Redeveloped Old Train Depots Nationwide Arrive at New Destinations

But it’s not your average commercial real estate conversion

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Bronx residents could be forgiven if they just walked on by it.    

The gated building hard by the Bruckner Expressway looks like dozens of other vacant retail spaces that dot New York. The only clue that it’s something more comes from the heavily ornamented dormers that look down upon Hunts Point Avenue, designed in 1906 by the architect Cass Gilbert — the same Cass Gilbert who designed the Woolworth Building, the New York Life Building, the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the U.S. Customs House in Downtown Manhattan, and many others.

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“These stations were once the very core of the transportation network,” said Bryan Clark Green of Richmond, Va., an architect and the preservation officer of the Society of Architectural Historians. “You start to see a lot of them getting dis-used in the ’60s and ’70s. Amtrak starts to bypass a lot of these stations. It kind of accompanies the general downfall of passenger rail traffic. But they were a vital part of many people’s lives.”

Across the nation, there are dozens of rail stations from the late 19th and the early 20th centuries that were once prized commissions for star architects, relics of the pre-car, pre-airline days when rail was king. These depots served as community centers and were designed aesthetically to lift the neighborhoods around them. 

Now some of them, like the former New York, Westchester & Boston Railway station now known as “Bronxlandia,” are being restored to something resembling their former glory. The restorations are for a variety of uses, including office space for creative companies driving so much of the commercial market’s leasing these days, and new residences for a nation chronically short of housing.

Among the projects is the still-in-use Hoboken Terminal in New Jersey, a $176 million project known as Hoboken Connect that would restore the first and second floors of the ferry terminal, build 389 residential units above, and include a 20-story, 704,000-square-foot office building (the building is the project’s first phase). LCOR, the development firm highly active in the Northeast corridor, is doing the project. It and Cushman & Wakefield, the brokerage repping the office space, did not return requests for comment, and it’s unclear if there are any tenants lined up yet for the site.

The entire New York, Westchester & Boston Railway shut down in 1937.

“Gilbert was fairly active in railroad designs early in his career,” said Marjorie Pearson, president of the St. Paul, Minn.-based Cass Gilbert Society. “A number of those early stations still survive, but they’re not railroad stations anymore. They have been converted to other uses.”

Another is the Michigan Central Station in Detroit, where a train last stopped in 1988, an imposing structure of columns and vaulted arches that haunted that struggling city as scrappers and vandals stripped it for parts while it sat abandoned. The Ford Motor Company bought it five years ago and has started rolling out its conversion into an innovation hub.

Saving these buildings “is a tricky thing,” said Green. “It’s difficult taking a building that was conceived of as a civic building, and moving it into a private function. One of the real challenges of train stations is that the circulation is basically set up to move people very efficiently through the front of the building, through the station and out onto the tracks to get on the train, and then reverse the process. It’s a real challenge to reimagine them and reuse them.”New Yorkers know all too well about how grand transit hubs can tear at a city’s sense of itself. Many still mourn the 1963 demolition of the palatial Pennsylvania Station, designed by the firm McKim Mead & White. And it took a stubborn campaign by preservationists, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to save Grand Central Terminal from a similar fate.

Such a preservation campaign is not easy. Majora Carter, a Bronx-based urban revitalization strategist and Hunts Point native who oversees the Bronxlandia project, said it would take some $3.5 million to bring the stations up to snuff 100 percent, including fixing the roof, the HVAC system, the windows, and doing a water and electrical upgrades, among other things.  

The roughly 4,500-square-foot building has already hosted concerts, pro wrestling matches, professional development meetings, TED talks, a flea market, weddings and parties. It will host an event in November to mark the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, with performers including Fab 5 Freddy, Grand Wizzard Theodore and others.

Carter, who owns the building, acquiring it from Amtrak in 2013 along with her husband James Chase for a single dollar. The couple and their allies want to bring the structure into the 21st century following a restoration design by architect Jay Valgora of Studio V, who also did Brooklyn’s Empire Stores and the redesigned Yonkers Raceway. Plans for the depot call for a pair of new towers at either end of the building declaring it “Bronxlandia.”

“This is the beta version of it,” Carter said.

Before they owned it, the depot was subdivided into storefronts, one containing a beauty salon, a lawyer’s office and a pizzeria, she said. Part was also a topless bar. 

The timing on completing the job depends on getting tenants, putting all the financing in place, working with Amtrak to restore the track, and obtaining permits, Carter said. “We’re going to do as much restoration as we need to do, as we’d like to do, restore some of the features that we love about the old part,” including the tiles. 

Gilbert, a champion of Beaux Arts and neoclassical architecture, was a big fan of using terracotta, a form of fire-hardened clay that was popular in those times. “The whole thing was under layers of really crappy construction,” Carter said.

There is at least one other Gilbert-designed station in the Bronx at Westchester and Whitlock avenues, an ivy-covered building that was vulnerable to the elements for eight-plus decades,  she said.

In Winston-Salem, N.C., the former Union Station was restored in 2018 and 2019 and now serves as the city’s transportation traffic signal control operation. Its Beaux Arts/Neoclassical design was by a prominent New York architectural firm Fellheimer & Wagner. In its pre-1930s heyday, it was used daily by 20 passenger trains, according to the city’s website.

Another example is the Art Deco Union Station in Omaha, Neb., which has been converted into a museum. Designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, it was closed in 1971 and donated to the city by the Union Pacific Railroad. Kansas City’s Union Station closed in 1985, but reopened in late 2002 and serves Amtrak. But it also houses an interactive science exhibit, a planetarium and other museums, plus restaurants and retail shops.

Cincinatti’s Union Terminal was abandoned in 1972 and restored in 1991.

The rewards can go beyond simply revitalizing old architecture. Far from not recognizing the importance of the Gilbert station that is now Bronxlandia, Carter said Hunts Point residents are recognizing the venue it has in its midst, in the here and now. Still, it takes more than just a neighborhood’s fondest desires.             

“They love the idea of a little community doing cute stuff,” she said. “But real economic development that really benefits our community, they’re not all that focused on it.”