Railroads, Research and Rust at Philadelphia’s Rail Park

Read Time: 8 minutes

When an elevated rail park was proposed in their town, Cloud Gehshan (Philadelphia) volunteered their talents to help bring the area’s unique history to light using over 700 square feet of weathering steel.

They were given a clear directive: This was not to become “an overly assertive interpretive experience.” Members of the community were merely interested in having a greenspace to walk their dogs and a place to chat with neighbors. Lucky for Philadelphians, the Cloud Gehshan design team was not deterred by the challenge; they found a clever way to use materiality to create a rich, yet recessed field that announces its presence and purpose quietly—a 80-foot-long, nine-foot-tall laser-cut wall of corten steel.

The Reading Viaduct Rail Park site stands on two former railroad lines of note, which converge at Reading Terminal downtown. The lines, part of the Reading and Pennsylvania Railroads, once transported coal, commodities and passengers, fueling America’s industrial revolution and westward expansion. Built in the 1890s of steel and stone, the elevated Reading Viaduct was part of a civic safety plan to separate trains from equine and pedestrian (and later, automobile) traffic in the streets.

Abandoned to weeds and disrepair since the last train traveled its rails in 1984, the Viaduct is now being transformed into a linear ribbon of greenspace with extraordinary views of the Philadelphia skyline and surrounding neighborhoods. However, unlike many other industrial districts in Philadelphia, the surrounding neighborhood of Callowhill has never been razed. Because it was largely spared from gentrification, many buildings and murals from the industrial era still remain today and can be observed from the park.

“The Rail Park provides a unique opportunity for visitors to connect the industrial history they’ve read about to the physical reminders they can see,” says Kate Otte, senior designer at Cloud Gehshan. “This neighborhood was once home to many innovative and transformative businesses in the country, in addition to being the birthplace of two major railroad companies, both of which at one time were the largest corporations in the world.”

Today, people gather in the space to eat, let their children play and talk with their neighbors. As the late afternoon sun sweeps across the Cloud Gehshan-designed wall, edges of its imagery shimmer with a gold, metallic hue.

The laser-cut wall serves as a quiet backdrop for the park and the stage that sits in front of it as well as providing an iconic “meeting point” for families, groups and tours. The primary users of the park are expected to visit frequently, so the wall was designed with intentionally complex elements that can be explored and discovered over time.

It presents an extraordinary map of the turn-of-the-century city featuring company logos, buildings, product advertisements from the period and the rail lines that once serviced those manufacturers. Dimensional letters mounted to the wall provide a narrative context and honor donors to the Rail Park project as an interpretive panel further outlines the significance of this location in America's Industrial Revolution, and the importance of the two mighty railroads that were headquartered there.

Running across the wall, a bright embedded stainless-steel band shows the original path of the train tracks. Etched in the rail are explanations of which trains once traveled on the rails and where they went, and why the line East of Broad street is elevated while the line on the West side of Broad Street is depressed below grade.

A visitor can understand the overarching theme without spending a lot of time reading or standing in front of the wall, explains Otte. The many layers and details in the wall reward multiple viewings. Parents and children can play games—how many horses can you find? Seniors may recognize brands, passenger lines and businesses that have since shuttered or packed up and left.

“There are a lot of fun and unexpected details, for example from the Caledonia Carpet Mill, which was information we found on a fire insurance map,” Otte says. “Eight whizzers, one burr picker, 132 spindles, four yarn scour boxes, 16 dye tubs—these details spark conversation and delight.”

The project, which took about 18 months, actually began in the early 2000s when a couple of artists came up with a plan to turn the abandoned Reading Viaduct into a park. The Center City District was drawn to the project in part because of the success of the High Line in New York and because it could create an opportunity to add residential and commercial development in the expanding communities of Center City and Chinatown.

Cloud Gehshan founder, Jerome Cloud had attended a presentation by the Center City District and Paul Levy, who was trying to raise awareness and support for the project. “They weren’t sure they would be able to renovate it and bring it to life at the level of quality that New York’s High Line,” remembers Cloud. “I heard this and thought, ‘why should that be?’” Together with his business partner, Virginia Gehshan, a decision was made by Cloud to approach the district, Levy and Nancy Goldenberg about designing the wall, signage and interpretive elements for the future park—almost completely pro bono.

