Washington, D.C.'s Union Station Great Hall in 1980,
Union Station's Great Hall in Washington, D.C. before undergoing restoration work in 1980. Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress

Long before America had a distinct sense of buildings as corporate branding, rail lines were busy laying the very track of the idea.

The golden age of U.S. rail travel, stretching roughly from 1830 to 1930, has left us a submerged built legacy of fervid competition, early standardized construction and design, and some of the earliest recognizable efforts to wield architecture as explicit corporate branding.

Contemporary architectural advertisements—from gas stations to office towers—are made to instantly transmit a brand in physical form. Rail companies were working from a rougher, earlier template, but one explicitly concerned with transmitting a message through station appearance about the desirability of travel on their lines. The railroad station, which began as a practical necessity, was soon understood as a valuable means of enticing passengers onto a train for a vacation or to a new home.

Metropolitan railroad stations were typically one-time commissions given to a prestigious firm and often designed in a style distinct from a railroad company’s other stations. It’s in the far larger number of stations built in smaller cities, towns, suburbs, and rural areas that specific corporate styles emerge.

The roots of these decisions originated primarily in sound finances (one architect for a dozen stations is cheaper than hiring one architect for each station). In many cases, firms were contracted for multiple stations at once. In others, firms were hired repeatedly over time as new stations were commissioned. Companies also often employed in-house architects or chief engineers, sometimes churning out prodigious numbers of stations and facilities.

Differing corporate styles were largely inadvertent at first, simply a consequence of hiring different architects to execute a large number of projects. Some railroads continued to design ad hoc, but coherent or themed station design eventually became perceived as not merely thrifty but also as a useful trademark, especially in the case of vacation destinations and the growing ranks of commuter stations.

The decline of passenger travel has resulted in a number of demolitions but also a wide range of repurposing. The architectural vestiges of long-dormant rail companies endure as pizzerias, bars, adult bookstores, offices, and gun clubs. Some have even become Amtrak stations. Many train stations were built to draw tourists, especially in the Southwest and in Florida, remain. Same for the particularly opulent commuter stations now serviced by commuter trains in large Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest cities.

The first proper American rail station was built in 1830 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (Mount Clare station in Baltimore). That company soon hired a succession of in-house architects to build stations and the numerous other facilities that railroads required.

Ephraim Francis Baldwin’s B&O station in Gaithersburg, Maryland, serves passengers today along MARC’s Brunswick Line. (Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress)

John Rudolph Niernsee designed the original Italianate Camden Station in Baltimore, repurposed as the Sports Legends Museum in 2005, 34 years after the last B&O train departed. He also designed the B&O shops in Martinsburg, West Virginia, still standing at the western end of the MARC Brunswick Line. His successor, Ephraim Francis Baldwin, designed the B&O Warehouse that now lines the edge of Camden Yards, as well as the a former roundhouse complex, now the B&O Museum nearby in Baltimore. His Queen Anne-style stations dapple the Brunswick line, enduring in the repurposed Gaithersburg and Rockville Stations as well as those in Brunswick and Harpers Ferry that are still functioning. His other stations can be found scattered wherever the Baltimore and Ohio ventured.

The in-house architect soon became a common feature of expanding rail companies in the era, with the Pennsylvania Railroad employing many. William H. Cookman’s hipped roof Victorian stations can be spotted along the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline stretching almost to Chicago. Charles Sumner Frost designed over 100 structures for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. Reed and Stern designed a similarly huge number of structures for the Northern Pacific Railway. Naturally, their artistic output is rather consistent.

The railroad station typology was steadily evolving as more were being commissioned. The idea of an undifferentiated shelter soon began to acquire numerous specific programmatic subsections: baggage rooms, lounges, telegraph offices, ladies’ sitting areas, smoking rooms, ticket offices, lodging or facilities for crew, means for unloading freight, mail rooms, parcel rooms, and additional rooms for other tasks.

These were not mixed and matched arbitrarily. Companies began to standardize station types for different uses; some featured all of these functions, others several, others hardly any. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway built in particularly standardized fashion across many of its routes, with two standard rural or town station styles.

A Boston & Providence Railroad station in Stoughton, Massachusetts. (Library of Congress)

The commuter station was both an innovation and a heavily-designed subset of railroad stations. The outskirts of cities along rail corridors represented a plumb opportunity for rail companies to mint occasional and daily customers, by inducing them to move in and around new stations, often to new developments on land owned by the railroad companies or hastily acquired by their boards of directors. Stations in these growing and affluent suburbs featured some of the most distinguished railroad architecture in the nation.

Henry Hobson Richardson’s work for the Boston and Albany Railroad is one of the few efforts to attract scholarly attention. Richardson built characteristically magnificent Romanesque stations for the Boston and Albany Railroad (along the current MBTA Framingham/Worcester line) and three stations elsewhere. His successor firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge built some twenty additional stations in a purposefully similar style.

Richardson’s stations were part of a comprehensive effort to craft a broader experience of travel, which extended to the even more unusual accentuation of station landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, professor of architecture at the University of Washington wrote on the business strategy in his essay, “Architecture for the Boston & Albany Railroad: 1881-1894:”

In addition to the straightforward functional program, each station also had a more subtle aesthetic aspect. In every city, town, or village along the route the station presented the physical image of a great corporation, and at every stop the station also served as the symbolic entry or gateway to the adjacent city, town, or village… In the case of the Circuit stations at Waban, Woodland, and Eliot, these motives extended to attracting new residents to create new suburban villages. These stations were built in largely unsettled country, not to serve existing communities, but to foster new ones and thereby generate more traffic for the railroad.

