The Destruction of Penn Station — “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

PODCAST Why did they knock down old Pennsylvania Station?

The original Penn Station, constructed in 1910 and designed by New York’s greatest Gilded Age architectural firm, was more than just a building. Since its destruction in the 1960s, the station has become something mythic, a sacrificial lamb to the cause of historic preservation.

Amplifying its loss is the condition of present Penn Station, a fairly unpleasant underground space that uses the original Pennsylvania Railroad’s tracks and tunnels. As Vincent Scully once said, “Through Pennsylvania Station one entered the city like a god. Perhaps it was really too much. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

In this show we rebuild the grand, original structure in our minds — the fourth largest building in the world when it was constructed — and marvel at an opulence now gone.

Why was Penn Station destroyed? If you answered MONEY!, you’re only partially right. This is the story of an architectural treasure endangered — and a city unprepared to save it. Should something so immense be saved because of its beauty even if its function has diminished or even vanished? Does the public have a say in a privately  owned property?

PLUS: We show you where you can still find remnants of old Penn Station by going on a walking tour with Untapped Cities tour guide Justin Rivers.

LISTEN HERE:

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Bain Collection/Library of Congress. Clean-up version courtesy Shorpy

The 32nd Street entrance in 1910

 

The corner of 31st Street and 7th Avenue, entrance to the south carriage entrance, 1914

Museum of the City of New York

 

1912- MCNY/Detroit Publishing Col

The Pennsylvania Station restaurant, found after one stepped through the arcade but before the waiting room.

MCNY/McKim Mead and White

 

The train concourse, 1911

 

1910 — Library of Congress/clean-up version Shorpy

Awaiting the arrival of preacher Billy Sunday. (Read more about the context of this extraordinary picture here.)

Library of Congress

 

1936 — MCNY/Wurts Brothers
MCNY/Berenice Abbott

 

NYPL/Berenice Abbott

The view of the concourse from the Grand Waiting Room, 1939

Museum of the City of New York

The loggia, leading to the grand staircase, 1939

Museum of the City of New York

 

New York Public Library

A 1955 bar menu from the Penn Station restaurant/bar

NYPL

The AGBANY protesters including Philip Johnson and Jane Jacobs.

WALTER DARAN/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGE

Madison Square Garden rose as old Penn Station was slowly demolished.

New York Daily News

 

Norman McGrath/New York Times

 

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS/GETTY IMAGES

A couple eagles still flank the 7th Avenue side of the Madison Square Garden/Penn Station complex today.

Greg Young

The Samuel Rea statue that once greeted commuters from the original Penn Station loggia. In his hands are blueprints to the old Penn Station and a model of the station to his side.

Greg Young

Tom and Untapped Cities guide Justin Rivers walking down one of the original Penn Station departure staircases, still in operation.

Greg Young

An original arrivals staircase.

Greg Young

FURTHER READING
The Late Great Pennsylvania Station by Lorraine B. Diehl
Conquering Gotham: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels by Jill Jones
Old Penn Station by William Low
Pennsylvania Station: McKim, Mead and White by Steven Parissien

TOURS

The Remnants of Penn Station, led by Justin Rivers for Untapped Cities

FURTHER LISTENING

The story of Pennsylvania Station involves more than just nostalgia for the long-gone temple of transportation as designed by the great McKim, Meade and White. It’s a tale of incredible tunnels, political haggling and big visions.

 

Special thanks to Kieran Gannon for helping with editing this week’s show.