Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
When Pennsylvania Station first opened in 1910, it was a far cry from the confusing maze of underground tunnels that it is today. The building, which covered eight acres in midtown Manhattan, was an impressive Classical gateway to New York City. The waiting room, inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, had a coffered ceiling that soared 148 feet high. One descended onto sun-bathed train platforms beneath a canopy of iron and glass.
But just 54 years later, that Penn Station was demolished, replaced by the current transit hub that is undergoing a major overhaul due to its ineffective—if not downright unpleasant—design.
The original station was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which billed itself around the turn of the 20th century as “the standard railroad of the world.”
“It meant that they were always at the cutting edge—and that they were doing things with excellence,” explains historian Jill Jonnes, who is participating in a conversation this evening with architect Vishaan Chakrabarti about the history and future of Penn Station at the Museum of the City of New York.
But there was something standing in the way of the railroad providing truly excellent service into New York City: the Hudson River.
“Trains stopped at the edge of the Hudson River in New Jersey,” says Jonnes. “The passengers had to disembark, get onto ferries, and come across the river.”
Jonnes adds that conditions weren’t ideal when passengers made it to Manhattan: “They were met with total chaos at the busy port, which was unacceptable to the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was determined to get across the river.”
A few solutions were bandied about, but Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt wanted to tunnel under the Hudson.
Cassatt tapped Charles Jacobs, an English engineer who had previously constructed tunnels under New York City’s East River, to determine whether or not it was feasible to build beneath the Hudson.
After Jacobs concluded that the tunnels could be constructed, the railroad acquired 28 acres of land in a neighborhood known as the Tenderloin. “It was a very, very seedy area—they cleared the entire section of land,” explains Jonnes.
For the station itself, many architects submitted designs, but there was a clear choice: Charles McKim of the prolific architectural firm McKim, Mead, & White. The trio made up one of the most popular and important architectural firms of the Gilded Age, and securing McKim fit squarely within Pennsylvania Railroad’s standard of excellence.
McKim’s design drew inspiration not just from Ancient Roman baths. As Mosette Broderick expands in her book Triumvirate: McKim, Mead, & White, he also observed recently completed train stations in Europe. The proportion and rhythm of Penn’s colonnaded facade was inspired by Bernini’s piazza at the Vatican and John Soane’s Bank of England. The building appeared to be constructed from solid granite, but around 650 granite-clad steel columns supported the majority of the structure.
When the station officially opened on August 29, 1910, The New York Times proclaimed that “it was the largest building in the world ever built at one time.” Included in the write-up was a projection of how the population of New York City area would balloon to 8 million by 1920—and that transportation infrastructure would need to keep up with the expected demand.
However, the demand for rail travel didn’t hold out. The decline of old Penn Station can, in part, be blamed to the rise of other forms of transportation. “The station was built with the expectation that more and more people would be attracted to train travel,” explains Jonnes. “Instead, air travel became the glamorous way to get around, not trains.”
Furthermore, the station didn’t really serve all its patrons well. The most impressive spaces catered to Pennsylvania Railroad passengers, but the Long Island Rail Road (operated by the MTA) also used the station, as it still does today. LIRR passengers were relegated to the basement in a maze of tunnels probably not unlike what is in place today. That ineffective element of the design was exacerbated as LIRR ridership ballooned in the mid-20th century.
And then there was the money. “By the ’60s, Penn Station had been allowed to deteriorate. The glorious station had become grubby,” says Jonnes. “It was not an era when anybody had a love for Beaux-Arts architecture. The railroad was being offered a lot of money for the air rights. So, they went for it!”
The demolition of Pennsylvania Station started on October 28, 1963. While there wasn’t a widespread outcry at the razing of the station, between 150 and 200 people picketed in front of the station in 1962 to protest.
When the final bits of the facade fell in 1964, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in The New York Times, “the passing of Penn Station is more than the end of a landmark. It makes the priority of real estate values over preservation conclusively clear.”
But, thankfully, the station was not demolished entirely in vain: Just a year after Huxtable’s piece ran in the Times, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was created largely as a response to the loss of Penn Station. The LPC was also instrumental in saving Grand Central Terminal, which was nearly lost in the 1970s even after it gained landmark status.
“Once the station was gone, it did sink in—especially when passengers saw what the station was replaced with,” says Jonnes. “The LPC has gone on to save many buildings. Anyone who has experienced Grand Central in its restored state, you feel so grateful.”