Also known as Pennsylvania Station, the busiest rail station in the United States. The major Amtrak station on the Northeast Corridor and the terminal for New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road.
Once the grandest gateway into New York City, since 1962 has been little more than Madison Square Garden's basement, a mishmash of "modern" corridors, low ceilings, and endless rows of suburban chain stores. Its loss is comparable to — possibly even worse than — a similar "modernization" effort on London's late, great Euston Station around the same time.
The original terminal, designed by Beaux-Arts architects McKim, Mead and White and erected by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1909, was a grand temple to rail travel which occupied four city blocks bounded by Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 30th and 33rd Streets. The Seventh Avenue facade was dominated by a collonade of granite pillars modelled after the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The main waiting room, designed to echo the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, featured a giant barrel-vaulted ceiling as high and long as the nave of Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. And the main departure concourse featured a dramatic glass train shed which brought ample sunlight down to the train platforms themselves. Richly detailed sculptures abounded, including twelve statues of giant eagles which once perched all along the cornice of the station.
McKim, Mead and White had intended for their masterpiece to survive for 500 years; it barely lasted 53. With postwar rail travel on the decline, Penn Railroad merged with rival New York Central in the '60s to form Penn Central, which immediately set out with plans to "improve" Penn Station and its crosstown neighbor, Grand Central Terminal. Entering into deals with the owner of Madison Square Garden, Irving Felt, it was decided that both groups could maximize profits if the Garden were moved from its 1925 building on 51st and Eighth to a new, "modern" structure right on top of Penn Station. The result: the most supernal rail terminal ever to be built in the United States was dismantled and carted off to Secaucus, giving New Jersey the claim to having the world's most elegant dump. The banal replacement was "architect" Charles Luckman's oil drum that was the new MSG, paired with an ugly slab office tower, with plenty of cramped, claustrophobic, artificially-lit space for scurrying suburban commuters downstairs.
There was a silver lining to the loss of Penn Station, however. The public outcry was immense: the New York Times called it a "monumental act of vandalism" and "the shame of New York." Architectural historian Vincent Scully lamented, "Through (Penn Station) one entered the city like a god. Now one scuttles in like a rat." And Ada Louise Huxtable, the Times' architecture critic, warned, "We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."
The result of this outcry was the creation of the New York City Landmarks Commission, the first of its kind in any city in the U.S. Multiple buildings and districts in New York have been preserved since, particularly Grand Central Terminal, New York's last surviving grand gateway. Before it was declared a national landmark in 1978, it was very nearly razed in a similar venture by Penn Central — which went spectacularly bankrupt in 1970. Karma's a bitch.
The loss of Penn Station can probably never be undone, but some of the damage can be repaired and some civic penance can be done. In 2005, plans finally moved forward for many of Penn Station's operations to be moved into a new terminal across Eighth Avenue, to be housed in the Central Post Office which, serendipitously enough, was also designed by McKim. The new terminal, to be named after the late State Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, will serve LIRR and NJT commuters, as well as some Amtrak riders. Hopefully, MSG will eventually be moved somewhere else and the current building will be demolished, allowing for something worthwhile to take its place.
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