All Aboard!

George and Lee White have made their home at the former Pennington Railroad Station for 13 years, becoming train buffs along the way.

Area Train Stations Reimagined

by Anne Levin | Photography by Charles R. Plohn

Thirteen years ago, Lee White and her 13-year-old daughter were taking a stroll near their house in Pennington when they noticed that the town’s former train station, a three-story, 1882 building with a curvy, mansard roof, was for sale. The sign on Railroad Place beckoned, and they peeked in. It was love at first sight.

“We both just adored it,” says White, a fourth-grade teacher at Toll Gate Grammar School. “I didn’t think my husband would agree. But when we brought him over, a train happened to go by while he was looking. Since the walls are 18 inches thick, we didn’t hear it. That impressed him.”

So did the former depot’s textbook-Victorian architecture and compelling history. The couple bought the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and moved in with their two children. They were the second private owners to occupy the old station, which had been purchased by another person a few years after service was discontinued in the late 1960s. Now nearing retirement age and ready for a home with less upkeep, the Whites recently put the building on the market.

According to The National Railway Historical Society, there are thousands of former train depots located in cities, towns, and villages across the globe. They are relics of rail travel’s heyday; the lucky ones rescued from deterioration and repurposed into other uses. Some are residential dwellings. But businesses, community centers, restaurants, and offices are more commonly housed within their walls.

The Whites’ home is among local examples of old stations saved from the wrecking ball. The former Hopewell depot, designed by Daniel A. Clarkson, the same architect who did the Pennington station, is now used for public events, weddings, exhibits, and other community gatherings. The popular Lambertville Station restaurant, opened in 1983 in the abandoned depot that had served the town for nearly a century, is still going strong. The Georgian Revival-style West Trenton station, also on the National Register, now serves as offices.

Princeton’s prominent example of train station rehabilitation is The Dinky Bar & Kitchen and its adjacent restaurant Roots Ocean Prime, which until recently was known as Cargot Brasserie. The buildings on University Place, across from McCarter Theatre Center, served as the Princeton train station, and luggage facility, which connected to Princeton Junction, less than three miles away.

The station buildings, which date from 1918, were the subject of much controversy when Princeton University opted to build a new, contemporary-style terminal some 460 feet further away from town as part of the $330 million Arts and Transit project. A group called Save the Dinky rallied to keep the station where it was, but the University and NJTransit won out. The station is on New Jersey’s Register of Historic Places.

At the former Pennington Railroad Station, exterior features have been preserved and the interior has been turned into a comfortable home with many historical references.

When the Pennington Railroad Station building was nominated for National Historic status in 1974, the application described it as being made of sandstone with a mansard roof and center pavilion. “Its height and width cause the building to loom out of the background, making it a prominent landmark,” the application reads. “This forcefulness is tempered by the smooth, curved lines of the roof.”

Until World War I, the station was surrounded by landscaped grounds and ornamental flower beds. “The grounds were maintained by a crew of gardeners who arrived each spring with fresh plants,” it continues. “During the summer, the lawns were cut every week, and the hedges and shrubs were trimmed. In the fall, the old plants were removed and the beds were prepared for winter. Up to 1925, there was a large fountain in the center of the lawn and it was turned on every summer afternoon.”

At its peak in the first decade of the 1900s, the station was busy with the arrival and departure of over 50 daily trains. “An early evening walk down to the station to sit on the benches beside the fountain and catch a glimpse of the luxurious dining cars on the 5:09 p.m. from St. Louis via Washington was considered one of the biggest events in the town,” the application says. “Theodore Roosevelt stopped here during his Bull Moose Campaign of 1922. According to reports of the time, almost the whole town came out to see him.”

But the station began to decline after World War I, as the automobile increased in popularity. By 1967, passenger service to and from Pennington was discontinued.

White enjoys showing visitors around the old Pennington station. There are visible vestiges of the old waiting room and ticket office. The rear of the building, which faces the tracks, is especially evocative of the past. White is a Harry Potter fan, and the tracks conjure up the famous King’s Cross Station Platform 9 and 3/4.

“I wasn’t a train freak when I moved here, but I kind of am now,” she says. “Freight trains still go by. When it’s snowing, and you’re inside, and a train just appears out of the darkness and the snow, there is nothing like it. It’s just magical. We’ll miss that.”

Lambertville Station was transformed into a restaurant that has attracted locals and tourists for more than three decades.

The Lambertville building dates from the 1870s, when the town was a bustling industrial center in which the railroad played a key role. Documented as 19th century eclectic in style, the station was designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter, whose impressive credits include the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. The station served originally as headquarters for the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad, or the Bel-Del.

“In the late 19th century, there were 10 trains a day in each direction,” says Fred Eisinger, a trustee with the Lambertville Historical Society. “By the time service ended in 1960, a one-car train ran between Philipsburg and Trenton. Service to Flemington had ended in 1931. A freight service continued until 1975.”

The station had been abandoned for two decades when Dan Whitaker and Skip, Tony, and Rose DiMarco bought it in 1980. Their restaurant, Lambertville Station, opened in 1983.

“When we brought in a structural engineer, he said the roof was in such poor condition that the building would have imploded in another year,” says Whitaker, who continues to run Lambertville Station today. “The whole thing would have come down. So we got in there just in time.” Had it been checked timely and maintained by professionals from Christian Brothers Roofing or similar firms, this certainly wouldn’t have been the case.

Over the 20 years that the building was empty, “people had gotten in and had parties, that kind of thing,” Whitaker says. “It was in really bad shape. Everything that had any value had been taken out. But there is always a silver lining. The fact that it was empty allowed us the availability to do whatever we wanted.”

The weathervane that had been stolen was recreated by a coppersmith. The building was broken into different levels to house a wine cellar, bar, Victorian lounge, dining room, and offices. “We had to gut the inside, but we saved as much of the wainscoting as we could,” says Whitaker. “A restoration company came in from Harrisburg and did the woodwork. We hired an antique dealer to furnish the whole place with antiques.”

The restoration has worked. “We’ve been successful from the beginning,” says Whitaker. “Our goal is that everybody who comes here wants to come back, and they do. I have people from all over say they know about us.”

Hopewell Station has become a popular community center.

A few miles away in Hopewell Borough, the former railroad station near the center of town is almost always busy. The Borough opened the three-story, 1876 building in 1996, following a three-year renovation done in partnership with the New Jersey Historic Trust. Designed in Second Empire style and once part of the Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad, the old station, which has offices on its upper levels, hosts meetings, birthday parties, weddings, and community gatherings on its first floor. “It really is limitless,” says Michele Hovan, Hopewell’s Borough administrator. “It is very heavily used; open 365 days a year – even on Christmas.”

The station’s elegant mansard roof and decorative gingerbread woodwork are part of its appeal. “It’s the history, and the architecture, and the fact that it’s set on a little park-like complex,” says Hovan. “It is very much the crown jewel of the Borough. It’s replicated in our logo. It is certainly a community identifier – a valued, prized asset.”

When passenger service ended in the late 1970s, the building was offered to the Borough “at a nominal cost,” Hovan explains. “But at the time, there were concerns about the maintenance. So it was sold to a private developer, who proposed tearing it down and building condos and other uses on the lot. The community rallied around and made sure that was not approved, and the Borough ended up buying it back from the developer.”

The town has applied to the New Jersey Historic Trust for further restoration of the building. “It’s very important to the town,” says Hovan. “We want to keep it at its best.”