As a general rule, the major public works initiatives of America suffer an almost complete bifurcation in our broader societal gaze: between the deliberately ornamental versus the purely utilitarian. We clutch our pearls in attempts to salvage the former—even if many critics impugn these embellishments as kitschy, schlocky, or some other great Yiddish adjective. Their intent was to decorate. Meanwhile, the latter—the backstage, mechanical viscera that lives up to the etymology of the word infrastructure (“below the structure”)—ages, goes unmaintained, wears out, then, if upgrades or modernization are financially infeasible, it faces the demolition crew. We replace it in phases or in totality to avoid disruptions to everyday life on the surface. And, more often than not, nobody bats an eyelash when huge fabrications get destroyed and replaced.
Once in a blue moon, we witness an intriguing but often fragile fusion of the two forms: a signpost, a streetlight, a bench, even a trashcan, which never intended to ensnare the aesthetic gaze, but it lingered over time and eventually endured as an evocative relic, maybe even an unintentional masterpiece. But it’s hard for us collectively to wrap our brains around the infrastructure that effectively hybridizes the functional with the aesthetic. And, pretty though it may be, it often still eventually degrades to obsolescence, replaced by something more technologically sophisticated but with little regard to the accrued aesthetic and cultural capital of the original.
If this sounds overly abstract and academic, it’s time to venture back to earth and provide a palpable example of what I’m talking about. In this case, it’s SEPTA; the transit system for the City of Brotherly Love. The cast-iron entrances to the underground trains throughout urban Philadelphia are, by most metrics, a perfect combination of the ornamental and utilitarian, and they face an escalating threat of extinction. Much of Philadelphia’s subway system – like NYC’s and Boston’s – opened in stages and experienced financial and engineering challenges mid-construction, which oftentimes forced rerouting and plan change well after the completion of certain tunnel portions. These piecemeal modifications threatened to undermine the system’s visual unity, but the cast-iron entrances have prevailed. Also, by mid 20th Century, The City of Philadelphia rerouted many formerly elevated segments through tunnels.
The country’s third-oldest subway (and the world’s fifth-oldest) opened in stages beneath and above Market Street – Philadelphia’s main east-west thoroughfare – beginning in 1906 and continuing through 1922, when Market Street trains were through-routed over the Frankford Elevated Line, heading toward the city’s Near Northeast. The Market Street Subway-Elevated system (today’s Blue Line) provided for trolley running (today’s Green Lines) as well as trains in the portion west of City Hall, Philadelphia’s iconic edifice at the intersection of Market and Broad streets. By 1955, however, the City’s leadership initiated significant realignments to the Market-Frankford Line and the underground trolley lines , accompanied by both new and relocated stations.
When accounting for all the development and the mid-20th Century realignments modifications, fully 100% of the original cast-iron entrances originally for the subway portions of the Market Street line have been lost through the 20th Century.Former civic plaza at Broad Street line near City Hall, circa 1928. [SOURCE: PhillyHistory.org]
In contrast to the complete loss of original entrances along the Market Street Line, about 30% of the cast-iron subway entrances along Broad Street and a portion of Ridge Avenue (serving a Spur of the Broad Street subway – a part of today’s Orange Line) are still intact. The Broad Street (Orange) Line—the subway route paralleling the city’s north-south arterial—opened in three major stages, beginning in 1928 and continuing through 1938. Concomitant with the three stages are three types of street-level entrances: the oldest is the most ornate, while the most recent manifests a more streamlined Art Deco style. However, all three of the styles feature embellishments, provocative angles, and embossed typefaces broadly reflective of the Art Deco movement popular at the time. Throughout the 1930s, various extensions of the line to the north and the south largely adhered to the same vernacular, though the most prominent ones remain in and around City Hall—the vertex of Philadelphia’s lines and the subway’s implicit core.
