Penn Station demolition. Image via wirednewyork.com.
Editor’s note: The following is a piece by Justin Rivers, who has been working for 10 years on a play about the demolition of Penn Station which previewed at the Center for Architecture last fall. The project, titled The Eternal Space, is currently in Kickstarter fundraiser to bring it to fruition.
Fifty-one years ago today, construction crews pulled up to the 33rd Street entrance of New York City’s Beaux-Arts marvel, Pennsylvania Station, with orders to begin its three-year demolition. The station was only 53 years old at the time. It covered two full city blocks, making it the largest indoor public space in the world. Penn’s demolition was precipitated by the bankrupting of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who was forced to sell its air rights and move its rail operation down into an ill-conceived basement station barely one-third the original station’s size. Among many things, Penn Station’s destruction was a symbolic torch passing from the grandiose appreciation of the past to the austere simplicity of the future. As the New York Times so aptly put it in 1961, “The Age of Elegance bowed to the Age of Plastic.”
Image by Ron Ziel
The original Pennsylvania Station was a marvel of architecture from its Beaux-Arts exterior that stood like an imposing entrance to New York City’s west side to its lofty steel interior that harkened back to the Belle Époque of France. Its loss, which was one of the clinching demolitions that cemented the preservation movement, is still felt in New York City’s historical consciousness today. Architectural competitions seek to return the station to its glory, while better serving the population. And now, a play called The Eternal Space is in the works about an untold story from the demolition.
Tomorrow, September 5th marks what would have been the 104th Birthday of the original Pennsylvania Station by designed by architects McKim, Mead & White. For the occasion, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite vintage photographs of the train station, ranging from the architecture to the fashionable commuters to the sad demolition which sparked the creation of a landmarks commission. While we lament the loss of the stately station, its demise has assured the survival of many other wonderful buildings in New York City, including Grand Central Terminal. With the recent news that Penn Station will get an upgrade of tenants, which is a step forward, we’re still hoping for a transformation into a world-class train station.
We’re excited to announce that PBS has given us an exclusive clip from the upcoming documentary The Rise and Fall of Penn Station airing this upcoming Tuesday airing next Tuesday. New York City’s Pennsylvania Station—now mostly underground and a mere shadow of its former glory—was once an engineering marvel designed by famed architect Charles McKim. It was crafted as the “entrance to one of the great metropolitan cities of the world,” stated McKim. Inspired by the architectural grandeur of ancient Rome, McKim designed the structure that would open to great acclaim in 1910 only to be torn down prematurely 53 years later. With an expansive network of sixteen miles of tunnels—many of which were below the city’s treacherous waterways—it was an impressive triumph of civil engineering.
The New York Times recently published images by 93-year old photographer Walter Chandoha who documented New York City’s Pennsylvania Station and its commuters two decades before the demolition. Chandoha was a student at NYU on the G.I. Bill in the 1940s and shot with a Rolliflex camera. He tells the Times, ““When I look at the pictures now and I see the magnificence of it, I think, How could anybody knock this thing down? It’s like knocking down the Colosseum or the Brandenburg Gate. It’s impossible to imagine.”
Image by Ron Ziel
While picking up a friend from Penn Station in 2001, playwright Justin Rivers was drawn to framed photos of a grand train station hanging on the wall. “Oh my god,” he exclaimed, “this must be some place in Europe.” It was at that moment he moved in closer, reading the words “Pennsylvania Station.”
The outrage of this demolition isn’t news to most of us in New York, although the exact picture of this bygone structure might be. The 1963 destruction became the focus for Justin as he began writing The Eternal Space. Photography faded across the screen during Wednesday night’s performance, bringing a face to the ghost left behind by this infamous event.