In the New York of old, “one entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.” When he wrote those words, architectural historian Vincent Scully issued what has ended up as the definitive judgment of Pennsylvania Station. Or rather, of the Pennsylvania Stations: the majestic original building from 1910, as well as its utilitarian replacement that has stood in Midtown Manhattan since 1968. But then, the word “stood” doesn’t quite apply to the latter, since it resides entirely underground, below Madison Square Garden. Over the years, New Yorkers have come more and more openly to resent the Penn Station they have and lament the Penn Station they lost, which architect Michael Wyetzner introduces to us in the Architectural Digest video above.
“A conjectural reconstruction of Imperial Rome’s Baths of Caracalla of 212–216 AD,” writes New York Review of Books architecture critic Martin Filler, the original Penn Station constituted “a harmonious synthesis of two divergent and supposedly irreconcilable architectural approaches, the Classical and the industrial.”
It was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which in the late nineteenth century was “the country’s largest business enterprise, with a budget second only to that of the federal government,” writes the New Yorker‘s William Finnegan, and which at that time had a formidable engineering problem to solve: “Its tracks ended, like those of every railroad approaching New York from the west, in New Jersey, on the banks of the Hudson River. In 1900, ninety million passengers were obliged to transfer to ferries to reach Manhattan.”
To run the Pennsylvania Railroad’s tracks into the center of New York City required digging a set of tunnels under the Hudson, where, says one historian on PBS’ American Experience documentary on the rise and fall of Penn Station, “nobody thought tunnels could be built. It’s almost as though they were going to go to the moon.” The technological achievement was matched by the aesthetic: “Its main waiting room, paneled in Italian travertine, with fluted columns and coffered ceilings a hundred and fifty feet high, was the world’s largest room,” Finnegan writes. “The train shed was equally grand, with arching steel girders, staggered mezzanines, and glass-block floors that let sunlight through to the tracks. ” Like other major urban rail terminals of its era, writes Tony Judt, Penn Station “spoke directly and deliberately to the commercial ambitions and civic self-image of the modern metropolis.”
By the mid-twentieth-century, however, trains were facing aggressive competition from both the private car and the airplane, which displaced their stations from the center of modern life. “Between 1955 and 1975,” Judt writes, “a mix of antihistoricist fashion and corporate self-interest saw the destruction of a remarkable number of terminal stations.” But prospects for rail of one kind or another in America have looked up in recent years, and “we are no longer embarrassed by the rococo or neo-Gothic or Beaux-Arts excesses of the great railway stations of the industrial age and can see such edifices instead as their designers and contemporaries saw them: as the cathedrals of their age.” Hence, in New York, the preservation of Grand Central Station — as well as the bitter and protracted struggle (covered extensively in Finnegan’s New Yorker piece) over whether and how to turn the unloved Penn Station into a cathedral of our age.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.