In what is a first for American Dirt—and what I hope not to become a regular occurrence—I offer a tribute to a fellow urbanist and friend. Longtime employee of Philadelphia City Planning Commission and then Philadelphia Streets Department, Anthony Santaniello passed away on October 21st. Anthony wasn’t just a casual follower of the work on this blog. He was instrumental in initiating one of the more challenging and involved articles. Almost five years ago exactly, I published an article here to support Anthony’s historic preservation advocacy; specifically, he sought to save the longstanding cast-iron entrances to the various stations at SEPTA (Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority), Philadelphia’s subway, bus, trolley, and trolleybus system.
First conceived in 1906, It’s the nation’s third oldest subway system, and the world’s fifth oldest. Its two largest lines loosely form a cross that parallels two of its most prominent streets: Market (east west) and Broad (north south). The two lines intersect in the heart of Philadelphia, at City Hall, making the core of SEPTA’s subway system supremely accessible and easy to interpret. But, as is typical during such major infrastructural investments, the progress in building Philly’s subway system came in fits and starts over the next thirty years, with investments waxing and waning in tandem with the broader economic climate. The Market-Frankford (Blue) Line arrived first, and it featured cast-iron entrances of a style evocative of the dawn of the 20th century. With various realignments that took place up through the 1950s, however, the City removed all of the Market-Frankford Line’s original entrances; none survive.
The Broad Street (Orange) Line, which broke ground in 1928, has fared better: about 30% of the original designs survive. Those that remain are almost perfect embodiments of the Art Deco aesthetic that flourished in the Roaring Twenties, an aesthetic Anthony revered while the majority overlooked them. And while 30% sounds like a meager success rate, the densest portion of Broad Street subway entrances has persevered, resulting in nearly 60 surviving entrances. No reasonable judge of architecture or industrial design would consider these entrances as glamorous or elaborate as those of, say, the Paris Metro. But that was never the intent. They’re workmanlike, utilitarian, proletarian, and distinct nonetheless. Beyond the Broad Street Line, two other transit routes also deploy similar cast iron entrances: the PATCO (Red) Line linking Center City Philadelphia to New Jersey, and the light-rail trolleys (Green Lines) that ray outward to West and Southwest Philadelphia from the center.
The City originally built these cast-iron entrances to last, which precluded the need for any considerable maintenance. They received little attention until the 2000s, when upgrades and/or improvements became increasingly necessary. And wasn’t happening. By this point, whenever an entrance broke down, SEPTA did not replace like-for-like. The advancing proposals for an improved City Hall Plaza have articulated the intent to remove infrastructural impediments; since the majority of the cast-iron entrances are neither ADA compatible nor amenable to retrofitting, the Orange, Green, and Red lines were likely to go the way of the Blue Line.
Thankfully, Anthony and his Streets Department colleague, Nicholas Baker, pushed to nominated the structures to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. But it wasn’t easy. They first submitted the nomination in late 2009, but the Historical Commission consigned it to limbo fo many years, no doubt in part because a historic protection might impede a revitalizing reimagining of City Hall Plaza. Additionally, SEPTA and PATCO had indicated unwillingness to have restrictions imposed on their ability to upgrade entrances, even though the City owned and SEPTA only leased them. The Historical Commission also faces a notoriously long backlog of nominations to approve, so these efforts always take time. Finally, the workmanlike quality of the design (which became more pronounced in the entrances constructed in the 1950s) never had grand artistic aspirations, which prompted either indifference or opposition from some sectors of the public. The Commission rejected the nomination in 2017. And in that time, the City allowed at least 25% of the entrance to get replaced, altered, or fall into neglect. Anthony approached several writers on urban affairs to help generate articles on the increasingly precarious position of these entrances, among them the previously cited Hidden City Philadelphia and me. It took several months for me to assemble the research, juxtapose them with Anthony and Nic’s photos, then crank out the article almost exactly five years ago.
I can hardly claim my article nudged anything; it didn’t get huge response even among my meager readership. But it was one more voice giving context to their importance and helping boost their recognition. Meanwhile, Anthony and Nic managed to rally the entire Streets Department behind their nomination efforts; by early 2019, the Commission approved the Cast Iron Subway Entrances Thematic District, entering them into the register and protecting a number of these entrances so that they can no longer be demolished or significantly altered, with the standard preservation loopholes: “…unless the owner can prove it would be in the public interest to do so, or that an economically viable use is impossible.” For all intents and purposes, the most striking and memorable Art Deco icons in the heart of Philadelphia’s center-most of its “five squares”—City Hall—will remain in perpetuity. Not everyone may see merit in these muscular fabrications, but that is the case with almost all preservation initiatives. At one time, these entrances served as a powerful brand—a largely consistent signal, the de facto logo for the subway. Now that the City has disassembled over 80% of them, the brand is diluted, but the old ones become more visually striking simply through contrast with the banal new ones.
The city of Philadelphia owes a great deal to Anthony for his dogged pursuit of saving these relics from an era prior to anything we would castigate today as “suburban sprawl”. The term “legacy” gets overused to the point of cliché, but not everyone can claim any application of the word. Anthony can. And, given that these entrances evoke an architectural language often evoking adjectives like “sleek” or “sexy” while being resolutely neither, it’s a paradoxical compliment all its own. It’s something that Anthony, now laid to eternal rest at a strata akin to his beloved subway lines, would appreciate. Way to go.
The whole effort is worthy of a plaque near—but not attached to—one of those bulky, classy entrances: “Anthony Santaniello. Requiescat in pace.”
All photographs courtesy of Nicholas Baker and Anthony Santaniello.