Culture

Rebuild Penn Station — and Rectify a Crime against Architecture

Rebuilt, improved main hall illustration of Rebuild Penn Station’s proposal. (Credit: Jeff Stikeman for Rebuild Penn Station)
The majestic edifice designed by architect Charles McKim a century ago should serve as a model and inspiration.

In E. B. White’s famous essay “Here Is New York,” he postulates that there are three New Yorks: There’s the New York of the person who was born there; there’s the New York of the commuter who knows the city as one of congestion, as a place in which he is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night; and, finally, there’s the New York of the person who was born somewhere else but came to the city in quest of something.

White believes it’s the lattermost New York that is the greatest: the city of final destination, the goal, the place that’s rhapsodized and romanticized, the city Sinatra crooned about — the city that suffers from perpetual insomnia, embellished with marquee lights and taxi-cab horns.

White wrote his essay in 1949, when New York City was rising to global prominence following the Second World War. Midtown Manhattan, into which commuters would arrive through Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Station, was experiencing a building boom — specifically, a Corbusian building boom, which meant the demolition of classically designed structures that the older generation of modernists deemed tawdry or bourgeois. Traditional apartment blocks met the wrecking ball, and public-housing projects replaced them. The Pennsylvania Railroad was suffering as travelers began using automobiles and airplanes.

In October 1963, in what has been shamefully lamented as one of history’s most monumental acts of vandalism, the crown jewel of New York City became the latest victim of urban expansion. Posterity was now doomed to enter the city in transitory truculence, whereas commuters once upon a time entered with the gusto and glee of White’s envied “person who was born somewhere else.”

The original Pennsylvania Station was demolished, its Doric columns and Tennessee-marble stone eagles unceremoniously tossed into the marshes of Secaucus, N.J., as if they were bodies being dumped by the mob.

After over half a century of mourning, tourists and New Yorkers alike whose resignation-laced gaits and grimaces are par for the course of the original Pennsylvania Station’s infamously scorned replacement that’s utilized today, New York may be given an opportunity at redemption. An organization promoting the unparalleled beauty of classical art and architecture is attempting to restore Penn Station to its original splendor.

***

The original Pennsylvania Station, colloquially referred to as “Penn Station,” was eight acres of Gilded Age American opulence. It was the brainchild of Alexander Cassatt, the owner of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1910, who wanted to bring a rail terminal to Manhattan. At the time, passengers needed to take a ferry across the Hudson River from the railroad’s terminus in Jersey City. But New York City was rapidly expanding, and Cassatt wanted a preluding portal to the city that would give passengers a taste of the majesty awaiting them.

Cassatt wanted something Roman in grandeur, and he chose Charles McKim, of the legendary architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White, as the man for the job.

McKim and Cassatt had a febrile fixation on creating the greatest railroad station the world had ever seen, and it would be difficult to argue that they did not deliver on this ambitious promise: Penn Station would later be immortalized in anecdotes that are recited with a fable-like mysticism and in poems that capture the ethos of optimism that the Station symbolized. Langston Hughes described it as “some vast basilica of old / That towers above the terror of the dark / As bulwark and protection of the soul.” McKim envisioned something vast. He took inspiration from the “old.” The Station’s gaping, 150-foot waiting room was modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, built with Milford pink granite, honeycomb coffered ceilings, mighty marble columns, and windows allowing light to pour in from its vertiginous height. To enter New York City via Penn Station was to enter it like a god, architecture historian Vincent Scully once remarked.

All the Station was missing was a set of pearly white gates and ethereal cherubs to confound visitors about their whereabouts.

“I know modern architects say things should be built according to their time, but I think it would be nice to have this monument to the ancient city of Rome,” Mosette Broderick tells me. She is a professor of art history at New York University and the author of Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age. Ancient Rome “may not exist anymore,” she says, “but wouldn’t it be nice to walk through it today?”

