Don’t miss the dramatic before & after pictures at the bottom of the page!
The Franklin Street Train Station in Reading, PA was originally built in the 1920’s as a station along the Reading Railroad shipping and passenger “Main Line” between Pottsville/Shanokin and Philadelphia. The station served rail and bus service for decades. In 1972 Hurricane Agnes ravaged the building, but transportation services still used the building until 1981 when the last train departed the station.
From 1981 until 2011 the building sat empty and abandoned. The damage done by vagrants, vandals, several fires, and a pigeon colony over the 40 years of neglect that decimated the building. The exterior stone walls were covered in graffiti, windows were broken or missing, wood rot was extensive throughout the building, plaster was damaged from the leaking roof, the original train station benches were long gone, and refuse, waste, and debris were littered throughout the building.
In 2005 the Berks Area Regional Transit Authority (BARTA) purchased the station from the City with the hope that passenger train service could be restored to the station, and in 2011 they began the massive undertaking of restoring the building to its original glory to use it as a bus terminal for their public busing system.
Using photos from the original dedication of the station in 1930, BARTA worked with their architect to choose treatments that would return the station’s interior to its original state. Once Historic Restorations began work, our research, knowledge, suggestions, and mock-ups continued the development of the historically accurate restorations.
Bob Rimby, the BARTA Project Manager who oversaw the project, noted that the biggest challenges they faced in the project were the depth of the damage and the fixed budget they could not exceed since the project was funded by grant money. How did they address those challenges? “Historic Restorations, plain and simple. They saved things I didn’t think could be saved. That not only helped us achieve our ‘save as much as possible’ goal, it helped us contain our costs by eliminating the amount of new construction we initially budgeted for,” says Rimby.
But that wasn’t the only benefit BARTA experienced with Historic Restorations’ work. Bob notes, “When they couldn’t save something, Historic Restorations recreated those architectural features so accurately that people come in here and think they are original.”
In the Fall of 2013, the Franklin Street Train Station project won the Architectural Woodwork Institute’s “Award of Excellence” and was featured in an article in the Fall 2013 edition of their Design Solutions magazine.
Click on the picture to read the article.
How the Franklin Street Train Station was Restored
The major architectural woodwork items we fabricated for the project:
One of the biggest architectural woodwork features on this project is the coffered ceiling we recreated to match what had been there originally. 30’ above eye-level the original coffered ceiling wasn’t just decayed beyond revival, it had been completely removed at some point in time during the building’s life. This process began with extensive work on the design of the cornice profile. The challenge was not only coming up with a design that was historically accurate, we also needed to proportionately enlarge the profile so that it could be seen and appreciated from 30’ below. After working with the architect on multiple design options and mock-ups we eventually ended up with a cornice profile that was almost 4’.
RAILWAY STATION BENCHES:
Another major architectural woodwork feature we fabricated for the project were about ten traditional railway station benches 10 to 30’ in length. None of the original benches were still in the building, nor any remnants of them so we were reproducing the benches entirely from scratch based on historic photographs we researched for the design. We took a very utilitarian, economical, and green approach – as would traditionally have been done in millwork shops – and used the scrap African Mahogany left over from the doors to create the bench ends. We performed the work in our shop based on the architect’s drawings which provided a design based on historical pictures of railway benches, but did not specify the joinery or assembly which was left to our discretion. We determined the traditional joinery techniques that would be best for the benches and how the pieces drawn would fit together. Once we had planned the assembly of the benches, we provided the architect with shop drawings for their approval. Again, to honor the inherent beauty of the African Mahogany we applied the same finish as the doors – the Vintage Burgundy opaque stain with a hand-rubbed clear coat stain.
Restored an existing 20’ long cabinet out of the diner area and turned it into a museum piece, complete with a new compartments, shelving, and glass sliding doors that lock for security. We fashioned a White Oak countertop for the cabinet and used butterfly dovetails tying the laminate seam together as an accent. We also made moldings that matched the original moldings on the countertop. We chose black walnut for the splines as an accent to the White Oak top and polished the bottom of the cabinet with a hand-rubbed clear coat finish that is subtle, not bright but satiny in appearance.
