When it opened for business in 1893, Reading Terminal was the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad’s response to the fortress-like Broad Street Station, its main competitor constructed on the west side of City Hall.
Jointly designed by Francis H. Kimball and Wilson Brothers & Co., it served as the point of embarkment for passengers on their way to places as far away as Chicago and Toronto. But in 1971, the railroad filed for its fourth and final bankruptcy, just five years before the complex would be named a National Historic Landmark. One final, commemorative train rumbled away from the terminal in 1984.
Driven by economic development and plans for the adjacent Pennsylvania Convention Center, the city purchased the terminal in the early 1990s and deployed a clever strategy to inject it with new life, says Caroline Boyce, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. The shed’s impressive roof was reinforced and restored, and the cavernous space beneath it became the center’s grand entrance and the spot for its ballroom.
“There was some creative entrepreneurial thinking about how to take a space that’s very difficult and connect it to the convention center and hotel,” Boyce says. “You have pieces of new use and old use fitting in with the larger development that is taking place all around it.”
Forget the Train, Grab a Sandwich
While the terminal itself is a study in thoughtful conservation and adaptive reuse, Reading Terminal Market has remained a stalwart culinary destination. Philadelphians are deeply passionate about their food, as anyone who has ordered a cheesesteak improperly can attest. But beyond the lines that burst from the city’s steak joints, nowhere is that spirit more evident than within the market.
With the help of two major renovations— the first in 1994 and another in 2012—and the growth of the local food movement, the market has weathered two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the proliferation of supermarkets. It remains a dynamic space where gourmands, the Center City lunch crowd, and everyday grocery shoppers pack it cheek by jowl daily.
Now overseen by a nonprofit corporation, market officials say its annual draw is about 6 million visitors. They shop among nearly 80 merchants for a variety of goods, from Amish whoopie pies to regional produce. The market also serves a vital function for those who need it most, says general manager Anuj Gupta, as it is regularly one of the city’s top venues for the redemption of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) vouchers.
“Food and the products our merchants sell cut across every kind of social barrier you can imagine, whether it’s geographic, economic, or racial,” Gupta says of the market’s success and longevity. “Whether you come here to shop or dine—and you can do both with equal culinary quality—you’re going to get really good value between the diversity and authenticity of what the merchants sell.”
A Link for the City
While the market celebrates its heritage, officials continue to explore ways in which they can further the enjoyment of one of the city’s most diverse public spaces. Last year the market received a $160,000 grant from ArtPlace America to improve the area along Filbert Street on its south side, currently an uninviting space where terminal shoppers exit into darkness amid idling taxis and choking fumes. Not exactly a good end to a great meal.
Gupta says the market has assembled its team—including design firm ex;it and landscape architects Ground Reconsidered— and expects an innovative solution in about a year. In the meantime, they’ve flirted with interventions in the form of outdoor seating and a monthly flower market.
“We’re excited about the design process,” Gupta says. “I hope, at the end of all of this, what we have is another great public space for the City of Philadelphia.”