The Destruction Of Penn Station

Mashable has published a photo essay which looks back at the original Penn Station.

In 1910, when New York City transportation terminal Pennsylvania Station opened, it was widely praised for its majestic architecture. Designed in the Beaux-Arts style, it featured pink granite construction and a stately colonnade on the exterior.The main waiting room, inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, was the largest indoor space in the city — a block and a half long with vaulted glass windows soaring 150 feet over a sun-drenched chamber. Beyond that, trains emerged from bedrock to deposit passengers on a concourse lit by an arching glass and steel greenhouse roof. This may sound unfamiliar for present-day residents of New York City, who know Penn Station as a miserable subterranean labyrinth. Though the original Penn Station served 100 million passengers a year at its peak in 1945, by the late 1950s the advent of affordable air travel and the Interstate Highway System had cut into train use. The Pennsylvania Railroad could not even afford to keep the station clean.

The station was demolished in the early 1960s for the construction of the fourth iteration of Madison Square Garden, which was originally located across town, hello, at Madison Square. Hit the link and lament.

  • Six Pins Delores

    Criminal!

  • Lakeview Bob

    I don’t think I ever knew there was a Penn Station other than the mess that exist today. What a tragic loss to the city. But then again it would have been prohibitively expensive to maintain the old structure. Europeans seem to be so much more committed to maintaining their treasures.

    • Robert Flanagan

      Grand Central was headed toward the same fate until Jackie Onasis stepped in and put her stylish well shod foot down. It is a sin that that wonderful building was destroyed!

      • TommyTune

        She was equally adamant about maintaining the open air space in front of St. Bartholomew’s on Park Avenue & 51st St. The church was pitted against her when they wanted to sell their air rights and they lost.

        • Dramphooey

          Jackie apparently didn’t realize the first mission of a church is making money.

  • TommyTune

    I saw the PBS program about the original Penn Station. After watching that you have to wonder, how COULD that magnificent old building have possibly been destroyed? And to think many passengers’ first impression of New York City is the awful new terminal. Very sad. At least Grand Central still survives in all its glory.

    • Schlukitz

      Yes. I saw that PBS program and was in tears watching it.

  • another_steve

    Oh lordy lordy… I remember the fight to preserve it. It was an enormous story in New York City at the time.

    What a glorious public space that was. “Majestic” comes to mind. You felt as if you were entering a very special place, a holy place, when you entered Penn Station.

    Other cities have done better with their grand train stations. Here in Baltimore, they preserved, beautifully, the main train station. It still maintains its original “flavor” — the feel of what it was like to travel the trains in the glory days of train travel.

    The main station in Washington D.C., too. The requisite Starbucks and tourist tee-shirt shops are there, but there again, they managed to preserve much of the grandeur of a bygone era.

    • Miji

      The pictures are amazing, but I always find them so sad. The only way I can find any silver lining in it is to think of Penn as the sacrificial lamb that made stronger landmarks preservation laws possible which have saved countless other buildings. But it was a pretty major sacrifice. I wish that I had been around to have seen it. My first arrival in NY was at Penn Station, but in 1998 so it was through the filthy labyrinth of the current PS only encountering the sun when I emerged disoriented on the corner next to a Sbarro, nothing majestic about that.

      • Joe

        Exactly. Penn Station was absolutely the sacrificial lamb. It died so that many other buildings could be saved by the landmarks law. I do so wish it were still around though.

      • another_steve

        The “filthy labyrinth,” as you so aptly describe it, makes the prior Penn Station’s demolition all the more sad and pathetic.

  • Todd

    Beautiful but tragic pictures. There’s an excellent book (do people still read those?) called “Lost New York” by Nathan Silver that documents not only the loss of many grand structures but also many smaller but still equally tragic ones.

    • another_steve

      There are several such books that New Yorkers and/or lovers of New York City might be interested in.

      Brooklynites (or, like me, former Brooklynites) reading here may want to get a hold of Charles Denson’s wonderful book, ” Coney Island: Lost and Found.”

      An incredible exploration — chock full of photographs — of what Coney Island once was and how it changed into what it became by the end of the 20th Century.

      • Bob from CT

        How I would have loved to have been at Luna Park at Coney Island, on its opening day in 1903

        • another_steve

          Bob, how ironic that you should mention Luna Park.

