The Architecture of Railroad Stations
by Bradford L. Gilbert

The Engineering Magazine—1895


IT is scarcely more than half a century since the architecture of railroad-stations became a necessity or even a possibility. As the railroad-station is the one architectural object which Americans see everywhere and with the greatest frequency, and the one in which many thousands daily have nothing better to do for hours than await the departure of their trains, there is to-day no other field of architecture which offers such wide opportunity for the most potent and elevating architectural education. Until a comparatively recent date, however, cheapness alone was the principal consideration in the erection of stations in this country, placing them in strong contrast to such buildings abroad, where, with the exception of the churches and some public buildings, the railroad-stations seem best to illustrate the typical architecture of each country.

The following illustrations have been selected to demonstrate this fact, and they form part of a personal collection gathered upon a recent extended foreign tour, made for the purpose of studying railroad-station problems.

The photographs speak for themselves, requiring only general explanation.

The buildings, upon personal inspection, indicate careful study and adaptation to the site and all requirements.

The St. Pancras terminus is possibly, with one exception, the best known of the station buildings in London, considered from an architectural standpoint.

On the continent, however, with few exceptions, the general exterior design of the principal stations can usually be recognized as the work of an architect, and the effect is certainly a vast improvement over the treatment of the problem from an engineering standpoint only.

Even were it possible to cover all the tracks within the Paris station train-shed with one (or even two) single-span arches, as is so frequently the case elsewhere, and as shown at Friedrichstrasse, the proportion still would be far better with the use of intermediate supports, the expense certainly less, and the practical service equally good. In the photograph of the Terminal Hotel connected with the Paris station the cafe in which the recent bomb explosion took place is plainly seen. The revenue from rental derived from the otherwise useless space under the viaducts of the Metropolitan Railway of Berlin, including Friedrichstrasse as shown, should appeal to the practical, if not the artistic, sense of railroad officials generally.

It is seldom the case that a large terminus is planned with enough foresight, or, more correctly speaking, with enough realization of actual future growth, to provide for later developments and actual traffic requirements, without considerable additional expense, and in a great measure destroying the unity and harmony of the original design. The formation of railroad terminal companies in so many of the large cities, to divide the vast expenditure required for enlarged ground space (actually made valuable in the first instance by the location of the railroad terminus), tells its own story. In a recent conversation with Col. Walter Katte, chief engineer of the New York Central, on this question, the importance of this was very clearly demonstrated by the extensive and expensive improvements now in progress in connection with the passenger traffic to and from the Grand Central Station, New York, which 25 years ago was believed equal to all future demands, and to-day is found totally inadequate. The same is true of the passenger stations at Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and other principal cities, where the companies have been rudely awakened to the truth, and in several cases have made provision accordingly.

As at Frankfort, it would in many instances undoubtedly prove a paying investment to purchase land just outside the city limits, construct new boulevards, and erect such railroad buildings as seem desirable for present needs and future development. The increased valuation and sale of the land would cover the first cost with a handsome profit for revenue.

In the majority of instances first impressions are the more enduring, particularly of buildings and places. Pleasant environments, tastefully decorated grounds, the proximity of a public square, each help to set off the station to best advantage. The writer recalls several places where the open squares, temporarily loaned to the city by the railroad company have been partially utilized later at small expense for increased traffic accommodations, at great advantage to both the company and the public.


At Milan the large public square, just outside the city gates, gives an air of dignity to the station which it otherwise would not possess.

The reflection of the station at Amsterdam, with its towers and projections, in the placid river below, lends a quaintness and picturesqueness to the whole structure.

The station at Zurich, a city of a little over one hundred thousand inhabitants, will compare favorably with the stations in any of our own cities of equal size.

If the proverbial hackmen are missing at Venice, the noisy gondoliers fill their places with credit to themselves. The station is in keeping with the many handsome buildings surrounding it, belonging to the Renaissance.





The stations erected for the smaller villages and towns on the continent, all bear a strong family likeness, not at all unlike our own "class stations"; but frequently the picturesque surroundings add a beauty and charm shown in the views of Vitznau and Lake Leman,—the latter a particularly interesting and beautiful view.

The growing public demand for railroad-stations which afford comfort and convenience, as well as architectural beauty, deserves the attention it is receiving from railroad officials generally.

The widespread territory covered multiplies the opportunity for the use of varied building material and designs, meeting climatic influences and local conditions to an extent beyond all known precedent.

Architecture should so far become a delineator as to indicate upon its face the character of the work it is intended to portray.

A good design, graceful contour, correct constructional outlines, and symmetrical proportion, carried out in permanent material, necessarily combine to form the elements of all successful architectural work.

Architectural beauty alone in buildings cannot be said to have any justifiable existence. It should be made secondary to both construction and utility. These should become the fundamental and underlying principles of all correct design.

Considering the general character of the buildings, probably no other distinctive style is capable of such freedom of treatment, or such variety of detail, in connection with station buildings, as what might be termed "modernized Romanesque "—an architectural treatment used so effectively by the late Mr. H. H. Richardson in almost the first of the station buildings to attract special notice in the vicinity of Boston.

