CIHD: Terminal Commerce Building

The Callowhill Industrial Historic District (CIHD) is bounded by North Broad Street to the west, Hamilton Street to the north, Pearl Street to the south, and 12th Street and the curve of the Reading Railroad Viaduct to the east. It is a relatively small historic district of 66 resources – 39 contributing buildings, one contributing site, one contributing structure, 24 non-contributing sites and one non-contributing building. The early phases of our exploration of The Eraserhood focus on the dedicated buildings within this district.

Terminal Commerce Building (view 1)The former Terminal Commerce Building, the headquarters for the Reading Railroad, was “one of the premier buildings in the city,” according to Powers & Company, Inc. This building was recognized with listing on the National Register in 1996, well before the incorporation of CIHD. Built by William Steele & Sons, the building features polychrome Art Deco ornamentation on the upper levels of the Terminal Commerce Building.

Terminal Commerce Building (view 2)The railroad, of course, had a major role in the development of the district. In the 1830s, the Reading Railroad laid tracks along Noble Street that ran to the Delaware River. As part of their construction of the Reading Terminal Train Shed and Head House, the Wilson Brothers — whose 300 projects in the city included the “Chinese Wall” viaduct for the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Broad Street Station train shed — elevated a branch of the tracks to connect directly into the Reading Terminal. “The Reading Viaduct was important for bringing commerce into the Terminal and the associated development that took place because of its proximity to the Terminal,” Power said.

The construction of the Terminal Commerce Building at Broad and Callowhill firmly established the presence of the rail industry in the district.

Terminal Commerce Building (view 3)

Occupying an entire city block at Broad and Callowhill Streets, this structure was touted as being the largest commercial warehouse building in the nation when completed in 1930. The Terminal Commerce Building cost $4 million to construct and was built by William Steele & Sons, a longstanding Philadelphia construction firm. The building offered about 13 million square feet of floor space, including showrooms and offices for the numerous firms that made their headquarters there. The massive edifice even had a freight station beneath it, which replaced the Reading’s North Broad Street Freight Station and rail yard that had previously been on the site. Rail service was provided by the Reading’s now-abandoned “City Branch” right-of-way, which passed underneath. The Terminal Commerce Building was reputedly used to manufacture tanks during WWII. And from the 1940s to 1973, it was the main U.S. Army Induction Center in Philadelphia, striking fear in the young men who entered or even passed by it. The Reading Railroad sold the structure in 1955, whereupon it became known as the North American Building. By the 1980s, it had become a low-rent office and light-industrial center. It more recently has been repositioned as a “carrier hotel” housing telecommunications, computer and other high-tech equipment. There are dozens of fiber optic lines into the building, large Internet servers, huge back-up power generators, and a number of telecom tenants.