Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania

Date added: March 01, 2023 Categories: Pennsylvania Train Station Beaux-Arts

The Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania Railroad Station is significant because of the important role which it played in the transportation system of Western Pennsylvania. Wilkinsburg was a station stop and point of origin for trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad "Main Line" for over one hundred years. The station was built as part of a major capital improvement project on this line. Its restrained Beaux Arts styling and its prominent location in the community mark it as a significant product of America's "Railroad Age."

Wilkinsburg's history has always been closely tied to the existence of overland transportation routes. The town's initial late eighteenth century development resulted from its role as a stopping place at the intersection of two major routes from the East. The railroad's arrival in 1852 provided an additional route for commerce. A simple frame station was built in 1858. By 1887, a regular train schedule was maintained between Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh, and trains left Wilkinsburg daily for the East.

The growth of railroad operations and borough development were mutually complementary phenomena. A town of 100 residents in 1852 incorporated as a borough of 2,500 in 1887. In the mid-twentieth century borough population topped 30,000. But increases in local railroad activity and population had a point of conflict: railroad grade crossings at the center of town were the scene of many accidents, and a few deaths.

After much negotiation between the borough and the railroad company, the Pennsylvania Railroad initiated a multi-million dollar railroad reconstruction project in 1914. The railroad grade was raised. between Swissvale to the south and Homewood to the north, which allowed for construction of overpasses over three busy Wilkinsburg streets. The project also provided for construction of a new improved station which would reflect the significance of railroad operations and borough development.

The project was completed in 1916, the year that marked the high point of railroad mileage in the United States. The Wilkinsburg project was an indication of things to come. Hereafter, railroad company capital investments were more often devoted to the rebuilding of existing infrastructure and facilities than to expansionism.

The Wilkinsburg grade crossing elimination and station opening were celebrated in a community-wide celebration of unprecedented scope in 1916. A newspaper of the time enthused: "A monster procession, a public reception and appreciation meeting, the unveiling of an Abraham Lincoln statue, a group of races, an athletic meet, a half dozen band concerts, and public dancing are the big features arranged for the three-day jollification. The banquet included a model of the station made of sugar.

The actual station was "granite, limestone and tapshaled brick in construction, finished in vitrified Kittanning brick and marble trimmings." It was designed in a restrained Beaux Arts style by Walter H. Cookson, who is presumed to have been a company architect for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.

The Beaux Arts railroad station was a product of both broadly-based architectural currents and City Beautiful ideals, and represents the last great era of railroad station construction in the United States. Well-ordered Classically-derived architectural themes were widely adopted at the turn-of-the-century, marking the end of an era of picturesque design. The railroad station assumed the guise of a monumental public building, replete with columns and impressive public spaces. The City Beautiful movement helped to foster this image, and sought to include the station in larger landscape and planning schemes.

The Wilkinsburg Railroad Station well represents these influences. Its plan and form, which are strongly symmetrical'in a neo-Palladian manner, and the facade-high columns give the building monumentality. It is prominently sited at the head of Ross Avenue; and it became the centerpiece for a kind of civic center when the Wilkinsburg Borough Building and the United States Post Office were built on opposite corners in the 1930's.

The Wilkinsburg Railroad Station is unusual, however, in its realization of these influences in a relatively small-scale structure. In appearance and siting, the building is more closely related to large city stations of the period than it is to typical small town or suburban stations of similar scale. It is a manifestly urban station.

Station operations ceased in the late 1960's. The building now marks the eastern terminus of a public transit busway which links it with Pennsylvania Station in downtown Pittsburgh much as the passenger railroad once did. Both stations are excellent candidates for reuse. But even in their current forlorn states they complement each other and give eloquent testimony to the significance of the railroad and its structures during America's "Railroad Age," and to their enduring significance in the urban landscape.

Building Description

The Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania Railroad Station is located on a triangular site whose hypotenuse is formed by the elevated railroad right-of-way which the station was de- signed to serve. A classic symmetrical form and plan --a large central block with smaller flanking dependencies--characterizes the building. The central section, which houses the principal waiting room, is a double-height single story. The flanking wings, which house auxiliary service rooms, are a lower single story. At the rear, a rectangular projection issues in an enclosed walkway which drops to a tunnel beneath the railroad right-of-way. The building is constructed of buff brick and stone and exhibits restrained Beaux Arts styling.

The station property is prominently located at the foot of Ross Avenue at the western edge of Wilkinsburg's commercial district, The site slopes gently toward the south so that the basement level of the station is accessible from the south side. The building is recessed from the street behind an arced forecourt driveway. Behind the property, the railroad right-of-way has been partially adapted for a public transit busway, and the stairways and raised and covered platforms which originally lent access to the trains are no longer extant.

The building's central block is rectangular in plan and surmounts a raised stone-faced base with a watertable above banded fretwork. Corner piers project slightly from the facade. The intervening broad central recess is divided into three bays by four en- gaged Ionic columns resting on plinths with fretwork bands. Double-door entries topped by tall paired single-pane windows fill each bay. A rectangular metalwork marquise overhangs the entries. The columns support an entablature with a frieze which reads "PENNSYLVANIA" and a cornice with modillions. The entablature wraps all four sides of the central block, and is topped by a partially crenelated parapet with stone coping. The coping rises to encircle a circular medallion with a large clock face at the center of the facade.

The two side wings are also rectangular in plan. They are two: bays:wide and three bays deep, with double-sash one-over-one windows with stone architrave surrounds, Base and cornice treatments are simplified versions of those on the central block. The basement level of the south wing is exposed and is extended as a quadrilateral to abut the rail- road right-of-way. It is outfitted as a loading dock, overhung by a metalwork marquise, and topped by a peaked parapet.

The rectangular rear projection has tall round-arched windows and the enclosed walkway extension has half-circle windows and a gable roof. All other roofs are flat, A polygonal chimney rises from the northwest corner of the central block.

The brick exterior is bonded in alternating rows of headers and stretchers (English bond) and is articulated by slightly recessed brick panels with geometric decorative stone inserts.

The building's interior plan consists of a large central waiting room, flanking offices, and lavatories, and a rear room which exits into the walkway and tunnel, The waiting room features marble wainscoting, stone pilasters, and plaster capitals. A plaster entablature with dentil and modillion rows, augmented by additional ceiling moldings, rings the room. The center of the ceiling is devoted to a skylight of small glass panes surrounded by a bold fretwork border. Doorways and triad "ticket office" windows at either end of the room have marble surrounds. The south set of window openings has metal grilles, and was formerly surmounted by a clock. The office behind retains wood wainscoting and shelving. Lavatories are largely intact. Portions of the interior have mosaic tile flooring, and feature recessed brick panels on the walls, with decorative tile and stone inserts, similar to those found on the exterior. A few hanging glass globe lighting fixtures remain. A basement underlies the entire building and extends to the southwest. It is rudely finished, but the loading dock section has a raised wooden platform at the north end of the room and features a built-in scale.

The exterior of the building appears to be in generally good condition. But extensive interior water damage, especially to the plaster ceiling of the waiting room, speaks of past or present roofing problems, and all mechanical systems are inferior.

Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania Floor plan (1984)
Floor plan (1984)

Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania East facade (1984)
East facade (1984)

Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania East facade (1984)
East facade (1984)

Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania East facade and south side (1984)
East facade and south side (1984)

Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania Waiting room ceiling (1984)
Waiting room ceiling (1984)

Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania Waiting room (1984)
Waiting room (1984)

Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania West rear and north side (1984)
West rear and north side (1984)