Eulogy for a Shaft: The 30th Street Station Steam Heating Plant


I consider the Drexel Shaft to be that good friend with a quiet solid presence.  Like a lot of utilitarian remnants of Philadephia’s industrial past, the Shaft has receded from our daily awareness–it looms there as a kind of monument to industrial productivity.  Though the Shaft seems to stand outside of time, by 8:00AM this Sunday the Shaft will have completed its “lifecycle”–a coordinated demolition will (hopefully) pirouette the 400′ octagonal stack down into a narrow patch of ground in one of the country’s most active rail yards.


Designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White and constructed in 1929, what the architects called the 30th Street Station Steam Heating Plant was more than just an appendage to 30th Street Station, much more than a workaday piece of railroading.  It really didn’t provide electricity for the Pennsylvania Railroad and despite what some say it had little to do with the demolition of the Chinese Wall and Broad Street Station–that station was electrified for 24 years before it met the wrecking ball.  According to the chronicler of all things Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, Sally A. Kitt Chappel, the plant was integral to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s entry into the urban land development business.  Watching with envy how their nemesis New York Central’s Grand Central Station had reinvigorated Park Avenue, the PRR had pushed for a new Philadelphia station since the 1920s.  Having through trains back in and out of the stub end Broad Street Station was tedious, plus the Pennsylvania wanted all the land covered by the Wilson Brothers’ behemoth and the Chinese Wall.  The Chicago-based Graham, Anderson, Probst and White (the successor to Daniel Burnham’s firm) was to give a gloss and sheen to the Railroad’s new real estate development program, known internally as the Philadelphia Improvements. Less a station than an office building, Suburban Station (1930) was the first attempt to inspire private capital to fill the Railroad’s land.  Where once were the elevated tracks of the Chinese Wall, the PRR saw an unbroken line of new modern skyscrapers all along the aptly named Pennsylvania Boulevard.  But World War II prevented the railroad from dispensing with the Chinese Wall and Broad Street Station, and the city and state delayed in expanding little old Filbert Street into a grand boulevard, so 30th Street sat (and arguably still sits) at the end of a less than triumphant faux Park Avenue.


The Steam Heating Plant was designed to provide all the steam heat needed for skyscrapers along the Pennsylvania Boulevard commercial corridor.  Thinking big, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White sketched out a flexible modernist facility capable of expanding to four smokestacks depending on the needs of real estate.  The one stack that was completed gives an idea of the success of the Railroad’s real estate ventures.  By the time Penn Center was developed as a PRR project, buildings no longer needed central steam heat.  Steam heat passed via pipes through the suburban track bridge–built at the same time–down to Suburban Station.


The Steam Heating Plant is a logical link between the Art Deco of Suburban and the chaste neoclassicism of 30th Street.  Like Paul Cret’s Southwark Generating Plant, the Steam Heating Plant’s facade is dominated by the no-nonsense verticality of its rectangular banks of windows.  The octagonal stack is borderline Gothic: ascending like a spire it makes you forget it belched coal smoke.  It was fire and power cloaked in white fire-baked brick and terra cotta.

Ironically, buildings become new things in their obsolescence.  The last time the inclined straight-tube cross drum boilers were fired up was 1964; since then the structure has become a symbol of institutional frustration and a canvas for taggers and lovers.  I would have loved to see the stack illuminated as an icon for West Philly. Or fitted with the same LEDs that bejewel the Cira Center to knit together the rail yard landscape.  But despite our love of all things old, it could never have been chic condos, retrofitted offices or a modern art museum.  Railroads, however, do develop land occupied by obsolete facilities: something the Steam Heating Plant would have understood.