We also fabricated 28 solid wood doors that were actually an upgrade from the original doors, which used a veneer over an inferior wood core and lacking traditional joinery. As a company we do most of our rail and style construction in the traditional way with mortise and tenon joinery, a much higher quality construction than was used in the 1920’s. In addition to using traditional joinery, we used African Mahogany to instead of the white wood core that had been in the original doors for more solidity that would endure the wear of a transportation hub. To finish the doors we honored the beauty of the African Mahogany with Vintage Burgundy opaque stain and a hand-rubbed clear coat finish. The doors each had 2-4 windows in them with a wagon-wheel muntin design configuration. All of the design features for the new doors were taken from the original doors in keeping with preserving the original architectural style.
What woodwork items were the most intricate, difficult, or noteworthy?
The luncheon cabinet was a difficult restoration due to the extensive water damage and rot in the wood.
The doors were probably the most intricate woodwork in the project. Each door had two windows and the plans called for a wagon-wheel six-muntin design. Small pieces of tempered glass are not possible so we had to come up with a way to fabricate the wagon-wheel muntin design using only two pieces of glasses instead of the eight we would normally use. We addressed this challenge by running a center muntin horizontally across the the opening to join the two pieces of tempered glass together (which also added stability) and then we designed the wagon-wheel muntins on the top and bottom of the window. Fabricating the windows this way created a lot of little pieces of wood. Each of the approximately 12 windows required about 40 pieces per side, which created around 500 small pieces of wood – each one specific to particular place in a particular window.
The benches also presented some difficulty. Traditional railway benches are obviously not something a millwork shop fabricates frequently, but there were other difficulties as well. We had to come up with a way to prevent the back sides of the seat and the backs of the benches from moving around and we did by shiplapping the wide pieces of boards together. We also rabbited the ends of the wood pieces into the end-panels, requiring a radius router cut to accommodate that. Again, the goal here was to create a piece that would last for a hundred or more years through the use that a public transportation hub would generate.
The design and technical assistance we provided:
Most of the technical assistance we provided was compensations for wood movement, holding things together, and just generally making the adjustments and considerations needed to fabricate something that would withstand a lot of use and stand the test of time by contributing ideas that weren’t originally included or called for in the drawings. For example, for construction of the transoms we suggested taking into consideration that future problems with the glass might require replacement and/or repair and suggested a design alteration that would accommodate that eventuality more easily.
We also offered our suggestions and feedback on the design based on our specialized experience in working with historical architecture. The profile design for the coffered ceiling is a good example of how we worked with the architect on design features. We created several designed based on our interpretation of the architect’s drawings as well as our own knowledge of historically accurate cornice details for that time period and then made mock-ups to review with the architect.
How we helped BARTA meet scheduling and budget objectives:
Budget is always a concern on any project and we are well versed in being budget-conscious. I think the biggest way we kept costs under control for this project was probably in the amount of wood and materials we were able to salvage from the building. Many people would have looked at the condition of the building and considered it all scrap – it was so heavily damaged.
But thanks to our experience, the skilled craftsmen we employ, and our dedication to preservation of original features we were able to salvage about 40% of the original materials. We also employed an outside-the-box approach to installation of the coffered ceiling that saved time and money. By installing scaffolding that covered the entire inside of the building (essentially created a large work deck about 24’ high), we were able to install the entire coffered ceiling in just over a week. We also saved on prevailing wage costs by performing the majority of the work here in our millwork shop.
We meet scheduling objectives by maximizing efficiency. Our approach to the installation of the coffered ceiling that we just mentioned is one example. We also sped up the process of the cornice design approval by determining the structural members that are necessary to support a 4’ cornice, and we primered and finish-painted the pieces before they were installed (with minimal touch-up required after installation) to reduce the amount of time and disruption to other work that installation of the ceiling would impact. But perhaps the biggest way we maximized efficiency was by fabricating the woodwork here in our millwork shop using a production-line style that focused on each craftsman specializing in a certain aspect of the fabrication to speed up production.
For a great timeline of the station, along with pictures of it from the original 1930 dedication, over the decades, and the re-dedication ceremony in 2013 after the project was completed, head over to this page on the Reading Eagle’s website.
Click here to read one of the Reading Eagle’s many articles on the project.