Architecture Planning and Preservation Architecture of Train Stations
Preston Thayer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0077


Railroad station architecture reflects several disparate concerns. Born of the new technology of steam power, railroads (“railways” in British parlance) revolutionized travel and affected passengers’ sense of time and distance. Combined with the unfamiliar mechanical vibration of engine, wheels, and rails, the great speed of trains—up to 30 miles per hour in the early years—made train travel psychologically stressful. The passenger station needed to present a familiar and reassuring face, and architectural styles were chosen to suggest stability and safety, and perhaps adventure as well. At the same time, the large station acted as a crowd control device, guiding arriving and departing passengers past each other while providing for the efficient handling of luggage and freight. The most provocative literature on railroad architecture treats the station as the gateway to this new set of experiences—as symbol of modernity, as an influence on the form and development of cities, and as the birthplace of corporate identity programs. Railroad stations partook of the revivalist styles of their day while in active dialogue with the engineering structures to which stations were largely subordinate from the railroad companies’ perspective. In the twentieth century, railroad station design provided important lessons for the architects of bus depots and airports. As those transportation systems matured, passenger railroading declined, at least in the United States. Publications of the time reflect interest in historic preservation and the adaptive reuse of railroad stations in the 1970s and beyond.


Schivelbusch 2014 uses Sigmund Freud’s theory of the “stimulus shield” to describe the railroad station as a locus and symbol of unnerving modernity. The contributors to Dethier 1981 take a political/urbanistic approach. Meeks 1956 is the foundational work on American railroad architectural history, with a deep bibliography. Meeks suggests that postwar functionalism finally resolved the shed/headhouse conflict by melding engineering and architectural syntax. Purcar 2007 argues that railroad networks underpinned modern urban theory.

  • Dethier, Jean, ed. All Stations: A Journey through 150 Years of Railway History. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1981.

    The English-language version of the catalogue for the 1978 Centre Georges Pompidou exhibition Le Temps des Gares, curated by Jean Dethier, later exhibited at the Science Museum, London. Heavy on historical photographs and prints, the catalogue offers a political take on railroad history, with emphasis on northern European stations and their urbanistic influence.

  • Meeks, Carroll L. V. The Railroad Station: An Architectural History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1956.

    Structured by the concept of picturesque eclecticism, this extensive survey of American and European railroad stations recapitulates Western architectural history to tease out myriad sources of station design inspiration. Meeks suggests railroad station designers had enough on their plates addressing technical aspects of the new building type without attempting stylistic novelty. The Italianate thus became the “railroad style” in the early decades of railroading (1830s–1840s). Only twenty pages given to a swift overview of railroad architecture from 1914 to 1956, emphasizing the rise of the International Style. There is an extensive bibliography for works up to the date of publication.

  • Purcar, Cristina. “Designing the Space of Transportation: Railway Planning Theory in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Treatises.” Planning Perspectives 22 (2007): 325–352.

    DOI: 10.1080/02665430701379142

    Examines treatises from northern Europe and the United States to argue that specific architectural and engineering challenges set by the developing rail networks were the basis of urban planning theory. Extended attention is given to the writings of the French architect Albert Perdonnet (b. 1801–d. 1867), Ghent University professor Louis Cloquet (b. 1849–d. 1920), and American critic Charles Mulford Robinson, arguing that the novelty of the railway is visible in the architectural program of the railway station as well: the functional distribution, the architectural expression, the constructive techniques—everything required innovation, and, consequently, contemporary literature on railway station design was rich.

  • Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520957909

    Argues that the railroad station acted as both spatial gateway and (Freudian) “stimulus shield” to separate the traditional slow-paced city from the anxiety-inducing atmosphere of the new railway experience. Highly recommended.

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