Ode to Penn Station


Any city
what it admires,
will pay for,


Thus began The New York Time’s poignant ‘Farewell to Penn Station,’ dated October 30, 1963.


“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.”



Comparing the old marvel of architectural ingenuity to the new edifice of corporate and commercial ambition, Vincent Scully of Yale University remarked,

“One entered the city
like a god;
one scuttles in now
like a rat.”

The comment, like the destruction that brought down the original Penn Station, a steel and glass shrine to transportation, an elegant Beaux-Arts temple with its 150 foot high ceilings and a waiting room modeled after the Roman Baths of Caracalla, was apt.

“Now it is an underground Habitrail™, lit by yellowed fluorescents and flavored by the odors of Roy Rogers™ and Cinnabon™ stinking down the corridors. Excepting the mad scurry for Amtrak platforms after the track number has finally been revealed on the big board, it is an oppressive space completely without joy.”



And now fifty years later, the congestion and aesthetic blandness that defines Penn Station is under scrutiny once more. Two weeks ago, the New York Times published a convincing argument, as well as an impassioned plea, to restore what it called a Gateway to Dignity.

Maintaining the stance that there is a historic justice in trying to rectify a crime committed a half-century ago that galvanized the architectural preservation movement, the newspaper simply stated:

“It’s time to address the calamity that is Penn Station.”

It goes on to say, “Nearly a half-century has passed since the destruction of the great 1910 station designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White, a “monumental act of vandalism,” as an editorial in The New York Times called the demolition in 1963. A vast steel, travertine and granite railway palace of the people, the old Pennsylvania Station had declined by the end into a symbol of bygone Gilded Age opulence. It was replaced by Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden, Modernist mediocrities, erected to serve real estate interests, with a new subterranean Penn Station entombed below.

Some 600,000 commuters, riding Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit, now suffer Penn Station every day. That makes it probably the busiest transit hub in the Western world, busier than Heathrow Airport in London, busier than Newark, La Guardia and Kennedy airports combined.”



“To pass through Grand Central Terminal,
one of New York’s exalted public spaces,
is an ennobling experience,
a gift.

To commute
via the bowels
of Penn Station,
just a few blocks away,
is a humiliation.”



In the oft asked question that historians, politicians, city planners, preservationists, visionaries and dreamers pose:

What is the value of architecture?

The answer might be as simple as this:

It can be measured, culturally, humanely and historically, in the gulf between the two. As in exaltation or humiliation.





Image: Original Penn Station, destroyed in 1963
Quote: “Farewell to Penn Station,” New York Times, Oct 30, 1963
Image: Photographer unknown
Image: AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman
Image: Photographer unknown
Quote: New York Times, February 8, 2012
Image: Berenice Abbott, printed ca. 1935




~ by eaesthete on 02/17/12.

5 Responses to “Ode to Penn Station”

  1. What a fantastic post, but they all are from the Errant Aesthete. Check out this blog…inspiring.

  2. I was intrigued by the picture in the Times a few days ago, too. Thanks for the additional research and photos of this once stately gateway.

  3. Beautiful tribute to civility.

    In Toronto, over 900,000 people use the subway system daily. We do not have a magnificent Penn Station to wax eloquently about. Ah, for the days of Jane Jacobs.

  4. A wonderful post, as always! The pictures brought these to mind:

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