Penn Station now? Gross, ew, there’s a Sbarro, and everything is ugly. But the original Penn Station was a marvellous piece of Beaux Arts design. Its story is also one of the most tragic tales in architecture — 50 years ago today, it was torn down to make way for Madison Square Garden.
The original Pennsylvania station — named for the Pennsylvania Railroad — opened its doors in 1910. Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, it a monument of pink granite, marked by an army of 84 Greek Doric columns and 45m vaulted ceilings. Inside, glass and steel soared to make one of the most breathtaking train sheds ever built. Inspired by the Roman baths of Caracalla, its massive waiting area was one of the largest public spaces in the world.
When word got out that Penn Station’s cash-strapped owners planned to raze it, the protest from journalists and critics around the city was swift and loud. But ultimately, their fight to save Penn Station was unsuccessful. Renowned architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote Farewell to Penn Station in an October 1963 editorial in the New York Times:
Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.
That Penn Station was destroyed is tragic, and its absence left an unspeakable hole in the city’s fabric. Its replacement is an ugly, pedestrian, depressing, bus station-style eyesore (which might not be long for this world either).
But there is a bright spot — after all, the demolition of the original station inspired a movement of architectural preservation in the city. Perhaps you have to lose something precious before you can truly value the world around you. [The Atlantic, New York Times, Wikipedia]