At the turn of the century, the Pennsylvania Railroad reached New York City. To mark the conclusion of this journey, plans were made for the largest and most extravagant railway terminal in history.
The Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan would, according to its architects, provide a gateway ‘to one of the greatest metropolitan cities in the world’. The station would be influenced by some of Europe’s most famous monuments; the vaulted ceilings of the Roman Baths of Caracalla, Berlin’s colonnaded Brandenburg Gate and the Beaux-Artes styled Gare D’Orsay in Paris.
The station took nine years to complete. Boasting 84 pink granite columns and covering an area of 8 acres, it became known as the ‘Temple for Transportation’. However, in Penn Station’s sheer vastness – at its opening it was one of the largest public buildings in the world – were laid the foundations for its demise.
The advent of the jet engine and the Interstate Highway in the 1950s saw traffic on intercity trains plummet dramatically.
The Pennsylvania Railroad, which had celebrated its own economic might by building the grandest railroad station in history, teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. The vaulted halls and colonnaded façade of the Temple to Transportation became caked in grime, as cleaning such a vast building became a process far too expensive to maintain.
The president of the Railroad Company himself stated that he saw no need to preserve the ‘monument’ of a railway station if it no longer served the ‘utilitarian needs’ for which it was built. Private enterprise trumped aesthetic value, and under these terms, Penn Station had become as obsolete as the Roman Colosseum.
Simultaneously, Irving Mitchell Felt, who was incidentally born the same year that Penn Station was completed, had just purchased a controlling interest in Madison Square Garden. He was looking to replace the old arena with a shiny new facility that could accommodate an increased capacity and unobstructed views. In November 1960, he quietly approached the Pennsylvania Railroad for the rights to build his new arena on Penn Station’s 8-acre site. In return, he would give the railroad company a refurbished, subterranean station at no extra cost, with a 25% stake in Madison Square Garden thrown in. The cash-strapped Pennsylvania Railroad could not possibly have declined.
In July 1961 the planned demolition of Penn Station was approved. The decision was met with widespread outcry from both the public and the press. Active protest on the streets of New York came from a small but vocal few, a group consisting largely of architects and white collar intellectuals. It came too late. By this point there was nothing the City could do to prevent Penn Station’s destruction.
And so, on October 30, 1963, demolition began. It would take 3 years to completely level the building, with only minor inconvenience caused to the functioning of the station platforms, which continued to accommodate 200,000 passengers every day.
By 1966, New York City had lost its greatest Golden Age building, and attitudes to the historical preservation of architecture had changed so much in this time that the loss of the station was already appreciated as a complete catastrophe. Eddie Hausner’s photographs of the station’s columns and sculptures, including the two ornate figures ‘Night’ and ‘Day’ crumbling in a New Jersey landfill only compounded the feelings of guilt and regret. The new arena and station complex, though profitable (as was its design) was almost universally loathed.
To add to the irony, predictions of a continued decline in rail travel proved to be completely incorrect. Over the next 50 years, daily traffic through Penn Station increased to 500,000 and is still rising. In an ironic reversal of fortune, plans are underway to demolish Madison Square Garden and extend the station complex.
Though the white-collar pickets of architects and intellectuals failed to prevent the destruction of one of New York’s greatest buildings, they left a lasting legacy in establishing historic preservation in New York City as a major political issue. In 1965, Robert Wagner, the mayor of New York, signed into legislation the Landmarks Law, which prohibited the demolition of designated landmarks. It has been credited with saving the Astor Library from destruction in 1965. In 1978, the iconic Grand Central Terminal was saved from a major redevelopment planned by none other than the Pennsylvania Central Railroad.