Meanwhile, a separate subway line, color-coded in red, connects Center City Philadelphia to the New Jersey suburbs across the Delaware River, run by the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) under authority of PATCO (Port Authority Transit Corporation) since 1969.. The City of Philadelphia originally built this line under the same contract as the Broad Street Subway in the 1920s. Original trans-river train services commenced in 1936 and remained limited to Center City and Camden, NJ via the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Because of this critical transit initiative linking the two states, to this day there are two outstanding and fully-intact cast-iron subway entrances in downtown Camden, which originally opened circa 1936.
The City of Philadelphia ran separate subway services through what is today’s PATCO Line subway tunnels via Ridge Avenue-8th Street-Locust Street, primarily as a Branch of the Broad Street Subway from the 1950s (when the Locust Street portion finally opened for subway service) until 1969, when PATCO took it over. The majority of these original Locust Street mid-1950s cast-iron entrances are still in use for the PATCO (Red) Line. The same mid-1950s utilitarian cast-iron design is employed throughout the underground entrances to today’s Green Lines (trolleys that serve West and Southwest Philadelphia) via a 2-mile tunnel beneath Center City and University City, the neighborhood immediately west of Center City across the Schuylkill River, which hosts Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.No one would assert that these subway entrances are as visually striking as the ostentatious entrances to prominent stations in New York or Paris, but they offer subtler, less deliberate charms. And the fact that so many still exist (59 of them according to the latest counts by some of their most ardent supporters) is less a byproduct of preservationist drive and more reflective of the prevailing attitudes Philadelphia’s leadership has bestowed toward its civic infrastructure: 1) build it to last; 2) invest in as modest of improvements as possible; and 3) let it do its thing. While this ethos wasn’t good enough to save the entrances to the stations along the Market Street Line, the Broad Street Line has endured fewer modifications over the years. The absence of considerable investment may have helped salvage these entrances more than any sort of organized campaign. Nobody messed with them, and they hung around (or, at least, about one-third of them did). That is, until the 2000s. One could argue that it’s a chicken-and-egg dichotomy—a correlation but not a causation—yet there’s no denying that a certain coterie of historic preservation loyalists began to articulate their appreciation for these distinctive entrances at about the same time they realized that they weren’t going to last forever. Weak maintenance had begun to take its toll, but the bigger issue was that SEPTA was not replacing like-for-like. Without intervention, these entrances could eventually dwindle to nothing more than a memory. Exacerbating this threat is the emergent ambition of the City to elevate the city’s absolute center, the City Hall Courtyard, into a more broadly visible, internally connected civic plaza. The commissioned architect intends to reduce infrastructural impediments, which includes those cast-iron subway entrances—at the location where they are most prominent and often the most aesthetically striking. Amplifying the challenge is the fact that many of these entrances are neither wheelchair friendly nor capable of accommodate an ADA-compliant elevator without radically altering their appearance.
In other words, the most distinguishing features to Philadelphia’s subway entrances are facing imminent destruction. And the ones with the greatest attention to aesthetic detail—the most prominent locations, such as City Hall—are among the most likely to end up in the junkyard. The past year has elicited a series of petitions by a few of the region’s most ardent transportation and preservation activists, coupled with responses by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which have elevated awareness of the issue and earned thoughtful press coverage, particularly near the end of 2017.
Armed with the first staff expansion since the early 1980s, the Philadelphia Historic Commission has finally taken on the consideration of preserving these remaining cast-iron entrances. But it’s a long time coming. The most committed historic preservationists submitted as a Thematic District for nomination consideration nearly a decade ago, And the Philadelphia Historic Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation will finally get the opportunity later this month to review the nomination and determine whether to push it into the next level: the Historic Commission for official designation.
