[10 on Tuesday] How to Preserve Historic Train Stations

Posted on: August 13th, 2013 by Julia Rocchi 5 Comments

Trains -- and the railroads that carried them -- encouraged westward expansion, stimulated industrial and commercial growth, and spurred technological innovation for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. And often, stations were the most important and prominent buildings in town -- the gateways to their communities.

At the height of railroad building during the late 19th century, more than 40,000 depots dotted the country. Now, less than half remain. But with these losses come an opportunity to preserve historically and architecturally significant railroad buildings in creative ways.

Coming up with a viable, in-depth plan for reuse can go a long way in keeping the depot around for the community to enjoy for another century. This toolkit outlines 10 steps your community can take to evaluate and preserve its historic train station:

1. Research your depot’s history. There’s a variety of specialized resources out there for railroad (particularly station) research, though much of it is informal. On the local level, check out county and state historical societies, libraries, private collections, and oral histories. On a national level, investigate the Interstate Commerce Commission’s General Records or the Society of Industrial Archaeology’s consultants and services.

Tip: Most large or historic railroads have site-specific historical societies associated with them. These volunteer groups usually have substantial archives and might be able to help you with research, documentation, and advocacy.

2. Develop a good relationship with the railroad company. Railroad companies can enhance their public image and secure local goodwill by working with agencies or organizations willing to redevelop the property for public benefits. Together, all partners can address safety issues, maximize corporate benefit, and strike the right balance between public use and commerce.

This restored train depot in Dalton, Ga., is now a visitors center. Credit: Brent Moore, Flickr
This restored train depot in Dalton, Ga., is now a visitors center.

3. Evaluate the building and the project. Hire an architect, engineer, and/or contractor to determine the building's structural integrity, state of mechanical systems, and general renovation requirements. Review the zoning for types of uses and occupancies allowed. Survey the surrounding area for transportation routes, neighborhood amenities, and market opportunities.

4. Decide on the best use for the depot. Options include commercial (restaurant, shops, offices), public (government office, visitor center, community center), nonprofit (museum, charitable organization), or mixed use. Figure out how long the project will take and how much time is available.

Tip: Train stations’ proximity to central business districts make them great locations for commercial businesses, while their interior spaces work well for multi-modal transportation centers. If the depot’s location isn’t conducive to commercial development, consider inviting in a “destination tenant” whose viability doesn’t depend on outside activity.

5. Identify a developer. The project’s developer can be an existing organization or one formed for the sole purpose of redeveloping the depot. It can be a nonprofit organization, a for-profit business, a public agency, or a combination of entities. If it’s a combo, determine what role each entity will play. For example, a city could buy the building and transfer ownership or lease it to a nonprofit organization, or sell it to a for-profit developer.

6. Determine if the project is feasible. An accurate and complete feasibility study helps all those involved assess the risks and rewards of the project and make informed decisions. A project feasibility study should include, broadly: the building’s historical and architectural significance; market evaluation; site description; physical analysis of the building and site; and professional real estate appraisal.

The Chatham Railroad Museum in Massachusetts was built in 1887 in the Railroad Gothic style. Credit: Thomas Kelley, Flickr
The Chatham Railroad Museum in Massachusetts was built in 1887 in the Railroad Gothic style.

7. Build public support. Whether or not the local government takes a leadership role, its support is crucial to acquisition negotiations with the railroad company. Sell the project to influential government officials and to the public through a strong public relations effort. A groundswell of public opinion may influence not only local officials, but also the railroad company.

8. Compile plans and costs. Present your preliminary plans to your local landmark review board and/or your state historic preservation office (SHPO) for review and feedback. Prepare detailed cost estimates for acquisition, rehabilitation, and operation. Lastly, put together a funding plan that includes all potential sources of funding such as grants, loans, private donations, public funding, equity financing, and donated services and materials.

9. Finalize the redevelopment plan. Write an organized, complete description of the project based on your research that details possible uses, the developer’s qualifications, project costs, funding status, timetables, plans for future operation, and ways to mitigate railroad company concerns for any public safety issues and company liability.

10. Submit the plan to the railroad company. Though you’ll likely be talking with the railroad company throughout the planning process, the redevelopment plan plays an important part in the company's decision to relinquish ownership or control of the property. The plan should accurately describe a feasible project with individuals or organizations capable of successfully completing the project. As in any real estate transaction, there should be room for negotiation on both sides.

Has your community successfully reused a historic railroad depot? Share your story in the comments!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

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5 Responses

  1. Philip Buchanan

    August 13, 2013

    In 1996, the Plainfield, Illinois Historical Society began efforts to preserve the depot, culminating in its removal to this site in 1999. The depot was relocated and restored through the generous donations of time, talent, energy and financial resources of many individuals, businesses, and organizations. Installed in 2009, the 1956 caboose, 1978 freight car (boxer), which was built especially for carrying large rolls of newsprint, and the 1952 Fairmont Motor Car, which was originally sold in June 1952 to the New York Central Railroad for $513, were all added to the historic setting for the last, wood-framed E J & E depot remaining along an active rail line.

  2. Sean

    August 14, 2013

    The Lansing Board of Water & Light (BWL) just finished a $2.8 million restoration of the 110 year old Grand Trunk Western Railroad depot in Lansing, Michigan. The project was taken on in conjunction with the building of BWL’s new REO Town Headquarters & Cogeneration Plant project. The depot is on both the U.S. and Michigan Register of Historic Sites. Amazingly, the company that furnished the original roof tiles is still in business and supplied new tiles. The restoration was extensive and surely saved the structure from complete decay. The restored depot will be a meeting place for BWL’s governing board and the local neighborhood.

  3. carol

    August 14, 2013

    Kirkwood Mo purchased the historic train station and it is staffed by volunteers who meet the trains, serve passengers, and keep the station spotless.

  4. Arthur Ellis

    August 15, 2013

    Bedford Mass. When the RR stopped service. We formed a friends organization. Convinced the Town to purchase the property. Restored the Freight house as a museum, shop, and info center at the end of the bike trail Thew depot is being restored and is now rented to shops.

  5. Pamela Attardo

    August 19, 2013

    The Lewis & Clark Co., MT Heritage Tourism Council (county entity) was offered a small railroad depot (it is actually a ca. 1910 telegraph office that the Northern Pacific Railway used to locate every 10 miles or so to transmit train orders; see the Northern Pacific Railway Historical Society’s website for a 1970s-era photo, an HO model of the telegraph office, as well as a PDF of standardized plans for these little strucutres) by MT Rail Link (MRL) over a year ago if we could move it. We had a couple volunteers come forward to help us move it, but the limitations of the volunteers’ equipment did not make that possible. MRL eventually offered to donate the move, contracting with a local house mover. We are now waiting for approval of the donation of the depot to the City of East Helena. The depot is slated to be permanently located on lands formerly owned by the ASARCO smelter (now overseen by the MT Envt’l Custodial Trust) and operated as a telegraph office museum by volunteers. Work on the museum so far has been donated (electrician, demo of “remodeling” sheetrock covering original beadboard by local YouthBuild students), and we are hoping to obtain a grant for further restoration.