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Pennsylvania Station And Architectural Vandalism

by British Awakening – 18 Oct 2019

My past few blogs on the finer things in life have been an attempt to make you look at or listen to something that’s always been there, but to do so in a slightly different way. Sometimes though it is important to remember not what we have but what we have lost because we did not care enough. So to change the mood a bit I thought I would write about something I have not seen (and will never see) as it was destroyed by developers in the 1960s. It does however have a link with one of my recurring themes – the fabulous architecture of the Big Apple.

A travel hack for anyone wanting to visit Manhattan in New York is to avoid JFK altogether and instead fly to Newark in New Jersey and get the train saving about fifty dollars and two days travel in a yellow cab. The train from Newark terminates in New York Penn station 33rd and 7th. Penn Station is completely underground and sits below Madison Square Gardens.

Pennsylvania Station is one of the oldest railway stations in New York City, named for the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), who built it and operated from the offices in the station. Pennsylvania Station was spread over an 8 acre area between 7th and 8th Avenues and 31st and 33rd Street in mid-Manhattan. Since there are a number of other Pennsylvania Stations in the US it was often called New York Pennsylvania Station or more often simply Penn Station.

Pennsylvania Station Excavation - George Wesley Bellows

Image By George Bellows - Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 67.205.1_SL1.jpg, Public Domain, Link

Completed in 1910 from a design by architects McKim, Mead, and White, Penn provided New York with railway access to the south for the first time. With 11 platforms serving 21 tracks the layout has changed little to the present day but what lay above was considered by many to be an architectural wonder modelled on the Beaux-Arts style – a style that influenced many great American architects such as John Galen Howard and Daniel Burnham and can be seen in many great American buildings such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in – yes you guess it ! New York). Penn station was also one of the first stations to have separate waiting rooms for arriving and departing passengers which made the rooms some of the largest public spaces in New York.

The station had a colossal frontage of 240 metres, made of pink granite, stone and brick the passenger was greeted with an imposing row of Doric columns each modelled after famous landmarks such as the Acropolis in Athens. At the main entrance was a large shopping mall which led into the two waiting rooms, the departing passengers concourse was a series of glass domes supported by steelwork. Six imposing murals over 30 metres tall by the artist Jules Guerin adorned the station as well as four pairs of sculptures by Adolph Weinman.

The advent of the motor car and air travel saw passenger volumes decline from the late 1940s and the station entered a period of slow decline, in the 1950s Pennsylvania Railroad sold the air rights above the property and began to demolish some of the station. The destruction of the beautiful head house and train shed was considered by architecture lovers past and present a particularly tragic decision which did at least lead to the creation of the modern historic preservation movement in the United States. Not all of the station was destroyed, the below ground concourses have been restored to their former glory and now form part of the modern Penn Station, above them rise the famous Madison Square Gardens. Of the original station all that remains are the low level platforms and tracks and one or two artefacts spared the bulldozer’s blade.

I was too young to ever see the exquisite beauty of Penn Station but I was able to visit it last October, the sub surface concourse has a clean transactional feel to it but I had a very strong sense that a great wrong was done here and something quite beautiful was destroyed to make way for the Brutalist architecture that has blighted the lives of those of us born in the twentieth century.

I will still try to end my piece on a positive note, the loss of Penn Station sparked the preservation movement and so many magnificent buildings have been saved from developers and the sulphurous school of Brutalism. So here is a thought for you, what building do you really cherish? Go find out how you can help protect it so that your children and grandchildren get to enjoy it too.

Do it this weekend and enjoy yourself.

Some music from the period:

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