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Pennsylvania Station 1910

by McKim, Mead & White

In New York, all travelers rushing to Pennsylvania Station to catch a train are missing something. When they arrive at the block between 7th and 8th Avenue, from 31st to 34th Streets, they are greeted by the squat rotunda and nondescript tower of Madison Square Garden, designed in 1963 by Charles Luckman. What they have lost forever is the original Penn Station. Built in 1910 by Charles Follen McKim of the famous firm, McKim, Mead and White, it was designed to exalt the rail traveler. Intended to stand for centuries, it was razed in 1963. Its tracks and platforms, well below grade and still in use by Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit, are all that remain.

The original Penn Station, with its 84 Doric columns, glass ceilings and soaring vaults inspired by ancient Roman Baths, was a beaux arts masterpiece. McKim, picturing well-gowned women sweeping up and down its broad staircases, created “a monumental gateway and entrance” to New York City. It was part of a masterplan of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the world’s largest corporation in 1900, to provide direct transportation into Manhattan. However, by the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the railroad was facing financial ruin, a result of years of government regulation and competition from automobiles and airlines. The problem, as the architectural historian Lewis Mumford noted, was that “spatial magnificence…is a luxury that pays off only through the centuries.” The Penn Central didn’t have that kind of time. Therefore, they sold their air rights and a long-term lease to Madison Square Garden. Despite the protests of the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York (AGBANY) – five architects and 175 picketers, including the preservation activist Jane Jacobs – the station was demolished.

Perhaps Penn Station’s fate was sealed from the beginning. Contrary to Vincent Scully’s famous remark “One entered the city like a god,” for most, the daily grind of entering and exiting the city was rarely divine. So, as Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for the New York Times, said, we ended up with what “we want and deserve, tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture.”

Today, the Municipal Arts Society is suggesting we deserve better. It is advocating for the relocation of Madison Square Garden. It is fighting for the building of a new Penn Station by 2023 to alleviate immense congestion and provide for future growth. It is supporting the creation of the Moynihan Station across the street at the Farley Post Office.

If you find yourself in today’s Penn Station you may catch only a glimpse of its former glory: an isolated brass newel, here; a bronze banister, there. Unless you check out the Waiting Room of the Long Island Railroad, in between the ticket windows and the escalators on the lower level of the station. There you’ll find a large piece of the old station, uncovered during a 90’s-era renovation. Step through its steel and glass entryway, with its original, elegant foliage pattern. There you might be transported to an era of grace and style, which is a good deal further than the railroad will take you.

— Carol Cofone

Reference Links

sight Farley Post Office