I’ve got a thing for rust. I don’t require extra tetanus shots; but it’s enough of an obsession that my friends point out crumbling factories and deteriorating bridges on trips. After growing up among the industrial ruins of Buffalo, N.Y., an affinity for decay is only natural.
It’s part of the reason I feel at home in Philly, which has many wonderful examples of early industrial structures. Yet sadly, in a city that cherishes its history, we often forget that the rusted buildings dotting the edge of town are as meaningful as the gilded ones in Center City.
So imagine my heartbreak when, in the early morning hours of Nov. 15, 2009, Amtrak imploded one of my most cherished features of the Philadelphia skyline — the smokestack and art deco steam plant located behind 30th Street Station.
In the cover of night, Amtrak sealed off the building and barricaded roads. At dawn, the 400-foot smokestack pirouetted to the ground. As students shuffled to class that day, I doubt they noticed that Philadelphia had lost an important part of its architectural history.
Art deco trimmings elevated the building above its seemingly banal purpose. It must have made the workers who tended the massive turbines feel as if they were part of a great, city-building enterprise.
In fact, they were.
The plant was designed to provide all the steam-heat needed for the city’s new skyscrapers. As Historic Preservation graduate student Libbie Hawes noted, the steam plant and adjacent Pullman dormitories were “an example of social history very important to our transportation heritage.”
Its part in ushering Philadelphia in to the modern age helped put the steam plant on the National Register of Historic Places — an accomplishment that was not enough to save it from demolition. Hawes explained that the list “has no actual protective power to preserve historic buildings … in fact, property owners must give their permission before a property can be put on the National Register.”
The only thing more disturbing than the ineffectiveness of the National Historic Register is Drexel University’s reaction to the demolition.
According to the Drexel student newspaper, The Triangle, the implosion of the smokestack known as the “Drexel Shaft,” is significant to students as it has come to represent the administrative issues at the University — hence its unseemly nickname. Students also connect the Shaft to Drexel’s “ugly campus” ratings.
Drexel Dean of Students David Ruth wrote in an e-mail to The Triangle, “I do know that students refer to that structure as ‘the shaft,’ and so I am pleased to know that this structure is being demolished.”
Fortunately, when it comes to cavalier preservation attitudes, Drexel is in a growing minority. Many cities are realizing that their industrial pasts are worth saving. Often, the best way to preserve these monumental structures is to re-purpose them. In London for example, a similar power plant and smokestack situated along the river Thames was transformed in to the Tate Modern, Britain’s national museum of international modern art.
The neighboring rail yards and tangle of electric lines near 30th Street Station would have made redevelopment tricky — but certainly not impossible. In fact, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron, reported that there was a plan for re-purposing the stack. Sadly, the real-estate bust shattered all hopes of that plan coming to fruition.
Instead, Amtrak plans to use the property as emergency access to existing utility tunnels and maintenance vehicle parking. And so the yard will remain a lifeless wasteland that widens the gap between University City and the rest of Philadelphia.
Clearly it’s too late to do anything about our loss on this side of the Schuylkill. But there are more buildings that need to be protected. The attitude that these pieces of the city’s history are expendable needs to be corrected. And as institutions of higher learning, Penn and Drexel should play an active role in preservation efforts. Ashley Takacs is a College senior from Buffalo, N.Y. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.Comments powered by Disqus
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