Wilmington (Delaware) Station: The Last Frank Furness Railroad Masterpiece

Wilmington Station at night. Lowell Silverman photography, 2011
Wilmington Railroad Station at night. Lowell Silverman photography, 2011

Frank Furness (1839-1912) was one of the most prolific railroad architects of the 19th century.  During his career, Furness designed (or created additions to) over 600 buildings.  Of these, slightly less than 1/3 were structures designed for three major railroads.  The names of these firms are familiar not only to railroad history buffs, but also anyone who has played the board game Monopoly.  Furness worked for the Reading Railroad from 1880 to 1885, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) from 1886 to 1890, and finally the Pennsylvania Railroad (1890 or 1892 depending on the source, to 1908).

Born in Philadelphia, Furness’s architectural training was interrupted by the American Civil War.  Furness volunteered for the Union cavalry and served with great distinction.  In 1899 he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the US’s highest military decoration, for his bravery during the Battle of Trevilian Station back in 1864.

Postwar, Furness’s resumed his career with the hot-blooded, risk-taking approach that he learned on the battlefield.  As tastes in architecture changed, most of his buildings fell victim to the wrecking ball by the mid-20th century.  In recent decades, his surviving work has gained new appreciation among connoisseurs of fine architecture.  Although Frank Furness is no longer a household name as he was in Philadelphia a century ago, it’s an interesting to note that Furness was a mentor to Louis Sullivan, one of the pioneers of the skyscraper (as well as the man who coined “form follows function”); Sullivan in turn mentored the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright.

A new Amtrak ACS-64 leading a Northeast Regional train into Wilmington
A new Amtrak ACS-64 leading a Northeast Regional train into Wilmington.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

By 1905, Furness’s career and firm were in decline according to Furness’s biographer Michel J. Lewis.  That year, the Pennsylvania Railroad awarded Furness and his partner Allen Evans one last railroad commission for a new train station and adjacent office building in Wilmington, Delaware.  Wilmington is located along what is now called the Northeast Corridor between Baltimore and Philadelphia.  A minor station in a small city in the Philadelphia orbit…what a far cry this was from the days when Furness had been responsible for such projects as greatly expanding Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station, the PRR’s main terminal!

Pennsylvania-Building
The Pennsylvania Railroad Office Building (aka the Pennsylvania Building)

The Pennsylvania Railroad Office Building was completed first and served as an administrative center for the PRR’s operations south of Philadelphia.  For a time it was connected to the station by an elevated walkway.  Like many former industrial buildings along the Wilmington Riverfront, after the PRR went defunct it found a second life providing office space for the banks headquartered in Wilmington.  Until recently it was occupied by ING, but the building now appears to be vacant.

22 Viaduct
Retaining wall for part of Wilmington Rail Viaduct with a bridge allowing a street to pass underneath the railroad. Lowell Silverman photography, 2010

Early in the 20th century, the Pennsylvania Railroad constructed the Wilmington Rail Viaduct which elevated the tracks and eliminated grade crossings in the city.  This prevented accidents and eased traffic congestion at the numerous street crossings in the city.  The High Line in New York City, now an elevated urban park, was built by the New York Central for the same reason.

Furness took advantage of the elevated rails to compensate for the limited space available to work with.  Interestingly, he designed what is now the waiting room below the tracks rather than alongside or above them.  As Michael J. Lewis put it in his book Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind:

“The station itself embraced the tracks, which passed directly over the main waiting room and divided the station into two parallel blocks; never before were station and tracks so harmoniously integrated.”

Similarly, in an article in the News Journal celebrating the station’s centennial, An Architectural Gem, Rick Mulrooney wrote:

“The most remarkable feature of the station is the main floor, which Furness placed beneath the tracks.  Passengers could hear – and feel – the power of the trains as they arrived and departed.  It’s believed to be the only station in the country with trains running over the waiting room.”

The only note of skepticism I would register about Furness’s intent to have passengers experience the power of trains is to mention that although this is the main waiting area today, its primary function a century ago was handling baggage, with the waiting rooms located upstairs.

Queries to some railroad experts about Mulrooney’s claim about Wilmington Station’s uniqueness were also met with skepticism, with two of them mentioning Indianapolis Union Station as meeting that criteria.  Furness’s intent aside, there is indeed something thrilling about being in the waiting room today and hearing the subdued roar of a train overhead pulling into the station…and Amtrak’s electric trains are no doubt quieter than the steam engines of Furness’s era!

10 Wilm Lobby
Lobby of Wilmington Rail Station. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

In contrast to the rest of the building, the modern waiting room is not what one could call elegant.  The tremendous weight of the rails and trains above required substantial support.  Mulrooney explains that Furness “accomplished this by using 28 steel columns that support the iron crossbeams.”  In typical Furness fashion, the riveted metal structural members are fully visible (notwithstanding what I suspect are modern wrappings to the columns) to create a strong, industrial vibe.

