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We grew to love Pennsylvania Station. Can an updated version continue that love affair?

Taxis and others lineup outside Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, home of Amtrak. More than a century after it debuted, the venerable building is getting a makeover, leaving some with mixed feelings.
Taxis and others lineup outside Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, home of Amtrak. More than a century after it debuted, the venerable building is getting a makeover, leaving some with mixed feelings. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

It did not take long for Baltimore residents to find a place in their hearts for Pennsylvania Station. And no wonder the initial reaction to a plan to address a new addition to the venerable landmark has drawn lukewarm reaction. The recently unveiled designs for a new entrance off Lanvale Street seem not good enough.

Is this just going to be another food hall for lunch counters?

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Baltimore was prepared not to like the station more than 100 years ago, when the Pennsylvania Railroad announced it was going to replace its old station constructed at what would now be at the level of the train tracks. Passengers in the Victorian era were forced to cross rail tracks and dodge trains, then somehow get their baggage up a steep grade to Charles Street.

The Sun’s account of the station debut in 1911 was not enthusiastic.

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“The first impressions of a visitor entering the main waiting room on the Charles Street level are disappointing. The room is much smaller than the outside appearance would indicate, and with the constantly moving throng last night, it was overtaxed and had a ‘camped’ look. Criticism was outspoken on this point."

The Sun’s reporter allowed, “In architectural lines, in artistic finish and in general convenience the building is a vast improvement over the old depot.”

That vast improvement soon endeared itself.

A virtual rendering of the plans for the overhaul of Baltimore's Penn Station, which will be renovated and expanded into a modern commercial center. More than a century ago the original opened to a lukewarm reception, but Baltimoreans grew to love it.
A virtual rendering of the plans for the overhaul of Baltimore's Penn Station, which will be renovated and expanded into a modern commercial center. More than a century ago the original opened to a lukewarm reception, but Baltimoreans grew to love it. (Gensler)

The station was designed by a leading New York City architect, Kenneth Murchison. He created a bold statement in granite when he placed the station not according to Baltimore’s street grid, but aligned with the tracks on a diagonal. Murchison created a bold, backlighted clock and sculptural surround looking out over the Jones Falls Valley, Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue. The big clock face was the sort of thing you checked a watch by — and when it was broken, gave cause to complain about the state of the world.

In the past 25 years, as commuter traffic to and from Washington, D.C., has skyrocketed, foot traffic and car traffic around the station has grown. Before the pandemic, the station easily accommodated all the arriving and departing passengers — and did it conveniently, without long walks to platforms. As stations go, it is efficient and great to observe, historically charming and not complicated by excess.

People who used Penn Station in the 1950s and 1960s can recall its long hangover from the World War II and Korean War days when the waiting room was filled with pinball and other vending machines. Military personnel made time between train connections.

It was filled with cigarette smoke — the place was unclean and the rest rooms were a horror. There was little commuter traffic to Washington, D.C. but there were curiously, more local trains for Harford and Cecil counties.

The station was renovated from 1981 to 1982. That refurbishment restored its three stained glass rotunda circular windows, which had been covered since World War II’s blackouts. Its marble walls were scoured and and terrazzo floors polished. The original oak benches were refinished. Its underappreciated Rookwood tile work also was made to look as it did in 1911.

The station has proved itself a major neighborhood asset. Community groups working in the Oliver, Greenmount West and Johnston Square areas see the station as the anchor between them and the Johns Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore. The three academic neighbors — the University of Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Johns Hopkins University — are each heavily invested in the blocks around the station.

Architect Murchison gave the place a generous amount of breathing space so that it fit hand-and-glove into its setting.

The anonymous reporter who was so underwhelmed when the stationed opened in 1911 was perhaps guilty of a miscall, but the current plans for a Penn Station addition also seem to have met with the same type of Baltimore skepticism.

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