The 80-foot-long wall started out as a sound barrier and scrim to hide an unattractive building adjacent to the railbed, but the design team thought they could turn it into an interpretive feature that might capture some of the history of the site. “Levy was excited about it, and that’s how it got started,” says Cloud.

Extensive research by the team lead by Otte uncovered a civil engineering atlas of the city dated 1895 that formed the basis of the concept for the wall. Conversations with historians like Robert Goldstein and Harry Kyriakodis, as well as writers and archivists specializing in local railroad and industrial history helped the team clarify Philadelphia’s role as the “workshop to the world.”

Digging through old books, newspapers, photographs, industrial directories, advertising banners, signs and other archival materials, Otte’s team uncovered a tremendous wealth of logotypes, icons, symbols, slogans, monograms and illustrations of products. She describes the city archives as an incredible resource. “Many photographs are geo-tagged to the location from which they were taken, and we could narrow the search results to show only the years we were interested in,” says Otte. “We could type in an address, pull up photos from the time period, and find a photo with the façade of the building or the business’ sign that could be graphically translated and placed on the map.”

Cloud describes the visual map of the area that emerged as “like a giant palimpsest.” Conceptually the visible traces of the old manufacturing neighborhoods were being recalled by typographic means. Visualizing the industrial and railroad history in a way that was expressive, understandable and compelling was the crux of the interpretive concept.

The idea to use a weathering steel grew from the use of corten material in other areas throughout the park, including planter bases, giant swing supports and gates—a perfect visual complement to the remaining skeleton of the old railroad. The material, while being the right choice, was not the easy choice: The color and texture of corten steel changes and may weather unevenly and deepen over time, ultimately forming a stable rust-like appearance.

Many samples and prototypes were created to check scale, readability and the structural integrity of the material as well as how it would weather outdoors versus in the shop. The design team had to break the artwork down into smaller sections for the laser cutter’s computer to process it correctly, as well as modify the artwork several times to reduce sharp corners and enhance legibility without distorting the original expressive intent. All of the laser-cutter’s processes had to be closely monitored by the Urban Sign team, led by President, Seth Davis.

“Any time you cut a letter or form that is smaller than the thickness of the material, you run the risk for problems,” informs Davis. “That was a challenge for us, where we needed to start on a bigger cut and work toward the smaller cuts—if we didn’t execute this way the machine wouldn’t cut it properly.” The design lent itself to thicker panels as a result, which were weathered in the shop initially to ensure a more consistent look from panel to panel.

The other fabrication challenge was that the design team had concerns about seeing the supports through the artwork. Urban Sign created a full-scale mockup that allowed the team to see that the structure could be more substantial without sacrificing the look. “It’s nice when a project so substantial works out as planned,” remarks Davis. “And, the mockup was crucial to our success.”

This segment of the park is Phase One of a three-part project that, when complete, will stretch three miles across Center City Philadelphia, connecting 10 diverse neighborhoods—making it twice the width and length of New York’s High Line. The reclaimed space will also bring diverse communities together, contribute to surrounding neighborhood recreation and preserve the Callowhill Industrial District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Cloud Gehshan team has developed a sign system in addition to the wall, that identifies pedestrian entry points and street names in addition to a whole series of interpretive elements that will carry the historical narrative throughout—to be placed in future phases. Already, with its plentiful shade trees and landscaped walking paths, the Rail Park provides a much-needed green space for the surrounding neighborhoods and a destination to attract visitors and residents from other parts of the city and beyond.

“Working in the public arena is of great interest to us,” says Cloud. “Connecting people to urban spaces and greenscapes is important to the human spirit, and our need for connection, meaning and wellness.”

 

Project name: The Rail Park: Transforming the Reading Viaduct
Client: Center City District, Paul Levy, Nancy Goldenberg and Friends of the Rail Park
Location: Philadelphia
Open date: June 2018
Project Area: 720 sq ft
Experiential Graphic Design: Cloud Gehshan
Design Team: Jerome Cloud (principal in charge, design director), Virginia Gehshan (managing principal), Stephen Bashore (project manager), Kate Otte (senior designer), Joe Thoma (designer), Jay Hyun (documentation)
Fabrication: Urban Sign, Inc.—Seth Davis (president)
Landscape Architecture: Studio Bryan Hanes
Engineering: Urban Engineers
Collaborators: Robert Goldstein, Harry Kyriakodis (historians); AP Construction (general contractor/construction management)
Photography: Tom Crane (photography), Imagic Digital/Mark and Danya Henninger (videography)

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