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.
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.
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!