lanvale Street flank.

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“It is fascinating how the builders physically put it all together,” said Pula, who, it turns out, is the great grandson of Baltimore railroad station architect E. Francis Baldwin. “We are also taking the exterior canopies apart and redoing the glass in them. Up on the fourth floor, when you look through the decorative stone balustrades, the building has an almost Parisian feel.”

While the exterior stone and windows required work, Pula said, the roof and the three stained-glass skylights were in better shape.

The immediate agenda involves getting the 1911 building restored so that it becomes a Station North standout community treasure. A relighted and proud-looking station stands to make a statement about what is to come — a major station concourse expansion over the train tracks and a new addition on its Lanvale Street parking lot. In time, a campus of new apartment and office buildings could rise on land owned by Amtrak or on parking lots in the Station North community. But that’s in the future.

Pula said the station’s interior, the one that commuters and travelers see, will be reworked. The present ticket windows will be changed and restrooms and other spaces will be housed in temporary kiosks while the work progresses. The upper floors, unused for decades, will become offices.

The idea is to keep the station looking like 1911 and yet bring it into the 21st century. Work is also under way for new platforms for planned high-speed train service. One set of the original 1911 platforms is now under refurbishment.

Over the years, some noteworthy personalities have passed through the station. Babe Ruth, Clark Gable, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Jimmy Carter, to name a few. It also has a body double, in Scranton, Pennsylvania — the 1907 Delaware, Lackawanna & Western terminal in the coal mining region looks looks like a sibling to Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station, which opened Sept. 14, 1911.

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Each was designed by the same hand — architect Kenneth Murchison. The structures are not precisely identical but they are close enough to take a second look.

Penn Station was a crowd pleaser when it opened.

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“Many older residents rubbed their eyes and asked themselves if they were not in another city,” an article in the Baltimore American newspaper commented in 1911.

From time to time, someone suggested that our Penn Station needed to be replaced. One noted writer disagreed.

“That a new [station] is needed, is, of course, sheer nonsense. ... I can recall only three or four occasions when it was uncomfortably crowded, and then it was not crowded by passengers, but by idlers horning in to gape at Coolidge, or Jack Dempsey, or the Prince of Wales or some other magnifico,” H.L. Mencken wrote.

The present construction timetable calls for the work on the station and the additions over the railroad tracts toward Lanvale Street to continue well into 2023.

“Working around a busy and fully operating railroad is not easy,” Pula said. “And taking functions like an operating baggage storage area and moving it are like moving complicated pieces around. It’s really like a Rubik’s cube.”


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