          When the amusement park closed in the 1940s after a series of fires, the property was vacant until the late-50s/early-60s, at which time a housing development was built on it. The housing development is also called “Luna Park,” and I lived there for 17 years. I eventually moved out of New York City for business purposes.

          A sweet bit of irony, yes? 😉

          • Bob from CT

            Oh, yes it is! Thanks for sharing that with me Steve. 🙂

    • Schlukitz

      A wonderful Internet site that afficianados of yesteryear will certainly enjoy is Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York.

      http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/

      Many is the pleasant hour that I have spent perusing that comprehensive site. Lots of wonderful memories for old-timers like myself who were there to see them before they vanished.

  • Frank Dash

    It’s funny how the destruction of landmarks can rob a town of its soul. Here’s what happened in Albuquerque to the beloved Alvarado Hotel.

  • Phil

    Here in Chicago, we’ve managed to hang on to Union Station, but others have fallen to the wrecking ball: Northwestern Station, LaSalle St. Station, etc. And they’ve somehow managed to move the trading floor of at least one of the exchanges to the Art Institute for preservation. They also have really had to work at preserving others, like The Rookery Building.

    • billbear1961

      Not on the same scale, but the Frick Collection building . . . interior courtyard

      http://www.greatervenues.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/frick-collection-new-york-1280.jpg

    • billbear1961

      And the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery . . .

      https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3144/2386512320_7904839483_b.jpg

      • Craig Howell

        As a licensed DC tour guide, I must say this space, the third floor of the Old Patent Office Building, is one of my very favorite places. The fact that both Walt Whitman and my mother worked in this building (at somewhat different times, you understand) just adds to its appeal.

    • billbear1961

      Just one more . . . the National Gallery of Art . . .

      http://farzinphoto.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/8V7A0540_HDR.jpg

      • Gene

        my favorite space anywhere in the US…although the reading room in the Library of congress comes in a very close second!

        • Robincho

          You must treat yourself to brunch at the Garden Court of SF’s Palace Hotel. It’s thought by many to be the finest Beaux Arts interior space in the country; but as with anything, the eye of the beholder counts for a great deal…

    • Happy_Housewife

      Chicago saved Union Station (by dumping it on poor Amtrak) but they did not save the historic head house, which was like a mini version of the old Penn Station train concourse. Instead, they built an equally dumpy nondescript building over it.

  • Rebecca Gardner

    This native NYer will never understand why they demolished the absolutely beautiful Penn Station to replace it with the ugly fucking piece of shit that exists today.

    • Yeah But No

      Money, and the promise of something better and more “modern” were the reasons Penn Station was demolished. Mashable mentions the money issue and sort of suggests the “modern” issue. For good or ill, (in this case ill ) new technology always wins. Planes were new, trains were less important and people were also interested in a newer “modern” architecture. The promise obviously did not meet the expectation, but that is what happens when you are selling the idea of a building that doesn’t exist yet: you can’t know how good or terrible it is until it is built. Nothing so grand had been destroyed like that before, some New Yorkers even during the destruction knew it was a mistake, but by then it was too late. I think Penn Station was the primary reason the National Register of Historic Places was started, some people at the time could tell the trend for that 60’s modern crap had a huge downside.

    • Schlukitz

      As an ex-New Yorker, I am happy to learn that I am not the only one who hates what sits on what used to be Pennsylvania Station.

  • Marides48

    In 2007 I took the train from Long Island to see Pennsylvania station othe NYC sites. What a disappointment.

  • billbear1961
  • Robincho

    On an infinitely smaller scale, but still: When in NYC, I always used to lodge at the Algonquin Hotel, in the Dorothy Parker Suite. Two rooms
    on the 11th floor, with little tinkly chandeliers, a huge photograph of
    Mrs. Parker in her doe-eyed youth, the original proclamation from the
    City of New York honoring the centenary of her birth, and a couple of framed letters in her own distinctive hand.

    The present management of that property (whose name I will not dis-
    tinguish by mentioning) seems not to know who Mrs. Parker even was,
    and the decor of that suite now resembles nothing so much as a Days
    Inn in Albuquerque…

    • David Walker

      Those “seems not to know who…was” get harder and harder to take as you go along.