McKim strove for perfection. He, William Mead, and Stanford White were perhaps the most important architects of the 20th century, building across America structures inspired by their travels across Europe — in New York, for example, Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, the Harvard Club, and the Washington Square Arch, and in Washington, D.C., the National Museum of American History. They were not particularly gifted as individuals, Broderick noted. But when they convened, they produced magic.

“McKim broke his neck to get the detail right,” Broderick says. “He worked to get the proportions and arrangements just perfect, and when McKim or White screwed something up, they would personally pay to have it rectified. They didn’t want mistakes. They wanted to create an America that was the best of what we learned from Europe.”

Pennsylvania Station, opened in 1910 during the Age of Innocence, with intentions to serve New York City for generations, would soon be a martyr at the hands of a looming age of irreverence and neglect.

***

After the Second World War, modernists and myopia would spell Pennsylvania Station’s death. The homeless slept inside, and the exterior became coated in five decades’ worth of dirt. The railroad was losing millions to cars and the advent of the jet age, and so it was predicted that train travel would be rendered obsolete. The attitude toward “old” Beaux Arts architecture was indifference, at best, and, at worst, the contempt of the modernist cognoscenti. The railroad sold the air rights of the station, and the demolition began October 28, 1963.

Pennsylvania Station was soon reduced to rubble. The images of the condemned building before its demise almost whisper “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Architect Peter Samton knew this in 1963 when he protested alongside several other notable architects and personalities, and he defends Pennsylvania Station’s significance to this day. “It was a building for the ages,” Samton tells me. “Old architecture wasn’t of interest to the older modernists at the time.”

Samton was 27 years old  in 1963. He studied modern architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later in France on a Fulbright scholarship. His advocacy of preserving Pennsylvania Station made him an outlier in his field — the older generation of modernists were fighting in a revolution against the “old.” Samton marched alongside prominent architect Philip Johnson and urban planner Jane Jacobs, holding signs that read “Save Our Heritage” and “Don’t Sell Our City Short.”

“The attitude was ‘It’s old, so let’s get rid of it,’” Samton says. “The older modernists were schooled earlier.” They were trained “in revolution, and in a revolution, you’re not sympathetic to the people you replace.”

His protests were initially unfruitful; the American public didn’t value architecture and didn’t believe there were any reasons to preserve the station. “If you ask if we should save a building or tear it down, in America, most would’ve said, ‘No, progress, tear it down!’” Broderick says. “But in Europe, they would say the exact opposite. Americans didn’t know or care about architecture. When the modern architecture movement launched, everybody embraced Le Corbusier and thought he was the greatest. Anything with ornament was viewed as “terrible.”

Ada Louise Huxtable, the Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic, once wrote that “any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and ultimately, deserves. . . . And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

New York City was indeed judged, and the time has come to decide whether the sentence is a temporary one in purgatory or a perpetual one in the subterranean hellhole that is today’s Penn Station.

***

Today, Penn Station is a dispirited amalgam of concrete, serpentine lines of people who have no waiting area — and frustration. Vincent Scully described commuters now entering New York City like rats, rather than gods. Governor Andrew Cuomo observed that Penn Station is “un–New York. It is dark, it is constrained, it is ugly, it is dated architecture, it is a lost opportunity. . . . Frankly it is a miserable experience. . . . It is a terrible impression.”

While the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station was later recognized to be a colossal mistake and galvanized the New York City Landmarks Law of April 1965, which has preserved historic buildings and neighborhoods (and is the reason Grand Central Station is standing today), today’s Penn Station continues to be a fire and public-security hazard. It is an aging infrastructure and a blot on Manhattan’s landscape.

Today’s Station isn’t a destination in itself, as the original version was. It’s the busiest train station in the country, with 600,000 people circulating through it daily. It’s the basement of Madison Square Garden, an emphatic testament of its dysfunction, dejection, and haphazard construction. It’s the ugly stepchild. It’s a squatter.

