The Romance and Pain of Penn Station

UPDATE: One of the original watercolor renderings of the proposed Penn Station by Jules Crowe, 1906
(New-York Historical Society)

A terrific shot of the station during WWII,
with an amazing graphic installation by Raymond Loewy

images by Peter Moore
The"clamshell" ticket counter was an attempt to update the station.
I don't not like it (even if a double negative conveys my hesitance).
It reminds me of Saarinen's TWA terminal and is very much of its time.

It was a total surprise to discover that the demolition did not disrupt essential day-to-day operations: commuter service and access to the tracks and platforms were in full operation throughout. Image by Peter Moore
An advertisement from a 1968 Progressive Architecture Magazine showing Charles Luckman Associates' model of what fills the space of the former Penn Station: the Madison Square Garden Center complex.
This fascinating and embarrassing artifact, a brochure issued by the LIRR about the demolition,
construction and what was happening,
breezily informs riders "you'll have one of the most modern, spacious,
cheerful and functional terminals in the nation."
(municipal art society)

On October 28, 1963 New York began its long painful farewell to McKim Mead & White's monumental Pennsylvania Station.
The supremely majestic nine-acre structure of travertine marble and granite, its columns more than 6 stories tall, didn't go quietly. It took 3 years to hack up and cart away, with parts haphazardly dumped in the NJ Meadowlands, like the remains of a Mob hit.

I can't help but see many of the demolition images as documenting a crime, and I don't mean figuratively. There truly is something unsettling, obscene even, in the partially exposed steel framework, a slow-motion dismemberment, the tremendous hulk lurching under the raining blows from workmen.

Photojournalist Peter Moore and his wife Barbara documented the "unbuilding" process in thousands of images. A selection of these became The Destruction of Penn Station, a book issued in 2000, described as both romantic and painful.

Critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote at the time,
"The tragedy is that our own times not only could not produce such a building, but cannot even maintain it..." "It confirms the demise of an age of opulent elegance, of conspicuous, magnificent spaces, rich and enduring materials, the monumental civic gesture, and extravagant expenditure for esthetic ends."
I'll be working on an exhibit about Penn Station in the next couple months, so I've been going over the arc of its archetypal moral tale: elegance and beauty sacrificed to base money interests. In reviewing all with fresh eyes I was astonished to find myself almost being able to understand the decision to replace it.

The very fact that Penn Station carried the standard of "conspicuous space" and "extravagant expenditure" made its demise, in the era of the Jetsons, inevitable. It had been on a long slide down toward becoming what even the New York Times called "a grimy monument to an age of expansive elegance." Under years of careless structural intrusions and minimal upkeep, with the automobile stripping the glamour —and convenience— from railroad travel, Penn station was a cavernous empty space with an expensive maintenance ticket. It was a glaring anachronism at 50, still evoking starched collars and walking sticks when the public was thinking about space travel, Tang, and GoGo boots. I could almost—almost— see what it was they were thinking.
. . . . . .
See several stunning images, and a few harrowing scenes of carnage.


Dan said...

You know, I only discovered images of this just this year, after living in New York for a while... It all really makes me sad and even angry.

nick sung said...

We should talk about this; I have Penn Station projects...

Monrovian said...

That rendering of the new ticket hall (third from the bottom unintentionally conveys how oppressive that low, false ceiling is. Such an incredible contrast when juxtaposed with the cavernous, cathedral heights of the old departure hall.


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