Spruce-up rolls along at Penn Station New shops, polishing, painting liven building for holiday travelers

November 22, 1995|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun gave an incorrect phone number for the Penn Station Sensation benefit on Dec. 2. The correct number is 633-5789.

The Sun regrets the error.

Torta rusticana and lobster to go at our Pennsylvania Station? How about a glass of merlot before catching the Yankee Clipper?

You've got to be kidding.

Rail travelers used to Baltimore's strictly no-frills terminal, where the food choices had been confined to a menu of ham sandwiches and coffee, are being confronted daily by a culinary selection that might make Martha Stewart look twice.


Today, the station's busiest single day of the year, an estimated 9,000 rail passengers will scurry through the doors headed for Thanksgiving.

If they look around, they'll see that parts of the 1911 station have been cleaned and repainted. There's the beginnings of a new restaurant. The newsstand has been enlarged. There's now a candy shop, an automated teller machine and a gift cart.

The brass on the station's big oak doors has been polished. Much of the current flurry of activity is aimed at a Dec. 2 gala benefit called Penn Station Sensation, when party planners expect 500 to 600 formally attired guests (tickets are $125) to toast the work being done here.

Funds raised at the public event will build a Baltimore Gateway Information Center, launch a public art competition for the station's plaza and help with neighborhood improvement projects.

Last month, after construction crews completed a large parking garage, Amtrak officials and community groups turned their attention to the amenities at the station, the fifth-busiest Amtrak station in this country.

"The building is an ambassador for the city, and we didn't like what it was telling people," said Steve Jeweler, president of the Belvedere Hotel condo association who is working for the Sensation gala.

Designed by New York architect Kenneth Murchison, the old Pennsylvania Railroad's biggest station in Baltimore became a gloomy tomb in the 1970s after years of deferred maintenance and the bankruptcy of the company that owned it.

A lengthy restoration in the early 1980s cleaned the interior and restored its three interior stained-glass skylights and cream-and-green tile walls originally fired at the Rookwood Studio in Cincinnati.

"It had become pretty dingy. The modernization of the 1980s didn't really cover the amenities we associate with train stations and travel. And it does make a first impression for Baltimore," said Ted Pearson, an interior designer with Rita St. Clair, who is volunteering to dress up the restrooms at the station for the benefit with sketches of time pieces -- alarm clocks, grandfather clocks, sundials and hourglasses.

A major component of the station's fix-up package is exterior lighting of the beaux-arts limestone facade. The outside clock, with its glossy black hands and gold Roman numerals, should stand out to Charles Street passers-by under the illumination.

"It's the gateway to Baltimore. We want it to rival the lighting of the NationsBank tower," said Leonard R. Sachs, chairman of the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Tourism, Entertainment and Culture, the group holding the fund-raising event.

"Anything that brings more attention to our area is a positive. I want to see results. That is what destroys expectations, a lot of hype, very little substance," said Charles Smith, a resident of the 1800 block of St. Paul St. who heads the Greenmount West Community Association.

Both rail officials and community residents want to see the place made brighter and more attractive.

Leasing of the terminal's retail spaces never took off in the 1980s despite a major upsurge in commuter passenger traffic to Washington.

From 3,000 to 5,000 commuters use the station daily. Another 3,000 longer-distance Amtrak patrons also catch trains here each day.

"The station's been ignored for several years primarily because of the garage work. Now we are giving it the highest priority," said Amtrak official John McCaffery, who is working to get the station leased with new retail tenants.

"They come in when they smell my popcorn," said Tina Imperial, owner-manager of Somethin' Good Jr., a candy shop that opened in the station three weeks ago.

"I've always loved trains and railroad stations. The last time I visited 30th Street Station in Philadelphia I saw what was possible. I thought maybe we could do something like that here, something that would be good for Baltimore," said Kay MacIntosh, the editor of Style magazine who is one of the co-chairs of the Dec. 2 gala.

While the station's south-facing exterior tower-style clock was restored earlier this year, the waiting room's main arrival-departure board clock, the time piece consulted by scores of passengers, remains broken.

"It's one of the things we're getting around to. It'll be fixed in the next few weeks," said Ken Wiedel, the station manager.

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