      • Robincho

        You got THAT right, pal…

    • barracks9

      • Robincho

        This Parkerine gem was in direct reference to Deems Taylor, then a respected figure in the field of New York music criticism. Apparently, she deemed him worthy to tail ‘er…

    • Gene

      Oh my god…I envy you so.
      and your right about the heinous chain that runs it now…I dont think they even have a prowling around anymore (I miss the old days 🙁

      • Robincho

        You refer, of course, to Matilda. If I didn’t know what a cat’s outside lifespan is, I’d say that Matilda always seemed to harbor many secrets — secrets I would have given most anything to get her to divulge! But like old Frank Case, she kept a lot of stuff to herself.

    • Schlukitz

      Since you are familiar with the Algonquin and Dorothy Parker, I thought that you might find this of interest.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20th_Century_Limited

  • KenDC

    Here in the District, Union Station was headed down that same path. A private developer revitalized it as a successful commercial property. It is not in the same league as Penn, but DC is still much the richer for having it preserved.

  • Raisinhead

    We almost lost St Pancras Station in London for exactly the same short-termist indifference.

    Now look at it. Trains to Paris gliding in under the original Victorian ironwork – like the old Penn Station, monuments to cherish.

    • Schlukitz

      Gorgeous.

  • I remember going to pick my grandmother up from a trip a year or two before Penn Station was torn down. I was very young, but I remember that vast space and enjoyed the pigeons flying around inside.

    • 2guysnamedjoe

      I was in Penn Station for the same reason, around the same time. I don’t remember what it looked like (six year olds don’t pay much attention to architectural detail), but I remember the hugeness of it. I felt like I’d been swallowed by a whale.

    • sfbob

      Yup, same here. My grandparents were old enough to have taken winter vacations from New York to Miami Beach in the days when air travel was exotic and faintly scary (in fact my grandmother’s very first flight was in 1967 following my grandfather’s death in Miami). My folks always seemed to be the ones tasked with picking them up at Penn Station and taking them back to the Bronx.

      • Schlukitz

        Thanks for sharing that piece of memorabilia with us, sfbob.

        I too took my first flight (trans-Atlantic) in 1967.

    • Schlukitz

      I always wondered how the pigeons manged to get inside that station?

  • J̶a̶l̶a̶p̶e̶ñJoe Smithson

    Love the pic of the Ladies Who Lunch with their white gloves and picket signs. Bless their hearts.

    • perversatile

      It was those same Ladies that saved the Fox Theatre in Atlanta from Southern Bell’s plans to demolish and build an office tower!

      • J̶a̶l̶a̶p̶e̶ñJoe Smithson

        Never underestimate the power of the Ladies Who Lunch.

      • Gene

        one of the GREAT spaces in Atlanta. Standing on Ponce looking west at it, I had a really hard time at first convincing a visiting Turkish client it was not originally a Mosque (which was kind of the look they were going for, and succeeded).
        It was not Sherman who ruined most of old Atlanta…it was developers in the 60’s and 70’s.

        • perversatile

          and the developers in the 80’s 90’s 00’s ad nauseam

      • Schlukitz

        Absolutely gorgeous. Sitting in the lodge, smoking cigarettes while enjoying the latest movie gave one a sence of importance. Watching movies in such a wonderful environment, was like being transported to another world for a few hours and upon leaving it, it took a little while to adjust to being back in the real world again.

        Thanks for sharing that beautiful photo with us. Sadly, there are not a lot of those magnificent monuments to the glory of the Hollywood movie screen left in America. *sigh*

        I sure do miss the grand old movie palaces of yesteryear. I’d like to have a nickel for every film that I ever viewed in one during the course of my long life.

        Saturday afternoons as a kid, especially during the hot, muggy summers, were mostly spent at a matinee at similar beautiful old theatres in Albany, New York and Tampa Florida that were “Cooled by Artesian Wells”.

        For 35 cents, I got to see a double feature, The News of the Day Newsreel and as many as five cartoons. It was an all afternoon affair with the only regulation from my family being that I be seated at the dinner table no later than 6PM.

        • perversatile

          the holiday dishes from my childhood came from the Fox , my Grandmother and Aunts would have a girls night out on “dish night”. Granny would always say “a free plate, cold air and watching some strumpet on the big screen was just about worth the25 cents to get in.”

          • Schlukitz

            LOL

      • billbear1961

        Breathtaking!

  • BearEyes

    Oh to have seen that beautiful piece of architecture before destruction.
    I’ve had to commute into the current dreck with the Penn name. The replacement is a miserable experience.

