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New York's Pennsylvania Station to Rise Again

New York's original Pennsylvania Station
New York's original Pennsylvania Station

One hundred years ago, in November 1910, New York's Pennsylvania Station began full operations, as the very first train passengers under the Hudson River entered Manhattan through the grand new portal. The immense neoclassical building in midtown Manhattan survived little more than 50 years before it was demolished for development.

Today's Penn Station is underground, sharing only the name and location of its predecessor. “Once we entered the city like gods. One scuttles in now like a rat,” the architectural historian Vincent Scully once said, referring to the soaring spaces of New York's original Pennsylvania Station, and the cramped, sunless warren that replaced it in the 1960s.

Designed by architect Charles McKim, the vast, Roman-inspired building of marble and pink granite drew 100,000 visitors on the day it opened in 1910. Lorraine Diehl, author of a history of the terminal, The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station, played there as a child in the 1950s. “Every space just sort of triggered your imagination,” she said in an interview. “When you walked in from Eighth Avenue, that was the great train shed, the concourse, and it was this extraordinary space of great vaulted iron columns and a glass ceiling, and the dust particles would just drift in and just be frozen in space. And you felt this was a room of journeys. Your mind took a journey before you ever got on a train in this space.”

The building was adorned with sculptures of eagles and maidens, one representing day, the other night. They’re among the illustrations in a picture book by the New York-born artist and author William Low. Low never saw the actual building, and depended on old black-and-white photographs and descriptions to recreate it. “It's just awe-inspiring, it would be like the first time I saw the Grand Canyon,” he said. “The idea of this immense space - you can't put it into words.”

Low’s art, created with a computer, depicts the stages of the Station’s construction, its life, and its later demolition. He digitally painted the separate rooms: the concourse at night under the glass and steel roof, the restaurant and arcade, and the vaulted marble waiting room, which novelist Thomas Wolfe described as "vast enough to hold the sound of time… a drowsy and eternal murmur."

One scene shows the concourse thronging with soldiers returning from World War II. “I think what Wolfe was talking about was this wonderful patina of history,” Diehl said. “When we lost the station we didn’t simply lose a beautiful railroad station. We uncoupled ourselves from our past, we lost our history: a great depression, two world wars, the private hellos and goodbyes of so many people.”

But in the early 1960s, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which owned the station, was failing. So, it sold the above-ground location of the Station to the developers of a sports arena, Madison Square Garden. The drab cement-mixer-like arena, plastered with electronic billboards, now sits atop the tomb of the grandest station ever built in the U.S.

Only six architects rallied outside Penn Station to protest the 1963 demolition, to no avail. "No one thought then in terms of the aesthetic importance of a building," Diehl said. "They were shocked to find out that there was nothing to protect the building. It was a private building, even though it was there for public use. People realized that if they could take down Penn Station, they could take down the Chrysler building or the Empire State Building." The loss sank in gradually, however, and led to the development of the city's landmarks protection laws.

“Nobody is happy with Penn Station in New York as it exists in New York today,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a private group. “People who never even saw the original Penn Station mourn its loss. It was probably the greatest architectural crime that has been committed in New York City, and people have been repenting it ever since.”

Breen's group has been working since 1993 to turn the old Farley Post Office building across the street into a third version of Penn Station, to be named after the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who first championed the idea. The project recently broke ground on the first phase of infrastructure work, including new entrances linking the current Penn Station with the future terminal.

Standing in the lobby of the Farley Post Office, building Breen said, “This was built in 1912 by Charles McKim, the architect of Pennsylvania Station, and it's the architectural twin to the old Penn Station. It was built when public spaces were built to honor the public, and when you walked into a building, it said, 'This is a great city, you are a good citizen in a wonderful space.' And we don't have that at Penn Station now. This will help us reclaim it.” Breen says the new building is also needed to relieve overcrowding along the northeast rail corridor and in Penn Station itself, the busiest rail terminal in the country.

The conversion is expected to cost well over $1 billion, and if all goes well, to be completed in eight years. It will still be only a faint shadow of the original, supporters say. But it will again give train passengers arriving in New York a beautiful door into the city. Diehl remembers her grandmother's feelings about Penn Station. "She was very poor, and never took a train from there, but she said one day, 'You know, this station makes me feel so special, because it was built for me.' And that’s the important thing about the station. This was a building that was built for everyone, and if you had a million bucks in the bank, or you had a couple of pennies in your pocket, the building belonged to you."