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At 100 years old, Penn Station awaits an upcoming rebirth

Directly above the ticket purchasing counter at Baltimore’s 1911 Pennsylvania Station is a vast, unseen second floor room. It’s glass door, marked 222, carries a “high voltage” warning and remains off limits.

This amazing chamber contains an industrial artifact of the 1930s, a sprawling train control board that were it operating, would reveal the railroad’s movements from Perryville in Cecil County to the Virginia Avenue tunnel near the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

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There are indicator lights for long vanished stations such as Biddle Street in East Baltimore. Ancient, flickering florescent lights reveal neighborhood names, Orangeville and Gwynn, on the giant board. There is a listing for old Union Tunnel, meaning the much used rail tube under Hoffman Street adjacent to Green Mount Cemetery.

This room is but one of the numerous station spaces that have not been used for decades. Despite the dust, they are amazingly well preserved above the busy first floor where passengers arrive and depart.

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The traffic control board is on the list to be renovated as part of a much-talked about Penn Station upgrade. The station celebrated its 100th birthday Sept. 15. Look for a groundbreaking ceremony later this fall.

How the massive board and its disconnected electrical components, a tangle of old relays and wires, will leave the chamber where it operated for so many years has yet to be determined. Stay tuned.

A recent tour of Baltimore’s beloved station showed its potential — three floors of vacant office space overlooking leaded glass skylights. And there are plans for a glassy addition to serve more passengers along with a second entrance along Lanvale Street.

Details from the second level railroad control room, which has been dismantled at Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station.
Details from the second level railroad control room, which has been dismantled at Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Although a contract has not been let, plans are for scaffolding to encase the station’s granite walls by the end of the year. The stone facade will be repointed and cleaned. The original windows will be repaired and painted. The graceful steel canopies around the station’s perimeter also are due for repairs.

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And, just so you’ll know what a gem this building is, there will be new lighting to flood the exterior.

The old station, whose upper floor appears to have last been used about 40 or more years ago, could become active again, perhaps leased as a shared office innovation hub.

Amtrak, which owns the station, also is creating a new high-speed track and platforms closer to the Lanvale Street side of the station. The old platforms, the ones that have served so valiantly since 1911, also are due for a cleaning and upgrades.

Bill Struever, Baltimore’s generalissimo of industrial preservation and adaptive reuse, and one of the persons leading the station’s rebuilding efforts with Beatty Development, suggested the old indicator board could be a centerpiece for a new Lanvale Street concourse addition to the station due to open in 2024.

“Imagine if the board could be all lit up,” said Struever, who said it also could be left where it is and worked into the renovation scheme for the 1911 station.

“Building around an active railroad station is really complicated,” said Charlie Bond, development director for Beatty, which is working still on its other downtown Baltimore project, Harbor Point. “This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to work in a major, active train station.”

Chris Seiler, Beatty’s marketing and communications director, said the project is going to be a “focused, refined renovation.”

“We are stubborn and determined and we’ll make it work,” Seiler said. “The station needs marketing, too, so it emerges clean with remarkable curb appeal.”

Amtrak’s ambitious master plan for Penn Station involves at least six parcels of land from Greenmount Avenue to the North Avenue Bridge. If all are ever developed and constructed, the 1911 station would sit in the middle of its own neighborhood.

Struever sums it up: “Penn Station is crossroads of Baltimore — east-west and Black and white. The major part of our goal here is connectivity. This really is the nexus of our city. It is the regional rail hub. Amtrak is investing well over $100 million in Penn Station. Let’s put back in its glory.”

Charlie Bond, senior development director of Beatty Development stands in the second level railroad control room which has been dismantled at Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station.
Charlie Bond, senior development director of Beatty Development stands in the second level railroad control room which has been dismantled at Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)
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