Fifty years ago today, on October 28, 1963, destruction began on the original Pennsylvania Station in New York. The iconic Beaux Arts structure, designed by McKim, Mead, and White, opened in 1910 with a distinct air of grandeur: an exterior surrounded by 84 Doric columns, a concourse with a 150-foot vaulted ceiling, and a train shed of "unparalleled monumentality," in the words of historian Carroll Meeks.
"Such opulent dimensions were not functionally necessary; the companies could afford magnificence and enjoyed their munificent role, as princes had in predemocratic ages," wrote Meeks in his 1956 book, The Railroad Station: An Architectural History.
In the mid-1950s, a proposal emerged to raze the station and construct in its place a home for the World's Fair—the so-called "Palace of Progress." That plan fell apart, but a new one surfaced in 1960, this one led by the Madison Square Garden Corporation. That project, detailed by the New York Times in July 1961 [PDF], made room for the arena by flattening the existing Penn Station and building an underground one instead.
Some historically minded residents rallied to save the station. On a hot August evening in 1962, the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York gathered more than a hundred well-dressed protestors to circle the Penn Station entrance, but ultimately their preservation efforts fell short. In a Times editorial published just after the demolition began, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that the city would some day be judged "not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed" [PDF].
Photographer Cervin Robinson captured the original station in a series of pictures taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey in the spring of 1962 (below). Robinson laments the station's demise but notes that at least some good came out of the situation. The city's historical preservation movement gained considerable momentum in the aftermath of the old Penn Station's demolition.
"The loss of the building was a great loss but it such an obvious loss that it helped the city in the long run," Robinson says. "People suddenly realized that New York could tear down things it should never have torn down."
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The current Penn Station is certainly an eyesore, especially compared with its classic predecessor, but its own destruction may occur in the not-so-distant future. City officials recently gave Madison Square Garden ten years to find another location, clearing the way for a brand new Penn in its place. Still, there are many questions to be answered before that day arrives, and Robinson for one doubts anything can match the glory of the original.
"These are obviously not the days when great historic railway stations get built," says Robinson. "I think they would do something that was better than they've got, but not quite as good as what they had."
View from the southeast.
Facade from the northeast.
Facade from the southeast.
West end of south (31st Street) facade.
Waiting room from southwest.
Waiting room from the northwest.
Stairway from waiting room to arcade.
Concourse from southeast.
Concourse from south.
Concourse from southwest.
All images courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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