Pennsylvania Station: Its Glory and Death

February 18th, 2014 · 2 Comments · Explore New York

If ever a hallowed place existed for the travel of the common man and woman, it was New York’s original Pennsylvania Station. Yet a magnificent, soaring station that Alexander Cassatt and the Pennsylvania Railroad built for the ages and opened in 1910 lasted barely over a half-century. Two days after workers started tearing down the station on Oct. 28, 1963, a New York Times editorial called the demolition “a monumental act of vandalism” and observed “…we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” Still, the Times’ Oct. 29 news report of the demolition’s start termed Pennsylvania Station “a grimy monument to an age of expansive elegance” and an “anachronism” – its fate as an allowed-for-years-to-dilapidate rail station in an age celebrating the automobile and the jet. This week, the PBS American Experience series is premiering its film on the station’s birth and ultimate destruction in “The Rise and Fall of Pennsylvania Station.”

The station’s elegance and its engineering accomplishments, indeed, had inspired masses of travelers when it first opened and during subsequent decades. Some 100,000 visitors came on Nov. 27, 1910, the grand opening day when the first trains began using the Hudson River tube, according to the Times. The railroad had opened portions of the station in September, 2010, and trains were able to use the new East River tunnels to Long Island.

Crowds on the Pennsylvania Station concourse, 1944 (Photo credit: United States, Office of War Information – From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York)

Those who caught trains or arrived in New York at Pennsylvania Station found a spectacular space that covered eight acres in all. The Beaux-Arts temple to travel that Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White designed had grand archways and dozens of Doric columns, 150-foot-high ceilings, shafts of light through an iron and glass roof, and inspiring sculpture. While it captured the classical grandeur of Ancient Rome, the early 20th century space also drew on the “new tradition of the Crystal Palaces and the glass galleries and halls of Paris exhibitions,” wrote Nathan Silver in his 1967 book, Lost New York. The station also represented the Pennsylvania Railroad’s transformational feat of constructing 16 miles of innovative tunnels under the Hudson and East rivers that would connect the railroad not only to New York City but eventually to New England, as the PBS program recounts.

By the 1950s, however, the Pennsylvania Railroad was in financial trouble, and Pennsylvania Station would not survive its schemes. The railroad company sold the air rights above the station and ultimately decided to raze it. It was a period when many considered such palatial stations as relics. By that time, the owners had done much to desecrate the space, for example, covering some of its classical columns with plastic. The press revealed in July, 1961 that plans for a new Madison Square Garden would mean the demolition of Pennsylvania Station. A group of architects, Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, and others sought to express and marshal strong opposition to Pennsylvania Station’s destruction. However, those opposing the demolition lost out. Finally, while some picketed at the site on that October day, workers using jackhammers began to take apart the structure, a process that took three years.

The destruction of Pennsylvania Station played a role in the preservation movement that grew during the 1960s in New York and the nation. Beyond that, it left a grievous civic wound in a city, and its images continue to haunt New York’s collective memory, one which many hope will be addressed in the plans for a new, grand transit station.

The photos and the films of Pennsylvania Station prompt awe and feelings of grief on the part of many who, like me, never set foot in the station. How can one miss a place where she or he never walked? The answer lies, in some ways, in looking at the images of people in those beautiful spaces. As architectural critic and author Paul Goldberger says in the film: “Pennsylvania Station is one of the greatest symbols of monumental public space that any American city has ever had. It ennobles the acts of everyday life. It makes every citizen feel important.” Such observations, and the program’s footage of people in the station when it stood as a focal point of New York and East Coast travel and a gateway to the city, promise to make even clearer what was remarkable about the place. This ability to elevate daily experience is so much of what set a space like the original Pennsylvania Station apart – and what makes its loss so stark and egregious.

To mark the premiere of the American Experience film on Pennsylvania Station, here’s a look at photographs of the splendid station and of its destruction.

View of the concourse prior to the station’s opening in 1910 (Photo credit: Detroit Publishing Co. – From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.)

A drug store at the station in the early 20th century (Photo credit: Detroit Publishing Co. – From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.)

Panoramic view of the interior and the soaring ceiling, 1936 (Photo credit: Berenice Abbott, Federal Art Project – From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York)

Pennsylvania Station exterior, 1962 (Photo credit: Cerwin Robinson, Historic American Buildings Survey – From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.)

A pile of rubble during the demolition includes decorative elements of the station (Photo credit: Aaron Rose – From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York)

The remains of Pennsylvania Station, during demolition, show arches and the iron structure (Photo credit: Aaron Rose – From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York)

Further Exploration

American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

The New York Preservation Archive Project: Pennsylvania Station

Museum of the City of New York Blog: Penn Station and the Rise of Historic Preservation

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Nita

    It’s almost painful to look at these final photos showing the destruction of the beautiful Pennsylvania Station. As the daughter of a railroader father and an artist mother, I feel two kinds of loss. Strange, isn’t it, the emotions that a building can evoke?

    • Susan DeMark

      Nita,

      Given the background of your father and mother — and especially growing up in Pittsburgh, with its atmosphere — those feelings aren’t strange at all. Add to that your appreciation and sensitivity about historic buildings. This one was so majestic and beautiful.

      It’s why I was drawn to doing this piece once I looked over more photos of the destruction than I had ever seen, within the digital collection of the Museum of the City of New York. They show skeletons and fragments, shards and remains, of a fine old station that a group of people built with immense care. This building deserved better. Each photograph makes clearer the loss and feels painful to look at, as you observe. As time goes on, I’ve learned how many others feel this way about Pennsylvania Station. Your expression of this is very eloquent and moving — thank you, my friend.

      Susan

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