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Original Penn Station Wasn't Always Perfect, Archicritic Argues

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"Pennsylvania Station was ruined long before it was wrecked." So begins David Dunlap's latest Building Blocks piece for the Times, in which he takes an unsentimental look at the long-gone, yet still-revered, McKim, Mead & White station.

Though preservationists and historians decry the station's destruction, Dunlap argues that "the Penn Station that was torn down between 1963 and 1966 was scarcely the building it had been a half-century earlier"—the Beaux Arts architecture and ornamentation that made the station so beloved had, by the time it was torn down, become all but unrecognizable. "Pink granite walls were allowed to turn gray. Straw-colored travertine looked nicotine-stained. Jules Guerin's murals disappeared under veils of grime," he writes.

Even the pre-eminent architecture critics of the day—Lewis Mumford and Ada Louise Huxtable—had little good to say about the station, particularly following a mid-1950s attempt to modernize it.

Here's Mumford:

"No one now entering Pennsylvania Station for the first time could, without clairvoyance, imagine how good it used to be, in comparison to the almost indescribable botch that has been made of it." And Huxtable, in her much-quoted "Farewell to Penn Station":

"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 tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."

The culprits in the station's slow decline were numerous, according to Dunlap: billboards, shops and restaurants, a digital clock advertising Coca-Cola, and—worst of all, according to Mumford—a modern ticket counter that was shaped like a clamshell. "The only consolation is that nothing more that can be done to the station will do any further harm to it," the critic wrote in 1958. (If only he could see Penn's current iteration.)

But ultimately, modernization or a few shops didn't lead to the station's demise; good old-fashioned development did. The station had become too expensive to maintain, and soon, Madison Square Garden and the current, cramped train depot would replace it. Here's Dunlap's take on the end:

What they weren't trivializing or coarsening with commerce, railroad executives were simply neglecting. Whether desperately or cynically, they seemed to understand that redevelopment of their money-losing, nine-acre station would be more palatable if the public could be made to forget the glories of Mr. McKim's original design. Longing for the Old Penn Station? In the End, It Wasn't So Great [Times]