The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineThen and Now: Baltimore’s Penn Station to be restored, expanded

Then and Now: Baltimore’s Penn Station to be restored, expanded

By T.R. Witcher

Built in 1911 on the site of two previous train stations, Baltimore’s Penn Station represents “the peak of railroad development” in the city, according to the station’s 1975 nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places, written by Barbara Hoff, then executive director of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. The station was the culmination of an almost centurylong process that began with the founding of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1828 — a transformative moment in the city’s history that enabled it to compete with the Erie Canal for access to valuable western trade routes.

The beaux-arts station, designed by Kenneth Murchison, along with architecture firm McKim, Mead, and White, is still an important connection on the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. As such, the station remains the eighth-busiest terminal in the United States with more than 3 million passengers a year.

aerial looking down -- at night -- at a historic beaux arts building, behind which runs train tracks. A low-rise building with a green roof is connected to the historic building over the train tracks. Two towers stand in the background.
Amtrak is planning a new complex for Baltimore’s Penn Station and a rehabilitation of its historic headhouse, located in the foreground. A new low-rise concourse building will be built first, with an office and a residential building, located in the background, planned for a later phase. (Courtesy of Gensler)

Located in the center of the city, the train station is at the upper end of the central business district, just south of the city’s Station North Arts District and between two of the city’s one-way arteries, North Charles Street and St. Paul Street. The station is composed of the large multistory beaux-arts building with a rectangular footprint that sits on high ground and an enclosed rear concourse that juts out perpendicular to this building and over the train tracks, providing access points that descend to the rail tracks and platforms below. On the opposite side of the tracks is a large parking lot where the new construction will be sited.

Amtrak is planning an ambitious reinvention of the venerable transit hub. Currently, Amtrak trains, including high-speed Acela trains, operate through the station. So do Maryland Area Regional Commuter trains and a light rail line. The new station will include expanded platforms to handle greater train volumes and improved connectivity for buses, cabs, passenger cars, and ride-share vehicles.

Historic rehabilitation

The beaux-arts building that comprises the most visible part of Penn Station is a head house; that is, it contains the ticketing, waiting, and baggage areas of the train station. In Baltimore, this historic structure is a “cherished building,” says Peter Stubb, AIA, a principal and the design director of Gensler’s Baltimore office, which is designing the new addition to the station. “People love this building. But it needs to be modernized. Part of the impulse on Amtrak’s part was to modernize the station but also expand to meet future demands.”

The head house, which is currently mostly vacant, will be rehabilitated and redeveloped with shops, restaurants, and offices. This effort will be overseen by designer Quinn Evans. The work will include a complete exterior and interior restoration, according to James Smith, AIA, an associate with Quinn Evans. “Exterior work will include rehabilitation of all masonry, standing seam metal roofs, windows, doors, marquee canopy, and decorative elements,” he says. “It will also include new exterior lighting. New work will include comprehensive replacement of all electrical, mechanical, and telecom systems throughout the building. New stairs and elevators will be installed. Main public spaces will undergo thorough historic restoration.” 

Because the building is located in a 100-year flood plain, Quinn Evans’ renovation will have to meet the city’s flood plain regulations. “We’re wet-floodproofing the cellar and dry-floodproofing the platform/ground floor level to a height of approximately 8 ft,” Smith adds. “All the utilities in the cellar will be relocated to a new (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) mezzanine raised 4 ft above the platform level with passive flood protection. Site utilities (transformers, generator, cooling tower) also need to be protected from the 8 ft of floodwater.”

New addition

The new low-rise addition to the station will run parallel to the head house on the other side of the tracks, forming an expanded, H-shaped station when it is joined to the existing concourse over the tracks. 

looking across a busy bridge at train tracks that run underneath, and a new building to the left of the tracks
The new station will feature outdoor plazas and multiple entry points, better connecting the entire complex with surrounding neighborhoods. (Courtesy of Gensler)

The restoration and expansion of Penn Station is an opportunity to create both a multimodal hub for local and regional travelers but also a community hub connecting the station to surrounding neighborhoods. “One of the benefits of this design is there are more entry points to the station,” says Stubb. 

The design of the new complex attempts to complement the original beaux-arts facade — stoic, classic, with a heavy rhythm of fenestration as well as granite and terra cotta cladding — with a clear, glassy structure that provides both a visual connection to the original and fosters a connection to the theatrical experience of train travel. The design is meant to invoke the “incredible experience of walking over tops of the trains as they’re moving below you,” says Stubb.

a double height concourse has space for quick movements and areas to site and wait
The new addition will feature a stepped concourse meant to evoke the front stoops of Baltimore row houses. (Courtesy of Gensler)

The new expansion will be flanked by two outdoor plazas on the east and west sides, joined by the 14,000 sq ft concourse that will run through the building. The concourse will step down as you move through the building to match the changing east-west elevation of the street grid. This topographic quirk will allow the new concourse to evoke the front stone stoops of classic Baltimore row houses, with areas to rest and linger and areas to be used as quick access points.

The station will remain open during construction.

Ultimately, Amtrak and developer Penn Station Partners are planning an additional commercial development just north of this new addition that calls for two buildings and around 250,000 sq ft of office space and 150 residential units. “If you think about the power of having office and residential right there at this location, on the tracks, with easy connections to D.C., Philly, New York — it’s a pretty great idea,” says Stubb.

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