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Penn Station was built in 1911 on the site of two previous train stations in the geographic center of Baltimore.
Penn Station was built in 1911 on the site of two previous train stations in the geographic center of Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

As passenger traffic has returned to Pennsylvania Station in the Station North neighborhood, it seems appropriate to anticipate the major upgrade the 1911 rail hub is due to receive.

Amtrak has picked Penn Station Partners to redevelop the old station and nearby land parcels the railroad owns. Construction work has not begun but is expected to in upcoming months.

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The station was last substantially upgraded nearly 40 years ago and that restoration came not a moment too soon. The station had sat in a kind of post-World War II funk, with roofing tar over its triple stained glass skylights, poorly maintained rest rooms and a thicket of old vending and pinball machines.

That work addressed the portion of the station that passengers used. The upstairs was left empty and now the window sashes appear ready to cave in, and the gray paint, what’s left of it, is peeling.

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It’s still a monumental work of architecture, created by a much respected New York City architect, Kenneth Murchison. He used beautiful granite for the exterior walls and finished off the interior with brass lighting fixtures, oak benches and green architectural tiles made by Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati. This was not a cheap date.

And by some good fortune, the place was not wrecked by later alterations. The place exudes a pleasant, old-fashioned railroad station character.

The railroad gave Baltimore a handsome exterior clock facing Charles Street surrounded by heroic stone carved figures.

Other forces have been kind to the station. In the past 25 years, the number of persons commuting to jobs in Washington, D.C., has exploded and our Pennsylvania Station accordingly has grown far more busy. Even on a recent Saturday, the waiting room was filled with young passengers awaiting a MARC commuter train to Washington. They were likely happy to ride on the relatively inexpensive MARC fares.

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The station, well placed on a diagonal, has a nice presence along the St. Paul and Charles streets corridors. It seems to own this part of the Jones Falls Valley and exudes an architectural confidence.

This could change if it becomes dwarfed by redevelopment along Lanvale Street to the north. Railroad stations are hot properties in Washington, Philadelphia and New York. In those cities, developers like the proximity to a rail terminal.

What happens in Baltimore, given our economic challenges, may not mirror the development mania of those cities. Certainly the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Maryland Avenue and Charles Street hold vacant lots of some second-class structures that might not be missed.

In terms of the neighborhoods adjacent to the station, it’s been a win-win situation. Groups in Johnston Square, Greenmount West and Oliver view the station as an anchor along with Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The three big academic neighbors — the University of Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Johns Hopkins University — are other nearby major community anchors.

There’s plenty going on around the station this summer. The Guilford Hall Brewery opened on Guilford Avenue this spring, the first major off-Charles Street investment in a restaurant for decades. Renovation work also continues on the former Odell’s property on East North Avenue, due north of the station.

The 110-year-old old station remains a well used Baltimore landmark. Watching it become a magnet for anticipated redevelopment should prove a test of Baltimore’s economic and real estate strength. Will a new food hall emerge here? Can the adjacent neighborhoods handle two or three more new apartment buildings?

The neighborhoods near the station remain much as they were decades ago. And yet, who would have thought that the old Parkway and Centre theatres, each closed for decades, would emerge restored as community assets.

Now it’s Amtrak and Pennsylvania Station’s turn to show its stuff.

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