Eulogy for a Fallen Giant

The main waiting area of the old NY Penn Station

If you’ve ever taken the train into New York City, there’s a good chance you arrived in New York Penn Station. Pennsylvania Station is a major hub of the city’s public transportation system and one of the busiest and most important train stations in the city.

Initially named for its affiliation with the Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Penn Station is one of more than half-a-dozen Penn Stations across the Northeast of the US. When it was originally built in 1910, Penn Station was a symbol of modern transportation systems and social progress. Along with Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station provided a major intercity rail connection in Manhattan.

However, despite the long and important history of this train station, the Penn Station you see today is a mere shadow of the one that stood there a half century ago. The original Penn Station, which stood from its completion in 1910 until it was removed in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden and an office building, was the largest train station ever built, encompassing a full two city blocks. A masterpiece of neoclassical architecture, the Penn Station of old featured a grand waiting room with a 150 ft. vaulted ceiling that soared overhead, Romanesque colonnades that lined the exterior of the building, and platforms lined with decorative ironwork. It was a powerful symbol of the union between modern technology and ancient glory, and it served as a monument to display the wealth and power of the great city of New York. However, its life proved to be far shorter than anyone in 1910 could have ever expected.

Decorative ironwork in the old NY Penn Station

In the early 1960’s, rail traffic was declining due to the advent of the interstate highway system and commercial air travel. In response to its bleak outlook for the future, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided to sell the ground level section of the property and its associated airspace. The tracks and platforms, which were primarily housed underground, would continue to serve their original purpose, and have remained active to this day. Although there were some efforts to stop the demolition of Penn Station, the population of New York City remained largely quiet. After all, who would ever even think of tearing down such a magnificent building?

But razed it was. The grand hall… gone. The sculptures… trash. The ironwork… scrap metal. All that remains of the grand edifice, barring the platforms themselves, are a single staircase, an iron entryway, and a few other small remnants of the old building scattered within and around the new station. Fortunately, some of the sculptures and clocks were salvaged, and are now on display in museums, universities, other train stations, and elsewhere.

The old NY Penn Station

The world was taken aback at the destruction of such a magnificent and important structure. The demolition of Penn Station shocked New York into passing a landmark protection law and creating a commission responsible for the protection of historical landmarks. This commission was later responsible for preventing the demolition of Grand Central Terminal, after a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The current Penn Station resides almost entirely underground, and consists of the original platforms along with what many describe as small, unflattering “catacombs” consisting of a low-ceilinged waiting area, a concourse, shops, etc. However, a new, more beautiful train station may be coming soon. Although there have been many legal and financial hindrances, a plan for the construction of a new station in a nearby post office has gained traction in recent years. The station will be named Moynihan Station, in honor of the US senator who pushed for its creation. Entrances to the underground tracks of Penn Station from the post office are scheduled to be completed by 2016, after which the construction of the main hall of Moynihan Station will begin. However, even after its completion, the new station will only service Amtrak passengers – about five percent of Penn station’s current traffic. NJ Transit, Long Island RR, and subway passengers will continue to use the crowded Penn Station.

The story of New York Penn Station is one of great tragedy, of inevitable change, and of lessons to be learned. Functionally, its demolition provided great benefits to the city. A new arena, additional office space, … and all while keeping a fully functional train station. However, with the loss of the architectural masterpiece that was Penn Station, New Yorkers lost a beautiful piece of artwork to bring joy to their daily commute. They lost a magnificent edifice that welcomed visitors to the city with a declaration of New York’s greatness. They lost a symbol of the past and an old friend.

Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned. Sometimes, even in mundane, everyday things like a train station, people long for more than just simple functionality. Engineers would be wise to recognize that desire, however unquantifiable. Transportation systems are intended to serve people. Why should that be limited to such a narrow concept? If a transportation system can be beautiful without sacrificing its primary function, is it not more likely to be used? Will it not bring more joy and satisfaction to the people it serves? Will not more people be interested in its upkeep and preservation? Maybe art and man’s sense of beauty are the best answers to the question of true sustainability after all.

The main waiting area of the old NY Penn Station







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