City's rail station gets long-overdue recognition

March 23, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Question: What Baltimore landmark was visited by Queen Mary, Babe Ruth, Clark Gable, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Jimmy Carter?

Answer: Pennsylvania Station.

We don't attach the rosy aura of history to Baltimore's main Amtrak station.

But it is time this 1911 work of solid and honest architecture was given some applause. Thanks to writer-historian Frank Wrabel, there's now a concise, well-documented history of Baltimore's fine old passenger station.

His 51-page article, published with excellent color and black-and-white photos, is called "Terminals, Tunnels and Turmoil, the History of Pennsylvania Station -- Baltimore." It appears in the spring issue of the journal of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society.

As a child, I heard stories about this station. I learned that the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad held Baltimore in such contempt that its plan for a new station here was based on one for a much inferior town.

Mr. Wrabel's research confirms the basis of this tale. Just visit Scranton, Pa. The old Delaware, Lackawanna & Western terminal looks surprisingly similar to ours. Both were designed by architect Kenneth Murchison. Scranton's dates from 1907. Baltimore's opened four years later on Sept. 14, 1911. They are not identical but the similarities make them brother buildings.

"Many older residents rubbed their eyes and asked themselves if they were not in another city," the Baltimore American commented at the building's opening.

I doubt the notion that the Pennsylvania Railroad's top brass wanted to give Baltimore the back of their hands because the city was the home of the rival Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Pennsy was too smart and too attuned at making a dollar to let petty differences stand in the way of sound business practice.

There were times, however, when local boosters looked enviously at the railroad stations in other cities and claimed that Baltimore's version was not fancy enough. Possessing a pretentious railroad gateway was as important as a winning sports franchise is today.

In the late 1920s, there was talk of a new terminal here. The Evening Sun's H.L. Mencken took on those who felt Baltimore was underserved:

"That a new [station] is needed, is, of course, sheer nonsense. . . . I can recall only three or four occasions when it was uncomfortably crowded, and then it was not crowded by passengers, but by idlers horning in to gape at Coolidge, or Jack Dempsey, or the Prince of Wales or some other magnifico."

The highest form of praise this station has had over the years has been its continuous use.

Passengers and railroad personnel have walked across its halls and stood on its platforms, though most may have never glanced at its gracious details -- the three rotunda stained glass domes, the brass lighting sconces or the Rookwood tiles. And for many years, they may not have noticed that half the concourse was blighted with dingy pinball machines.

The station's other blessing is that it was never made too pompous or grandiose. Passengers have only a short walk to reach their trains. Compare these economical distances with the football field-like treks in Washington's Union Station.

Now only if someone would get the station's magnificent clock to work.

Frank Wrabel, who is 42, grew up in Baltimore County, not far from the Pennsylvania Railroad's Northern Central tracks. As a child, he knew the whistle of the old Buffalo Day Express.

Accompanying his article are some amazing pictorial finds, including rare views of the Pennsy's old Pennsylvania Avenue Station. He also writes in detail about other terminals here, such as the long-demolished Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad's trim little station on North Avenue.

Baltimore possesses a deep affection for rail history. Mention the old GG-1 locomotives or the Afternoon Congressional and the loving words gush forth.

After all, who hasn't kissed a special one goodbye on a Penn Station platform? The full article, at $10 post paid, is available from The Keystone, Pennsylvania Railroad and Historical Society, P.O. Box 389, Upper Darby, Pa. 19082. Request the spring 1995 issue.

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