A Picture Book on Rail Stations, Not a History of Their Architecture
Review by Tony P. Wrenn, Hon. AIA
David Naylor, Railroad Stations—The Buildings That Linked the Nation, Norton/Library of Congress Visual Sourcebook in Architecture, Design & Engineering, New York, N.Y. Norton and Company, and Washington, D.C., The Library of Congress, 2012. Hardcover, 336 pages, illustrated, index. $75.00
The first transportation routes for early settlers in the U.S. were waterways. Bays, inlets, rivers, and the oceans themselves allowed colonists to reach a new home, return to their original homelands, send the goods they produced, and receive from abroad those they could not yet produce. Native tracks and animal trails provided initial access beyond waterways into the interior, where nature herself often offered carved natural passages to breach travel barriers. Roads were built and sometimes maintained. It was with the coming of the steam engine, though, that new and speedier travel over water began. Shortly thereafter, steam locomotives made their way onto land, making, for the first time, reliable overland travel possible.
One early railroad, the Wilmington and Raleigh in North Carolina, chartered in 1825, reached Weldon in 1840 when, as the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad with 161.5 miles of track, it was the longest railroad in the world. The Baltimore and Ohio, Atlantic Coast Line, Seaboard Air Line, and Southern all moved outward from roots in Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. They, and scores of smaller lines, provided the equipment and staff to lay the tracks and build the bridges, tunnels, and stations that connected the Mid-Atlantic, Eastern, and Southeastern states and linked them to the rest of the nation.
This book is about architecture and design in that it is made up of photographs, with limited text, that show us the manner in which photographers have looked at what architects and designers produced. Images usually give the date of photograph and name of photographer, though this information is infrequently noted in photographic captions and text. The photographers include old friends Jack E. Boucher, William Edmund Barrett, and Walter Smalling Jr., who know how to record the work of architects and designers.
There is some confusion of focus about what should be included, as when the text notes “…the Monongahela Incline Plane in Pittsburgh … has been transporting passengers since it opened in 1870 … [but] its major disqualification is it is a cable car system. It is no railway.” Nonetheless, this disclaimer is followed by photographs of the upper and lower terminals, whose appeal, as the text suggests, “is undeniable.”
My favorite head scratcher shows a poster that carries the dates 1776-1876. Below the photograph is a note, whose source is unidentified: “The figure of Brother Jonathan, a precursor of Uncle Sam straddles the tower of the main building at the Philadelphia World’s Fair of 1896. Between his feet, the North American continent, crossed by a railroad, appears on a half globe.”
I would like to know about the 1896 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, included in the index, but have turned up nothing more. (It is true that Philadelphia hosted the 1876 centennial world’s fair, and that this is likely an unfortunate editing glitch.)
While it is fun to wonder about such things, the images are worth spending time with and a number of stations are given star treatment, including Pennsylvania and Grand Central in New York, Union Station in Washington, D.C., and the Cincinnati Union Terminal, which has 29 photographs, every one of which deserves the space given it. The 1933 Art-Deco terminal is by Alfred Fellheimer and Steward Wagner with Raymond Lowey.
Lowey’s handsome 1945-47 modernistic updating of Roanoke’s 1905 Virginia and Western Railroad Station is also included. He is one of America’s best-known designers, and Fellheimer and Wagner were significant architects in their own right. They designed two stations in North Carolina, which is represented in this work with but two images, one of a demolished station, the other of one moved and no longer used as a station. The Fellheimer and Wagner stations in North Carolina—the 1925-26 station in Winston Salem, and the 1927 one in Greensboro—are handsomely restored Neoclassical buildings that still serve as railroad stations. North Carolina’s Spanish Mission Style Salisbury station of 1908, by Frank P. Milburn, is also restored and still active, as is a long list of others that might have been included.
Actually, although North Carolina is shortchanged, D.C., Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia have relatively good coverage, though there are missing treasures. None of the hundreds or perhaps thousands of small stations—mostly wooden and turn-of-the-century, which smaller railroads seemed to drop off at any point where a dairy needed transport of milk to market, or a town seemed likely to develop—is shown, though they are one of the great joys of hunting railroad stations. The Carson City, Nev., Station is an example, as is the Vestal, N.Y., Station. Still, scores of other manifestations of the small-town station could have been included.
There are significant omissions, such as the Danville, Va., Station of 1899, by Frank P. Milburn, said in 1900 to have had the largest architectural practice south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Stretching along the crest of a slight incline, the 1-1/2-story station, still in service, commands a collection of well maintained rail-related buildings with cobblestone approaches, parking, and freight handling.
Also not pictured is John Russell Pope’s great domed Neoclassical Broad Street Station in Richmond, built in 1917 for the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. It is just a short distance from the Pope designed house where ReadInform.com is published, and though no longer in use as a station, worth taking a look at.
This book may not trumpet the designers of the stations it shows, but it does whet one’s appetite for getting to know more about them, and their effect on the cities, towns, and countryside they not only served, but decorated so handsomely.
Tony P. Wrenn was co-author, with Elizabeth Mulloy, of America’s Forgotten Architecture, published to critical acclaim in 1975 by Pantheon Books. Its sections include photographic and textual essays on “Transportation” and “Sites and Memorials,” noting design and architectural reasons that foster the production of both. Cemeteries and railroad stations are among his favorites, and almost all his works include them.