Given the length of time leading to this momentous consideration, it should come as no surprise that the process has been fraught. As a Hidden City Philadelphia article thoughtfully revealed about a year ago, the value—and precarious position—of these cast-iron entrances has long been on the radar of the local community; the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia recognized them in 2009, singling out the ones in and around City Hall Courtyard for their unsullied Art Deco details. But this recognition failed to sway the Historic Commission later that year, which offered a twofold response: that staffing issues prohibited the review of any new nominations, and that the shared management of the entrances by SEPTA and PATCO precluded the Commission from regulating them. To the preservations, the first of these explanations, while candid, offered little hope for a robust future of preservation in one of the country’s oldest large cities; it amounted to a moratorium on considering new historic districts. The second explanation, however, was simply bizarre: after all, the two transit agencies merely leased this entrance space from the City, and many other city-owned properties had long enjoyed a secure position on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
The deflective nature of this response caused the entire preservation push to suffer protracted delays and disappointments, girded ultimately by a predictable public sector bureaucracy. During this time—nine years and counting—at least a quarter of the cast-iron entrances first referenced through the 2009 nomination have deteriorated, from demolition, irreparable alterations, or simply neglect over time. This decade simply reinforces the challenges facing preservations at elevating the status of infrastructure, partly again because the word itself carries such paradoxical connotations. When we use the word infrastructure figuratively, we reveal its essential nature as supportive and largely invisible. For example, social media has become contemporary infrastructure for communication (even if it has no palpable conduit), while education is the infrastructure for elevating a political jurisdiction’s economy in aggregate (again, an abstraction). But in both cases, the deployment of infrastructure is not something our senses appreciate; we rarely, if ever, apply the aesthetic gaze to the apps on our phone or the tangled web of communicated ideas that comprise education. If we think of social media as attractive, it’s the web layout and branding we admire. And when it comes to schooling, a magnificently designed building is a beautiful incarnation, but it is non-essential for the pedagogical act itself.
Thus, buildings rarely face the challenges that infrastructure does, especially given contemporary tastes that largely champion preservation of old buildings as something that looks “artsy” or simply “cool”—an old garage, for example, is an ideal incubator for an edgy small business. Streetlights, utility poles, call boxes, banisters, or cast-iron entrances to subway to offer similar opportunities for creative re-use. Infrastructure in all its sundry forms often depends upon a widespread recognition of its scarcity to cross that final preservationist hurdle. Case in point: the solid, unadorned, monotonous textile mills of New England found little love in the first few decades after all the factories closed down. Many former manufacturing centers, like Lawrence, MA, determined they had no broader purpose and little aesthetic merit; as a result, civic leaders tore most of them down, leaving the city bereft of its history, regardless of what one might think of a typical textile mill’s appearance. Conversely, the neighboring city of Lowell banked on a second life, eventually discovering that old mill buildings could easily get repurposed into multifamily housing that people would appreciate not just for the solidity but distinctive appearance—even beauty—of formerly unloved buildings. By 2018, Lowell is enjoying a bounty of revival initiatives in its town center while Lawrence continues to languish with a surfeit of parking lots. It is hard to think of a city, neighborhood, or even a single urban node that has enjoyed similar revitalization thanks to the beauty of its infrastructure.
The ambivalence that Lowell and Lawrence faced in the mid 20th century echoes the challenges facing these sturdy, unpretentious, almost martial cast-iron entrances to the Philadelphia subway system. We can only hope the Historic Commission’s new staffing initiatives have also introduced a fresh set of eyes that recognizes these sheltered SEPTA stairwells as a contributing factor to the city’s rich iconography. Solid though they may be, it’s questionable, given the pace of change in Philadelphia’s Center City, that they’ll make it another ten years. But sparing the cast-iron entrances from the wrecking ball is only one facet of preservation; promoting their status within a hierarchy of tastes among the broader public is like crossing the Rubicon. Probably a bad time to use a river analogy; after all, bridges have it easy, at least compared to subways. People notice them.
For those who our interested in lending their support for historic recognition of the cast-iron entrances to the Philadelphia subway system, the Committee on Historic Designation will be holding its next meeting on December 12. If all goes well, that Committee will recommend a designated thematic district for the next Historical Commission meeting on January 11, 2019. Further details are available at the Philadelphia Historical Commission homepage.
Special thanks to Anthony Santaniello and Nicholas Baker for their perseverance and ability to recall the vicissitudes leading to potentially momentous December hearing.