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Last updated: Tue. Sep. 02, 2014 - 10:38 am EDT

Take a step into history and dream about the future as the Baker Street Station celebrates 100 years

VIDEO: Downtown Fort Wayne landmark was nearly demolished

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Inside the decaying Baker Street station during the summer of 1996, the station was like the film set for a post-apocalyptic movie. In darkness, plaster fell from the ceiling and walls. Shattered lead glass was scattered about the floor. Benches remained empty, and turnstiles no longer welcomed travelers. What was once a bustling center of commerce and travel was neglected, tattered and left for dead.

Recalling the history of the Baker Street station is painful in many ways because the railroad hub once made Fort Wayne the city it is today, and yet, the restored structure at the corner of Baker and Harrison Streets has withstood the test of time and is celebrating 100 years this year, thanks to a local businessman and a slew of unwavering volunteers and support.

The good ol' days

To remember the station's past we have to understand how it came to be.

The year was 1909, and the United States was a railroad country. Steam engines carried not only people, but also, more important, food and goods. Fort Wayne was a major stop along the rails in the region.

With the railways growing and the Fort Wayne economy booming, local officials made plans to elevate the railroads in 1911 to improve safety and ease surface traffic at the street grade crossing. The plan called for the demolition of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and the building of a grand station to show off what Fort Wayne was capable of and to highlight the importance of the prosperous regional hub.

One railroad, the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago, which later leased to the Pennsylvania Railroad, became the city's busiest railroad, with a heavy traffic main line, large switch yards, car shops, locomotive shops, a roundhouse, a large freight house and a depot that included a 21-room hotel and restaurant.

Construction quickly began on the Baker Street Station. Built by renowned architect William L. Price, of Price and McLanahan in Philadelphia, the building stayed true to his American Craftsman style, but, it also featured some classical traditions. The cruciform structure blends a mixture of classical and medieval elements including large arched windows, a barrel-vaulted concourse, elaborately buttressed corners, parapeted gables, terrazzo and green-veined marble flooring, oak woodwork and bronze electrolier lamps.

The Pennsylvania Station, as it was called properly – it has come to be called the Baker Street Station over the years – was visited by 10,000 people on opening day, March 23, 1914. Costing $550,000, or about $12.6 million today, the station was built on two levels (street and elevated platforms), the station at 221 W. Baker St. had a series of tunnels and steps to get travelers to the train tracks.

The city was also served by three other rail lines, each of which had its own station. But no other railroad had the Pennsylvania Railroad's impact on local development. In addition to the station, the Pennsylvania Car Shops, open since 1837, employed more than 1,000 men at one time, making it one of the city's major employers.

In the subsequent years of serving residents, it boasted a slew of notable and famous riders. It once welcomed everyone from Hollywood stars such as Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard and her husband, Clark Gable, to presidents including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

On May 27, 1929, the King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman, and his band held a concert in the concourse as the band traveled by special train to Hollywood to make a movie. Besides Whiteman, the musicians and singers included Bing Crosby, who was featured singing “Mean to Me” during the station performance.

Even Albert Einstein caught a glimpse of the Summit City while traveling through on a quick stop on his way to New York City in 1931.

In addition, on Sept. 29, 1936, “The Longest Streamlined Train in the World!” (1,088 feet) arrived in Fort Wayne. The “Rexall Train” combined a convention center, meeting hall and commercial displays, all in a blue-and-white train. It was reported 19,181 people from Fort Wayne toured the free displays on the train.

The glitz and glamour were subdued during World War II, and the Baker Street Station was about to see its busiest and most useful years as the station welcomed 3,000 visitors daily. It also played a large social role for the community.

The station hosted everything from major political candidate speeches to the annual arrival of Santa Claus at the depot on the day after Thanksgiving, courtesy of Wolf & Dessauer, Community events were celebrated with anticipation and pride by residents throughout the mid-20th century.

However, the arrival of the second half of the century and the rise of car transportation did not bode well for the passenger rail station.

In its most recent rail history, the station was a stop on Amtrak's Broadway Limited Line from Chicago to Pittsburgh to New York until November 1990 when Amtrak rerouted about 25 miles north of Fort Wayne.

When the station was closed in 1990, windows were boarded up and the historic building was abandoned. The building began to rot.

Still today, the abandonment of the Baker Street Station by Amtrak is still a sore subject because it was ultimately closed due to lack of funding to maintain the building, not because a lack of riders.

And just like that, Fort Wayne was, and is still today, without a passenger rail service.

A bright future

The '90s brought an extremely close call as the station nearly became a pile of rubble.

The city of Fort Wayne took ownership after Amtrak left, and in 1996, the city had two permits to demolish the decrepit structure.

Vic Martin, of Martin Riley, an architecture and engineering firm, felt compelled to step in.

Martin had previously walked the halls as a young boy, holding on his to mothers hand with a firm grip, terrified of getting lost in the big building packed with people. He had met Santa Claus on a railroad car outside the station during a Wolf & Dessauer event.

“I was always concerned with saving the building because this building meant a lot to me as a boy, and our family has been here for years. I love the steam engines and traveling by train. The building holds a lot of memories of my family. It was always an excitement to come down here. This place has been such a joy to me. To save this building along with the group that helped save it, it's just a privilege, and I still come in here every Christmas looking for Santa Claus,” he said.

As he sat watching the building in its desolate state, he knew he had to do his best to preserve it. He had to stall the demolition. He had to buy time.

He found help from a few influential and passionate friends who felt the same way about the station.

Then he secured a loan to buy the property and came up with a plan of action to restore the building.

On May 9, 1996, Martin became the new, proud owner of the Baker Street Station.

That same day, he held a luncheon at the station with his friends and colleagues to celebrate. Without electricity, without heat and without sewer, the party went on. The building even added a little touch to the meal as plaster, and later rain, fell from the cracks in the roof.

“The place was scary. The whole place was a mess,” Martin said.

Of course there was that moment he thought, “What the heck did I do,” but with the help of his dedicated team of weekly volunteers - compensated in pizza, pop and beer - he moved his firm into the station just six months after he purchased the building.

“Our goal was to be in there by Christmas of 1996, and we realized pretty quickly that we were going to have a problem staying within the budget in the time frame so we had volunteer nights on Wednesday. We had a list of important things and if you didn't want to do the items at the top of the list you could go on to another task,” Martin said.

Talk about an effective plan of action.

Once the offices were secure and renovated, the team began working on the concourse restoration, returning it to it's former glory.

The group primed and painted 110 light fixtures, replaced and encased stained glass windows, molded and recast plaster, tornout piping and much more laborious work. It took a little more than year, thanks to additional federal grant money and the volunteers of the Baker Street Community Association, a not-for-profit created by the group, to get the station completed.

There's no doubt Martin is a man of his word, and since his purchase of the building almost 20 years ago, the building has come back to life.

Walking into the Baker Street Station today is like walking into the historic building 100 years ago. The wet, falling plaster has been restored. The Craftsman-style details are vibrant and all broken windows have been replaced.

Lost items - such as large, wooden wall clocks, or the brass plating on the walls - have been reproduced exactly as it was a century ago. Today, the area has been designated a Fort Wayne Local Historic District by ARCH, Inc. in 1990, and the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

While the building has been saved from neglect and possible demolition, there's no hustle and bustle anymore. There are no carry-on bags being dragged through the concourse. There are no tickets to far away cities being purchased.

Instead, it serves as home for Martin's business, and a temporary home for weddings, banquets and other gatherings. Yet it still carries on a life of its own, but serving a much different purpose than 100 years ago.

jgoldsborough@news-sentinel.com


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