Proposal calls for Ben Station Renaming the 30th St. depot to honor Franklin is on the table.

Posted: December 25, 2005

Next stop: Philadelphia's Ben Station?

Looking for a splashy kickoff for next year's celebration of Ben Franklin's 300th birthday, the Pew Charitable Trusts has asked Amtrak to rename Philadelphia's historic 30th Street Station permanently in his honor.

But don't expect Amtrak conductors to begin announcing Benjamin Franklin Station just yet. Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said in a statement that the beleaguered railroad company has not yet agreed to change the name, which dates to 30th Street's opening in the early 1930s. Amtrak is "continuing to consider the idea," the statement said.

The suggested change has already angered some Philadelphians and others who believe that the name "30th Street Station" is both a clear geographical marker and a meaningful connection to the city's railroad heyday, when Amtrak's predecessor, the Pennsylvania Railroad, was headquartered in Philadelphia.

"The whole idea is nuts," said David Gunn, who was fired as Amtrak's president and chief executive in November. " 'Ben Station' is too close in sound to 'Penn Station.' I've never been a fan of fooling around with the names of stations. It tends to be done by people who don't ride the system."

Amtrak and Pew began the negotiations in late summer, and managed to keep the talks out of Philadelphia's usual gossip channels. Pew is the lead sponsor of the congressionally chartered Tercentenary Commission, the group overseeing Franklin's birthday celebration. Pew, which has pushed the city to market itself more aggressively, was also instrumental in promoting the reconstruction of Independence Mall and the relocation of the Barnes Foundation from Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Initially, Pew wanted Amtrak to rename the station for the celebration's opening event on Jan. 17 - Franklin's birthday - when federal dignitaries are expected to be in Philadelphia. But it appears unlikely that the Amtrak board, which owns the station, will be able to decide the issue in time.

Pew's public-affairs director, Deborah L. Hayes, would not discuss whether the trust was seeking the name change. But in an Aug. 24 letter to Amtrak chairman David M. Laney, Pew president Rebecca W. Rimel sought Amtrak's support for Benjamin Franklin Station.

Jerome Cloud, a principal at the well-known Philadelphia design firm Cloud Gehshan Associates, said he was recently hired by Pew to create a new brand identity and logo for the station. His firm is waiting for a "green light" to proceed with designs for new signs, train schedules, Web sites and business cards, he said.

In the past, when facilities such as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport were renamed, the cost of new signage has run into the millions of dollars. Two Amtrak employees said the expense would be unseemly right now, when Amtrak is struggling to remain solvent. In its August letter, Pew said it would consider picking up the tab for the change.

Gunn, the former Amtrak president who also ran SEPTA, said the proposal was first presented at an Amtrak board meeting in the fall. Negotiations began informally. Jack Pew, a member of the Philadelphia family that created the Pew Charitable Trusts, a $4 billion charity, was asked to speak to Amtrak chairman Laney, who works for the same Dallas law firm, Jackson Walker L.L.P.

Laney did not return phone calls to his home and office on Friday.

According to Cloud, the proposed change received a big boost last week after Mayor Street endorsed the concept of Benjamin Franklin Station.

Joe Grace, a Street administration spokesman, said he knew nothing about the endorsement or the name change.

If Amtrak does agree to designate the station in Franklin's honor, it will be another in a series of disorienting changes for old Philadelphians, who rely on geographic names to find their way around. East River Drive was renamed Kelly Drive after Councilman Jack Kelly's death. Delaware Avenue became Christopher Columbus Boulevard during the quincentennial of his discovery of America.

It is hard to gauge how another name change would go over with the public. Amtrak employees and railroad buffs who were interviewed for this article said they thought the change would rob the city of a precious historical connection to the days when railroad companies were the biggest businesses in town. The station was originally designated 30th Street to distinguish it from the Pennsylvania Railroad's other Philadelphia stops, including Broad Street Station and North Philadelphia Station.

"At the very least, there should be some public discussion," said one of the Amtrak employees, who asked not to be identified because of the tense corporate climate since Gunn was fired.

A quick sampling of holiday travelers gathering at the station Friday evening found a spectrum of views. Mike Ruggieri, a 19-year-old Drexel University student who was working at Auntie Anne's, said he liked the idea. "It fits in with the city's identity and makes it more personal to Philadelphia," he said. "Ben Franklin did so much for the city. It's fitting."

But Tiffany Rose, 23, a teacher at Russell Byers Charter School, was shocked by the possibility. "I mean, it's 30th Street Station," Rose said. "There are so many other things in Philadelphia that bear the name of Benjamin Franklin. Why change the name?"

Although no one would dispute Franklin's contributions, which range from statecraft to science, John Gallery, head of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said there are enough tributes to him - from the Franklin Institute to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to Franklin Field.

"If we wanted another, why not one that has a direct association with Franklin, or institutions Franklin initiated?" Gallery asked. "Renaming 30th Street Station seems neither appropriate nor a fitting way to commemorate Franklin."

Like Amtrak and 30th Street Station, Pew Charitable Trusts is a vestige of a great Philadelphia company, Sun Oil, now Sunoco.

The Pennsylvania Railroad began building 30th Street Station during the late 1920s so that its belching coal-fired locomotives would no longer have to come into the Broad Street Station, across from City Hall. It hired the Chicago firm of Graham Anderson Probst & White to design the massive, limestone-clad station at 30th Street.

While other U.S. cities have demolished their main railroad stations, 30th Street remains a breathtaking gateway that gives people arriving in Philadelphia a brief encounter with the lost elegance of rail travel.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Stephanie Arnold contributed to this article.

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