  • OldGuy

    On my first trip to NYC in 1953 I arrived at Penn Station at 9 a.m. after a 3-1/2 day train trip from the west coast. I was truly awestruck!! When I left two weeks later, the 20th Century Limited was boarding, with a red carpet the length of the platform. It’s hell to get old, but wonderful to have great memories! (That same day, I saw the original “King and I” matinee.)

    • Dramphooey

      I apologize for throwing a rock but the 20th Century Limited departed from Grand Central Station because it was a New York Central Train. You’ve either confused the stations or mixed the train up with the Broadway Limited, which was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s rival train to Chicago. Sorry for the pedantry!

      • Schlukitz

        Oops…sorry for the duplication of your post. I did not read down far enough to see yours.

        I too must be getting old and confused because I was under the impression that I also had taken the 20th Century Limited out of Pennsylvania Station back in the mid 50’s when I visited with friends out in Dayton, Ohio.

        Unlike the 20th Century Limited which followed the Hudson River upstate before heading west, the train that I took crossed the then open and undevelopd Hackensack Meadowlands of New Jersey, so I must have been on the Broadway Limited as you suggested.

        Odd, however, that that OldGuy and I would have recalled having the exact same experiece?

        Do do do do

        Do do do do

    • Schlukitz

      Not to debate your veracity, but didn’t the 20th Century Limited depart from Grand Central Station as part of the New York Central Railroad?

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20th_Century_Limited

      • OldGuy

        Well at my age at least I got the “Limited” part right? I do remember clearly the red carpet and the platform raised so you didn’t have to climb those steep stairs to get into the cars. Also, there was a white jacketed porter at every door to assist with all the hatboxes, etc. It was all very glamorous – at least to my provincial eyes.

        • Schlukitz

          The really mysterious part of this, is that we both had the exact same memories of that experience, which is really spooky when you think about it. 🙂

          This reminds me of the wonderful story about the two old ladies in an old age home who were playing cards. One says to the other…

          “I’m sorry but try as hard as I may, I can’t seem to recall your name.”

          After a long pause with no reply, she repeats herself.

          “Perhaps you didn’t hear me the first time, but I really can’t seem to recall your name. Could you please let me know what it is?

          After another long pause, the other lady replied…

          “I heard you. How soon do you need to know?”

  • Gene

    What the fuck were they thinking?
    oh yeah…they really weren’t

  • Dramphooey

    Yes, moronic and shortsighted greed is what brought down the Penn Station. Thanks for the example.

    • Schlukitz

      Wow.

      A “Guest” post that got deleted. It must have been a lulu if Joe took it down,

      Hallelujah! LOL

  • RoFaWh

    Tastes in architecture change fairly rapidly, and there’s a window of dis-opportunity at around the sixty-year mark when any building is at grave risk of demolition because “it’s old fashioned”. Buildings that survive twenty or thirty years past that window tend to survive better.

    Note that Penn Station was 50+ years old when it was carted off in fragments to the dumps in New Jersey.

    This disrespect for the past affects more than just buildings. The vast organ in the Atlantic City Convention Center (now “Boardwalk Hall”) was ruined during ill-managed “restoration” when workmen simply cut the innumerable small tubes the organ’s pneumatic action depended on. The organ has since been partly repaired, but the sheer number of pipes —and tubes! — makes the job a horror show.

    • Schlukitz

      By American standards (and short attention span), Paris should be bulldozed and rebuilt.

    • 2guysnamedjoe

      Disrespect for the past, destroying the irreplaceable. The destruction of Penn Station and of old East Side tenements are a loss to the city’s fabric, and a lost connection to another world. I think of the sandstone cherubs and grapevines on my grandma’s Second Avenue tenement building, destroyed about 50 years ago, and nothing like it will ever take its place. I can’t point it out to my young cousins, and tell them their great-grandma lived in the top-floor railroad flat on the right.

  • David Walker

    Riding the train was an exotic, exciting experience to anyone but commuters, so the arrival at such vast monuments to railroads was extraordinary. Philadelphia had (and may still have) two such amazing monuments…the downtown Suburban Station and the 30th Street. They also kind of signaled the end of the adventure…leaving these incredibly huge, ornate structures to go *sigh* home. That was not awful for us. The station in Lancaster was, in its own way, quite beautiful and nicely big. In comparison, the one in Harrisburg is just OK. The Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel in Scranton is one of the finest re-purposing of a grand old train station I’ve ever seen.