The governor recognized the problems with the Station and has attempted to fix them by developing the Moynihan Station adjacent to Penn Station, to serve the Long Island Railroad and Amtrak, which only 20 percent of commuters into Penn Station will use — in particular, New Jersey Transit passengers will benefit hardly at all. In January 2018, however, he said that the construction of Moynihan Station was insufficient to solve Penn Station’s fundamental problems, and he called for Penn Station’s overhaul.

But there’s another option — an opportunity, rather — to resurrect what was destroyed in New York City’s limbo of lost things. The National Civic Art Society (NCAS) is seeking to give New York City a second chance with their proposition: Rebuild the original Penn Station.

***

In 2016, NCAS launched its initiative to rebuild Penn Station to it original majesty, appropriately calling the project “Rebuild Penn Station.” Justin Shubow, NCAS’s president and a recent appointee by President Trump to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, has been a fierce proponent of traditional art and architecture and has been gathering support for the proposal to make it a reality.

“Classicism is important to civic architecture in America,” Shubow tells me. “Penn Station was a public space and not just a train station. When people see photos of the old station, they universally want to rebuild it.”

After attending one of Rebuilding Penn Station’s events in New York City, I gathered that there’s an aura of longing and wistfulness among those who experienced the original Penn Station, but especially among young people who had only ever seen the noir photos — they felt that they were robbed and are now haunted by what could’ve been, as if the original Penn Station were an old flame who had gotten away.

Lorraine Diehl recalls visiting Penn Station as a little girl. She missed it so much that she wrote a book about it, The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station. “I didn’t know anything about architecture,” Diehl tells me. But Penn Station “affected me profoundly,” she adds. “I didn’t realize until I finished it that the book is a love story.”

Diehl says that it’s the young people she meets on the tours she used to lead of Penn Station that would be the most impassioned by its loss: “I would show them images of the original station, and they would become so angry! They would feel so deprived.”

The initiative to rebuild Penn Station was launched after Shubow was put in touch with Richard Cameron, a classical architect who is the cofounder of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art and the Beaux-Arts Atelier, an educational platform for practicing architecture as a fine art. Cameron learned about Penn Station’s demolition after being awestruck by the celestial ceiling in Grand Central Station when he was ten years old. Like Lorraine’s young tour visitors, he longed for it. “I wished I had experienced it,” he said.

Shubow says that Rebuild Penn Station is developing a design competition, with the goal of rebuilding the Station to match the original as closely as possible, while retrofitting it to meet modern-day needs. He and Rebuild Penn Station’s steering committee are optimistic for the future and hope to continue winning over the hearts and minds of the movers and shakers in local government and of the transportation companies involved.

“Buildings don’t have to be mortal,” Samuel Turvey, the chairman of Rebuild Penn Station’s steering committee tells me. He describes himself as not necessarily being an architectural classicist in taste, but he has an appreciation for the style. “I think if we took the plunge and rebuilt Penn Station, it would send the message to the world about New York City that it cares about your experience; it wants you to experience the spiritual jolt of walking through its train station.”

The “spiritual jolt” he refers to shouldn’t be exclusive to the “best” of E. B. White’s three New Yorks, the New York of the “person from somewhere else.” The “spiritual jolt” was and still can be for the commuter and even the native, who perhaps one day will be able enter the crossroad of the world with an evocation of belonging and sanguinity, rather than the sense of nihilism and servility that today’s Penn Station instills in its reluctant visitors.

Our built environment is a reflection of its inhabitants and what they value — and Ada Louise Huxtable is right: A city gets what it admires and deserves. Perhaps it’s time for New York City to prove that within its concrete jungle is a second chance, a rectified mistake, a sign of forgiveness and opportunity in a dog-eat-dog world that can be callous and harsh. If New York City cares about elevating the human experience to its utmost dignity, then it’s time to create a shared public space that is the manifestation and earthly microcosm of this cherished doctrine. It’s time to rebuild Penn Station.

Marlo Safi — Marlo Safi is a Collegiate Network Fellow with National Review.

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