A photo from Norman McGrath’s Penn Station demolition collection. Source: Norman McGrath.
I love lost causes… That’s why I give tours of Penn Station.
She’s the ugly transit stepchild forced to process 650,000 disgruntled travelers a day while her prettier stepsister across town dresses up to host the regional commuter ball. Grand Central Terminal is breathtaking, romantic and loved throughout the world. Penn is made fun of, worn down and almost universally hated. Most people just count her out and pass her by.
But I think inside a lost cause like Penn is the core of something very special. That’s why for almost two years now, Untapped Cities and I have been taking people around the current station to find the still-beating heart of the old one.
A photo from The Eternal Space, a play about Penn Station’s demolition. Source: Mike Scully.
I wrote a play about Penn Station called The Eternal Space and that’s how I started doing this. It’s a show about two men who meet in Penn at various points during its three-year demolition. One is an older English teacher named Joseph who wants nothing more than to save the station while a younger construction worker and photographer named Paul photo documents its demise. The two polar opposites become unlikely friends in the process of losing the building that plays host to their friendship. I was lucky enough to see the show make it to an Off Broadway stage in 2015 and as a guerrilla marketing tactic, I teamed up with Untapped Cities to host a tour of the remnants of Penn. I thought, “oh let’s see if we can squeeze one or two tours out of this. I mean how many people can be sold on a tour that walks around Penn Station?”
Well, over 400 people have attended, mostly New Yorkers, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to stop anytime soon.
The 8th Avenue entrance to Penn Station circa 1962 right before the demolition began. Source: Library of Congress
There are two things most commuters don’t realize about Penn: First, there used to be a gorgeous Beaux Arts station that was demolished in the mid-60’s. Second: Parts of that old station can still be found today. They’ve just been buried under the arena that landed on top of them.
When tour goers finally see all that for themselves, it’s hard for them to look at Penn the same way again. By the end of the tour, people can’t believe how they have underestimated the rich history still alive in the station. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the play and now give the tours: To give Penn the voice it lost in 1963.
After one of the tours, a woman tweeted out, “Thanks for helping me see beauty in Penn Station.” Just to have the words “beauty” and “Penn Station” back in the same sentence makes me feel like I can turn just about anything into gold.
Don’t believe me? Come on a tour and find out for yourself:
If you’re interested in learning even more about the past, present and future of Penn Station join Untapped Cities as we take part in Penn Station 1963-2023: A Public Conversation. It is comprised of two events:
The Legacy of Penn Station hosted by the New York Transit Museum on October 25th.
The Future of Penn Station cohosted by Untapped Cities with the Museum of the City of New York.