  • sfbob

    I’m (barely) old enough to remember the original, beautiful Penn Station which I got to travel through a few times. I was 13 when it was demolished and I was heartbroken.

  • pj

    watch the first five minutes of the marlyn monroe movie the seven year itch…it was filmed at penn station and its amazing to see it in action..

  • Schlukitz

    I came to New York City in 1953 when I was 15-16 years old, so I remember this iconic train station quite well and made several trips through it portals. Like many others, I was heartbroken when it was razed. Thank goodness that Grand Central Station was saved.

  • Dave B

    Don’t get me started on Los Angeles. This shit hole town has allowed the demolition of nearly every beautiful landmark building to be replaced with some ugly piece of shit. Yes we still have some left, but some of the best buildings ever built are gone.

  • rednekokie

    I have never quite understood why the definition of an American has always seemed to be “he who destroys everything”.
    Penn station was a work of art. So many other works of art have gone by the same way — especially the grand theatres, such as the San Francisco Fox, The New York Roxy, and many of the grand old hotels.
    It seems that all that counts any more in this country is the making of the everpresent dollar. Just imagine if Europe had gone that way! Even after two world wars, they have managed to keep the great old structures which have meant so much to so many.
    Who, now would want to tear down the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, St. Paul’s in London, Westminster abbey, Buckingham palace, the Paris Opera, the canals of Venice, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc.?
    I can probably name off hand quite a number of very wealthy Americans who could see making another couple of bucks by doing so.
    Several of them are running for president right now.
    Disgusting!!!

  • King Street station in Seattle was recently renovated and it’s just beautiful. Tiny compared to Penn Station, but a little gem in it’s own way.

    http://skift.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/seattle2.jpg

    Unfortunately, Seattle is in the middle of massive building boom and in the process many buildings are simply being demolished to be replaced with ugly, utilitarian structures. The city doesn’t seem in the least bit interested in preserving the quality that has made Seattle a livable city. Now it’s all about how many units and how quickly they can be put up. Ugh.

  • LAguy323

    PBS American Experience documentary The Rise and Fall of Penn Station
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/penn/player

  • JCF
  • JCF

    Though it’s only a tiny *fragment* as elegant, when I was taking Pennsylvania’s Main Line frequently in the 1990s, I became fond of the Harrisburg Station: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrisburg_Transportation_Center, especially it’s European-style shed:

    http://www.sodor-island.net/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/mrbts_ac02.jpg

  • Estrafalario

    So thankful the older Union Station in Washington wasn’t demolished. It’s a glorious structure.

  • Rand503

    Here in Buffalo, NY, we have the Central Terminal, built in 1929 for New York Central. It was abandoned in the 1979, but a non profit group is trying to restore it. It is really glorious, and had master italian craftsmen produce everything in a high art deco style.

    The sad thing is that the terminal is in a place where there is no development, and non likely, so finding a use for it has been very difficult. It could be a train station again, but Amtrak prefers the poky little 70s shithole they built after they abandoned it.

    • billbear1961

      Grand!

    • Happy_Housewife

      The same thing happened in Omaha, where Amtrak occupied the old Burlington station for the first few years of its existence, but the maintenance costs – and especially the heating costs – were overwhelming, particularly for only two trains per day. Keep in mind that these host railroads in many cases had not been keeping these stations up to begin with, and Amtrak didn’t own them, so they couldn’t do many improvements. In that case, Amtrak retreated to a smaller, but much more functional station just to the east of it.

      But Amtrak owns the concourse of the old Buffalo station (even though it’s separated from the station, and essentially unusable). Like so many things Amtrak owns, it was forced on them because of the collapse of the passenger railroad industry. The NE corridor, when Amtrak acquired it in 1971 or thereabouts, was on the verge of collapse. Thanks to chronic underfunding by Congress, it is still lacking in many ways.

  • Happy_Housewife

    Penn Station’s ultimate demise was its sheer size. A low rise building, occupying four square blocks of Manhattan, owned by a business that was cash strapped, and with no tax breaks for historic structures, could not survive – particularly when it was overbuilt to begin with. It never met the ridership expectations the original designers had for it (although it probably would today)

    There was one idea floated that would have destroyed just the front part – the long concourse from Seventh Avenue to the majestic main waiting room, which would have preserved the most iconic parts. It’s too bad that at least that didn’t happen.