Many of these stations were subsequently destroyed, often to make way for the Massachusetts Turnpike, but three remain in Newton, now repurposed. One in Allston is a restaurant, but Richardson’s Wellesley Farms station and his North Easton Station on the MBTA South Coast line are still used for rail travel.

Frank Furness’s commissions include two substantial building programs for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and for the Baltimore and Ohio, as well as scattered work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was chief architect for the Reading Railroad, designing over 125 projects and countless stations. Michael J. Lewis wrote in his biography of Furness that “a ride on the Reading would likely have been taken in a passenger car of his design, perhaps from and most certainly past stations built, altered or expanded under his direction, and would travel along a right-of-way dotted with freight houses, tool sheds, signal towers, and watchman’s boxes designed by Furness, and painted in color schemes selected by him.” Long before Disney, a rail journey could clearly be heavily themed.

He was subsequently employed by the Baltimore and Ohio for a signature expansion to Philadelphia, designing 24 of 36 stations along this route, using eight prototypes. He then subsequently worked on a scattered number of Pennsylvania Railroad projects. An almost inconceivable number of Furness’s rail buildings have been destroyed—of 180 stations under 20 remain—but his Gravers and Mount Airy stations along the Chestnut Hill East SEPTA line (former Reading) are still in use, as is his Wallingford Station along the former Pennsylvania railroad Media Elwyn SEPTA line. Railroad stations see plenty of movement, but most don’t move themselves: Furness’s Aberdeen, Maryland station was relocated 50 feet in 2014.

Furness’ B&O designs are amazingly varied, balancing between seemingly Victorian spindly spinsters and some doughty bachelors with lurching roofs and archways and cantilevered eaves. Some are made entirely of wood, others mix wood and stone and brick in flamboyant arrangements. Wilmington, Delaware, contains the supremely odd combination of two depots by Furness for different railroads: His still-used Italianate brick Pennsylvania Railroad station and a nearby Gingerbread Victorianesque former depot for a B&O subsidiary.

In New York, Warren and Wetmore and Reed and Stem* are best known for their collaboration on Grand Central Terminal, but each firm designed a number of New York Central stations on the current Metro-North Hudson and Harlem Lines, whose styles varied dramatically. The misbegotten New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad—with nine stations designed by Cass Gilbert—were purposefully heterogeneous. Most are gone, and the remainder repurposed. Gilbert brought a similarly eclectic sensibility to multiple commissions for the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Fred Harvey eating house and Santa Fe Station in Chanute, Kansas, 1890. (Library of Congress)

A.M. Griffin designed Mission Revival stations in Sarasota and Orlando (the latter still functional). Gustav Maas built Mediterranean Revival stations nearby in Delray Beach, Deerfield, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, and Homestead.

Mary Colter and Charles Whittlesey designed hotels and lodges for the Fred Harvey Company as well as stations for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, painting with Spanish, Mission Revival, and rustic elements. Gilbert Stanley Underwood designed stations for the Union Pacific Railroad designed to draw traffic to the lodges he designed for the Union Pacific-owned Utah Parks Company.

The Great Depression brought a close to most notable rail station construction. If a few signature metropolitan terminals went up, the age of significant station construction declined with the rise of the automobile.

One brief tantalizing intersection of rail companies with the rising age of active corporate branding was that of Raymond Loewy with the Pennsylvania Railroad, producing locomotive designs, train interiors, advertising, and station plans, although it’s unclear if the latter were ever realized.

Formed in 1971, Amtrak rapidly grasped the importance of similar station branding. According to its station design manual, “Our passenger stations are also our only permanent presence in most communities… Amtrak’s public image can be greatly enhanced, or easily destroyed by our facilities.” While the moniker “Amshacks” would suggest an achievement nearer to the latter, Amtrak established five prototype designs which featured some attractive elements including a cantilevered roof, some handsome precast features, and purposefully bold contrasting color features.

With the disappearance of private passenger rail companies, the design manual stressed the need to attract passengers from their automobiles and “compete with the airlines and their jetports.” Note that it’s not just airlines but “jetports” mentioned, acknowledgement that it’s not just the experience on a given vehicle but the intermediary stage before and after that’s of importance to the traveler as well.

U.S. airports often lack architectural differentiation between carrier terminals but still commanded swelling ranks of traffic in those years of the railroads’ decline. New York’s JFK Airport was an unusual case that continued the corporate design battle for dollars by featuring carrier-specific terminals—Saarinen’s TWA terminal, Pei’s National Airlines Sundrome, and the Pan Am Worldport—that also served as highly calculated advertising.

Even in pre-TSA days, it’s doubtful that the average traveler would be swayed in their immediate purchase by the sight of one of these terminals. They wouldn’t see how much they liked the look of different railroad stations before making their train purchase, either. And yet, it’s the longer-term impressions that matter. Long before we had a distinct sense of the architecture of persuasion or of corporate branding, rail lines were busy laying the very track of the idea.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the names of Frank Furness and the architecture firm of Reed and Stem.

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