The Destruction of Penn Station: How New York City Lost Its Majestic Beaux-Arts Rail Terminal

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Immer­sive Archi­tec­tur­al Tour of New York City’s Icon­ic Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal

An Archi­tect Breaks Down the Design of New York City Sub­way Sta­tions, from the Old­est to Newest

New York’s Lost Sky­scraper: The Rise and Fall of the Singer Tow­er

A Sub­way Ride Through New York City: Watch Vin­tage Footage from 1905

Famous Archi­tects Dress as Their Famous New York City Build­ings (1931)

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Jonathan Collins says:

    There are many accounts on Insta­gram that doc­u­ment the lost (and still stand­ing) archi­tec­tur­al mar­vels of NYC in par­tic­u­lar and world­wide. The amount of beau­ti­ful build­ings that saw the wreck­ing ball in the 60’s alone could fill sev­er­al vol­umes. (I’m look­ing at you, Singer Build­ing) It is seri­ous­ly amaz­ing there are any his­toric build­ings left after that decade. The only pos­i­tive of the loss of Penn Sta­tion is that it gal­va­nized his­toric preser­va­tion, which has saved many more beau­ti­ful build­ings.

  • ronald cesario colez says:

    Hel­lo, my name is Ronald Cesario Colez, I’d like to get in touch with the archi­tect Michael Wyet­zn­er. It’s about PENN STATION. The PENN STATION, today 2023. I’ve worked there for 23 years and I’ve a lot to ask him. 

    thank you
    1 917 297 3546
    (under con­struc­tion )

  • Andrew says:

    His­toric preser­va­tion in New York is decid­ed­ly ungal­va­nized. We’re los­ing his­toric build­ings every day.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.