8 Main Staircase
The grand staircase leads to tracks for SEPTA and the now disused waiting rooms adjacent to the platform

Although these days the main waiting area is downstairs (in addition to housing ticketing, Amtrak Police, food, and rental car services), when the station was first opened, passengers headed upstairs to waiting rooms on the same level as the tracks.

WilmOldWaitingRoom
The old upstairs (men’s?) waiting room at Wilmington Station is a bit more elegant than the modern one downstairs

As was customary at the time, there were separate waiting rooms for men and women.  I’m curious about whether families would have to split up back then.  Following a renovation in the early 1980s, these waiting rooms are no longer used, but one of the waiting rooms (the men’s I think) can be accessed because of its attached restrooms.  I’m not sure why they’re not just used to let SEPTA passengers wait in style.

18 Wilm Staircase
Staircase detail

If the beams nearby have a somewhat unpolished look, the stairs have a intricate, ornate one.  I mean, nobody puts this kind of effort into stairs these days.

Wilm-Pineapple
Brass pineapples decorate the grand staircase

Even the columns supporting the canopy outside the station are intricately detailed (though some images I’ve seen in the 1930s and 1960s show the station without the canopies, so I’m not sure if they’re original to the Furness design or not).

Overhang detail
Canopy detail

The station’s exterior is the bright, elegant red brick typical of Furness’s style.  Furness challenged the architectural conventions of his day and it seems his work can be difficult to categorize.  Mulrooney refers to the station as Gothic Romanesque Revival style and Amtrak’s Great American Stations website similarly labels it Romanesque.  On the other hand, Lewis describes the building as Italian Renaissance, “aside from the exclamation point of the clock tower”.  The clock tower, by the way, is the station’s pride and joy.  From a distance, the tower is more red brick like the rest of the station.  A closer look, however, reveals fine terra cotta detailing.  The roof tiles are terra cotta as well.

Clock tower detail
Clock tower detail
WilmSoffit
The fine detail of the station’s soffits are best viewed at night when they’re well illuminated

The station was renovated from 2009 to 2011 and a number of improvements made.  Sadly, during renovations the station’s Solari board (split-flap display) was replaced with an electronic board.  At the conclusion of the renovations, the station was rededicated as the Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Railroad Station (no, I don’t know why that second comma is there) after the sitting Vice President of the United States.  Now, I’m not a big fan of renaming historic stations or airports after politicians, especially people who weren’t even born when they were built.  If they really needed to name it after somebody, they could have chosen the Medal of Honor winner who designed it.  That being said, at least Biden is a great supporter of rail travel in the US…no surprise considering the fact that while in the Senate, he commuted on Amtrak between Washington D.C. and Wilmington to be with his family at night.  It’s probably irrelevant anyway since nobody calls it Biden Railroad Station anyway.

14 Biden

Although its first train passed through in 1907 while still under construction, work on the station wasn’t completed until 1908.  In some ways, Frank Furness’s last train station was his most successful.  In 2014, Wilmington Rail Station ranked as the 11th busiest Amtrak’s station in the country with a total ridership of 704,523.  (SEPTA regional ridership is not included).  I suspect this ridership is in excess of the rest of his surviving stations combined.

NightWilmington-Station
Wilmington Station at night

How many of Furness’s stations are left?   According to the America’s Great Stations website, 18 of Furness’s stations survive.  On the other hand, the Frank Furness: Working on the Railroads exhibit at the Library Company of Philadelphia in 2012 depicted maps with 13 stations surviving.  The ones still in service seem to be mostly minor stations on SEPTA’s regional lines.

17 B&O RR Station
Water Street Station

Visitors to Wilmington Railroad Station Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Railroad Station don’t have to go far to see another Furness train station.  The Water Street Station sits just across South Market Street from Wilmington Station’s parking garage.  The building, with its unusual chimneys, was designed by Furness for the B&O Railroad in the late 1880s (dates vary by source from 1886 to 1888).  Although it fell into ruin, after restoration the building was occupied by ING and now Capital One.  Together, the three Furness buildings are referred to as the Frank Furness Railroad District.

Further Reading

A National Treasure: Wilmington’s Frank Furness Railroad District by Scott Bogren. Provides a good history and architecture discussion, as well as before and after pictures of the Water Street Station restoration.

The Wilmington Passenger Station 1907-2007 100th Anniversary by Steven Sergi for The Pennsylvania News, Winter 2007.  Good overview and photographs, but ignore the part about Furness’s student Louis Sullivan designing the Chrysler Building…that was actually William Van Alen.

Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind by Michael J. Lewis.  Overall the best book I’ve found about Furness, featuring a detailed biography, discussion of selected works, and even some of the caricatures that Furness drew in his sketchbooks!

Frank Furness: The Complete Works, Revised Edition by George E. Thomas, Jeffrey A. Cohen, & Michael J. Lewis.  Mostly a catalog of Furness’s buildings.

Visitors to Wilmington Station should pick up the pamphlet entitled “Wilmington’s Railroad History” from Friends of the Furness Railroad District which includes a reprint of the Mulrooney article quoted above.  The pamphlets are available at an information display, “Wilmington’s Railroad Heritage,” located near the ticket windows.

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