It may not be generally known that the "Romanesque" has held its own among all other types for a longer consecutive period of the world's history than any other distinctive style of architecture, not excepting the Renaissance which immediately followed. Possibly in time we shall evolve from all the prevalent styles what shall prove a broad, natural, and truly national type of American architecture, based upon the best and most appropriate features of all the various orders; and what more suitable beginning can offer than the railroad-station problem?

The American illustrations have been selected by the editor of this magazine from a collection of original black and white drawings and photographs, specially prepared to demonstrate the evolution in railroad-station architecture during the last quarter century. These were personally loaned for hanging in the Exhibition Building erected for the New York Central Railroad Company at the recent World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, and called forth much favorable comment both from American and from European railroad officials.

As examples of a portion of the railroad work personally carried out, it is believed they will possess a certain weight in verifying personal statements and suggestions oil the subject of railroad-station architecture.

The Syracuse station as shown, on the New York Central Railroad, is constructed of granite with red sandstone trimmings, and is designed with a Romanesque motif throughout. The rotunda is 90' 6" square, and out of this open all of the principal rooms. Below is a large restaurant and lunch room, reached either directly from the street, or through a generous, well-lighted subway below the tracks. Local offices are arranged in the second and third stories, while a large train-shed covers all of the principal tracks and platforms.

The Illinois Central Railroad general offices and union station at Chicago was necessarily designed to meet the peculiarities of the site and actual traffic needs. It was opened to the public 10 months after beginning work, to accommodate the World's Fair traffic, and at a total outlay of about $1,800,000. The foundations necessarily formed one of the principal items of expense.

While the Illinois Central station might be called a terminal station, eight through tracks pass under the rotunda. Passengers are transferred to and from the platforms of the train-shed on overhead passages enclosed, or underneath by well-lighted, thoroughly dry subways.

From actual measurements, the floor space of the principal waiting-room or rotunda, as shown, is larger than the one given of Frankfort, which is said to be the largest on the continent.

The marble wainscoting carried to a height of about 14 ft., and the marble mosaic flooring, together with the fire-proof construction of the building, are intended to render it permanent. Separate waiting-rooms, smoking-room, barber's shop, large restaurant accommodations, etc., are shown on the photograph of the interior.

The Mexican National station, with general offices and railroad hotel, was designed to meet these requirements and the climatic conditions of Mexico. A somewhat different plan, however, was adopted for the station now in course of erection at Colonia.

The station at Lowell, Mass., was located by the Boston and Maine Railroad Company upon a triangular plot of ground, with tracks on two sides and one of the principal streets across the end, while another crosses overhead above the passenger platform at the opposite end (as shown on the photograph), and is reached directly by a stairway.

The station at Fall River, Mass., was erected for the Old Colony Railroad, before its consolidation with the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad system. It is intended to meet the needs of a wealthy community of upwards of seventy-four thousand persons. Milford pink granite, with trimmings, quoins, and voussoirs of Long Meadow sandstone, form the exterior, the detail treatment of which is shown on the photograph. The interior is finished in oak and hard pine throughout.

The Union station designed to be erected at Manchester, N. H., contains various waiting-rooms and local offices, with large train-shed connected for the traffic of this large manufacturing city.

The station at Liberty on the New York, Ontario & Western Railroad is of frame construction, the outside being covered with shingles creosoted, while the roof is of slate. A wide passenger platform, extending in both directions from the building, and with seats framed between the supporting posts, connects the end baggagerooms. The station is located on a curve, as well as on a considerable incline.

The Middletown, N. Y., station is of brick construction, containing large restaurant accommodations and local railroad offices.

The stations at Bridgewater, and Ashmont, Massachusetts, are constructed of granite for the exterior and of hardwood for the interior finish, with all known conveniences.

The small station at New Boston, Mass., is built of field stone, the gables roughly stuccoed in cement and pebble dash.

Essex Fells is a small but growing suburb of New York. The station is partly built of stone, with frame construction. The porte-cochère is located at one end. Above are rooms for the station agent. Built at a cost of under $3,000, exclusive of platforms, this is a specimen of what can be accomplished at a small outlay.

The station at North Branch, N. J., is built of local brownstone with slate above, an example of a low-priced station, containing all modern improvements, including steam heat.

The station at Toluca, Mexico, is built of native stone, the greater portion of which was carried on the backs of peons and burros for many miles. It is designed to meet the three-class conditions of the country.

The station at Laconia, N. H., is built of granite. The central feature is the rotunda, from which all the other rooms open. This is lighted during the day by clere story windows above the roofs of the porte-cochère and wide passenger platforms.

A layman is apt to judge of the success and value of a railroad by outward evidences of its wealth or taste and provision for public comfort. Railroad officials generally,—not excepting the chief engineer,—partly on account of their professional business training, principally on account of the high pressure under which they are constantly driven and the important business requiring their immediate attention, seldom have time to consider the artistic and architectural elements required to make their stations the success in these respects which they might readily become without any additional expense, and frequently at an actual saving in cost, if intrusted to any competent architect.

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