Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Train shed (1892), HAER

Reading Terminal
, 1893
1115-1141 Market Streets, Philadelphia PA 19107 (northeast corner of 12th Street)

© Helene Schenck & Michael Parrington, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was originally built c.1838 as a coal road, extending from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia. The company extended its lines and acquired control of other roads; by the 1890s, it had over 2,000 miles of railroad lines terminating in Philadelphia, at four inconveniently located passenger terminals. To consolidate their operations, the company undertook the construction of a major terminal together with railroad lines connecting the old terminals. The tracks and trainshed opened for travel in 1893.
Reading Terminal was typical in layout of the "stub" type railroad terminal. It consisted of two major building elementsa headhouse, containing passenger facilities and offices, and a train shedseparated by a lobby or concourse. The eight story headhouse was designed by Francis H. Kimball and built by Wilson Brothers & Company in an Italianate style. The headhouse facade on Market Street was constructed using granite, brick, and terra cotta, with a copper cornice. The train shed behind it extended north to Arch Street. The tracks of the terminal railroad came into the train shed at 25 feet above street grade; thus the principal floor of the station was at the second story of the headhouse.
In the vast space on the ground floor under the train shed, a market hall was constructed into which were moved two important markets. They had been located in the area between Market and Filbert Streets and had to be demolished for the erection of the station. Descended from Philadelphia's original market, founded in 1693, their importance to the city was recognized, and the occupants of the old markets were transferred to the new market hall without interruption to business, even before construction of the headhouse. The Reading Terminal Market remains Philadelphia's principal farmers' market.

Headhouse, northeast corner, 12th & Market Streets, (1892), HAER

The headhouse contained the waitingrooms, ticket office, baggagerooms, diningroom, etc., as well as the general offices of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Co. The passenger lobby was 50 feet deep and extended the width of the building. But the chief feature of the terminal was and is the train shed, with its "great threecentered, pointed arch roof in a single span for the whole width of the tracks," for a total length of 267 feet and height of 88 feet.
1 It covered 13 tracks and eight platforms. The roof was constructed of wrought iron, and all the iron used in the tensile members was required to be double rolled after, and directly from, the puddled muck bar—more specifically, no scrap was allowed.
At the time the terminal was built, it was the widest singlespan train shed in the world. Although it was superseded later by the roof of the Broad Street station of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Philadelphia, the Reading terminal regained its prime position when the Broad Street shed was destroyed by fire in 1923 and not rebuilt. The Reading shed remains as the oldest longspan roof structure in the world as well as the sole surviving singlespan arched train shed in the United States.

1   Joseph M. Wilson, "The Philadelphia and Reading Terminal Railroad and Station in Philadelphia" , Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. 34, Aug. 1895, pg. 134.

Update May 2007 (by Harry Kyriakodis):
Still standing. Dragged down by the failure of surrounding lines on which it depended for traffic to offset the loss of the coal business, the Reading Company declared bankruptcy on November 23, 1971. In 1976, the 143-year-old P&R ceased to exist as a railroad company. Most of the Reading's assets were transferred to federally financed Conrail, although SEPTA took over its lackluster commuter rail operations. Meanwhile, Reading Terminal had entered a deep decline. The last train departed the forlorn station on November 6, 1984, accompanied by much fanfare. Immediately thereafter, Reading Terminal was replaced by the new Market East Station, a block northeast and part of the early 1980s Commuter Rail Tunnel project.

The abandoned terminal's fate was in serious jeopardy in the following years, with several plans offered for its demolition or adaptive reuse. Fortunately, it was located squarely within the Market Street East Redevelopment Area, a colossal urban renewal effort east of City Hall envisioned by city planner Edmund Bacon. After many years of negotiations with the Reading Company, the Redevelopment Authority of Philadelphia purchased the historic terminal so that it could be incorporated into the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the mid 1990s.

The shed was masterfully rehabilitated and converted into the Convention Center's Grand Hall and Ballroom. While its exterior was restored to original appearance, a free-standing "building within a building" was added inside to contain meeting rooms and a ballroom, yet still preserving a sense of the shed’s historic spacious quality. The iron trusses overhead were repaired and painted their original color, and the original south curtain wall of glass and copper was cleaned and restored. The Grand Hall has a terrazzo and marble floor with ten pairs of stainless steel rails inserted to represent the thirteen train tracks that had once been there. And twelve large pylons providing HVAC air intake, lighting, and power mimic the former station's train bumpers. The shed connects to the Convention Center's Exhibit Hall via a pedestrian bridge over Arch Street located in the exact place where tracks used to enter the shed. Also, an elevated truck dock from Vine Street uses part of the Reading Railroad's old right-of-way to service the Center's Exhibit Hall.

The Reading Terminal headhouse revealed itself to have quite a handsome edifice once cleaned of generations of dirt and with its original façade restored—it had undergone a "modernization" in 1948. Interior renovation work included extensive demolition to create an open multilevel public atrium—with escalator, grand stair, and skylights—that provides direct access to the Grand Hall, Market East Station, and the Gallery. The old entrance lobby on Market Street reopened in 1998, along with a Hard Rock Café in part of the ground floor. The rest of the historic structure is connected by a footbridge over 12th Street, and is now part of the nearby Philadelphia Marriott Hotel. The hotel expanded into the long-abandoned upper floors of the headhouse, creating meeting rooms and 210 new guestrooms by demolishing old partitions and ceilings. An elegant ballroom on the second floor has a 35-foot vaulted ceiling and occupies the space of the station's former passenger waiting room.

Reading Terminal Market continues to thrive as a food market and tourist attraction, especially after its revitalization in the early 1990s. Over eighty merchants offer fresh produce, meats, fish, groceries, flowers, baked goods, crafts, books, clothing, and specialty and ethnic foods.

"Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, Terminal Station, 1115-1141 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA" - Historic American Engineering Record