Local man wins protections for Philly’s iconic cast-iron subway entrances

Nicholas Baker fought to preserve Philadelphia's remaining cast iron subway entrances, like this one at C ity Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Nicholas Baker fought to preserve Philadelphia's remaining cast iron subway entrances, like this one at C ity Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

A decade after a city graduate student recommended preserving Philadelphia’s iconic cast-iron subway entrances, the Philadelphia Historical Commission approved protections for the ornate gates.

That graduate student, Nicholas Baker, tried to protect 61 decorative entrances, including his favorites in the City Hall courtyard and stops all along the Broad Street Line. The gates around the PATCO stations in Center City also earned recommendations from Baker.

“Not everyone notices them right away, but once you really look, many of them are quite striking and beg a little more appreciation,” said Baker, who first submitted the recommendations in 2010 as a city planning student at the University of Pennsylvania. He recently returned to the commission to defend his nomination.

The ornate cast-iron rails date back to the early-20th century, a period of growth for Philadelphia’s mass transit system. The entrances range in style from the baroque look of 1920s subway stations along North Broad Street to the art deco appeal given to South Broad stations built in the 1930s and, eventually, the more utilitarian approach of the 1950s.

SEPTA hasn’t released a public statement on the historic district. The designation could limit the agency as it seeks to modernize facilities. The Historical Commission has partially attributed its 10-year delay on the nomination to fears of clashing with the transit agency’s jurisdiction.

“The Historical Commission had deferred action on the subway entrance thematic district nomination because of concerns regarding its legal authority to regulate the entrances,” said commission spokesman Paul Chrystie.

At Friday’s hearing, the city’s Streets Department offered full support for the protection. In the years since graduating from Penn Design, Baker’s career moved into the realm of transportation planning. He now works at the Streets Department, although he did not mention that at the commission meeting.

The nomination took a decade to move forward, in part, because its filing traced back to a long fallow period when the Historical Commission added few new properties and no new districts to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Once a property is added to the local register, it cannot be demolished or substantially altered unless the owner can prove it would be in the public interest to do so — or that an economically viable use is impossible.

Local preservation efforts often come into conflict with property owners who fear that designation could reduce their property value.

In the 2000s, several large historic districts covering hundreds of single-family homes ran into a buzz saw of opposition in Overbrook Farms, Washington Square West, and Spruce Hill.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell considered legislation that would revoke the commission’s power to designate properties and give it to City Council. Although nothing ever came of the threat, the commission subsequently put an unofficial hold on the creation of new districts, such as Baker’s effort to save the subway entrances.

The protections came too late for a number of the cast-iron structures. Between Baker’s submission and the commission’s belated ruling, transit agencies removed or substantially altered 10  of the entrances.

Despite those losses, the planner celebrated the ruling.

“There were a lot of reasons given at different times [for the delay],” said Baker after the vote. “I’m just happy it was eventually taken up.”

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