Pennsylvania Station: New York’s Great Shame
The Story of the Design, Construction, and Ultimate Destruction of
By the time the turn of the twentieth century shook up America with an exceptional industrial roar, the “Standard Railroad of the World,” the Pennsylvania Railroad, had already extended her shimmering steel rails throughout the east. When mapped for railroad atlases, the convoluted, yet all-encompassing “Pennsy” system resembled less a railroad, but the twisting, crowded veins that stretch within the complex human body. Like these veins, which carry blood to the heart, Pennsylvania rail lines were the lifeline which carried supplies, as opposed to blood, to the pulsing economic and industrial heart of the United States. These rails were, and remain so today, the crowning achievement of railroad planning, and the pinnacle of railroading efficiency. By 1900, with the passing of only fifty-three short years since the founding of the celebrated railroad, the Pennsylvania had already developed and enhanced a rail system that was envied by her competitors, and admired by those who served on her, traveled on her, and lived nearby her broad steel ribbons of track. Like a visionary mentor, the Pennsylvania ushered the railways out of an era of infancy and into an era of state-of-the-art modernity, all the while becoming the world’s largest publicly traded corporation, as well as its busiest railroad.1 The Pennsylvania more than earned her branding as the standard railroad of the world, as very swiftly she became a rail colossus among ordinary giants. She was the pride of the United States; a technological showpiece that exuberantly declared that with limitless funds, human ambition, and the determination of our spirit, civilization is capable of terrific accomplishments.
New York City’s Pennsylvania Station (1900-1966)
While the Pennsylvania Railroad impressively stamped its world famous maroon keystone herald on much of the east from Saint Louis and Chicago to Jersey City in 1900 (it once considered extending trackage trans-continentally), 2 it lacked one attribute that could only, and was, characterized as embarrassing—the railroad stopped at Jersey City. One mile beyond the deep waters of the imposing Hudson River is America’s sprawling premier city of cities, whose magic island has captivated the world’s imagination through cloud-scraping skylines and overwhelming wealth. New York City is irritatingly close to the mighty railroad’s grasp, yet is unattainable. Manhattan isle, the focus of the uniquely American metropolis, is surrounded by wide, forceful currents of sea water. This limiting barrier would force the Pennsylvania to ferry its patrons from their marvelous terminal in Jersey City to the railroad’s private dock in Lower Manhattan, under the tall, masonry towers of the Finance District. The absence of a great Pennsylvania Railroad terminal in America’s paramount city was a serious psychological concussion.3
The natural suggestion of establishing a terminus within New York City was understandably not an original idea for the Pennsylvania or any of the railroad’s competitors.4 The lure of the city was too great to not conceptualize various schemes detailing methods to reach the shores of Manhattan. Many times previously the railroad had been involved in discussions with rival railroads to construct a connection into the city. Three of those instances actually became proposals which, save for economic recessions, expenses, and disastrous tunneling efforts, may have been realized.5 Over time, with the failure of these laudable alternatives, a solo attempt at tunneling under the North (Hudson) and East Rivers soon became the preferred option for the Pennsylvania.6 At once, multiple plans to tunnel under New York City were formulated. Vast in scope, cost, and danger, they all represented an engineering undertaking virtually unrivaled at this period in history. Trimming away unnecessary or overly complicated means to reach the city, the Pennsylvania Railroad finally agreed upon a proposal to break into the New York City frontier—and it was tremendous.7
The contracts delegated out to various construction companies would require the boring of two, single-tracked tunnels under the North River near Union City, New Jersey to Midtown Manhattan. In Midtown, the two North River tunnel tracks would rise on a grade into a large, below street level classification yard for passenger cars. Further east of the yard, the tracks would burrow under Manhattan once more, while increasing from two tracks to twenty-one. These additional tracks would feed into and service a great station. The station itself, as the Pennsylvania Railroad management envisioned it, would be an extraordinary structure capable of stunning even the most jaded New Yorker. The station head would dominate two city blocks and extend over eight acres. This awesome Pennsylvania Station, as it would be named, would be the largest railroad station in the world. From Pennsylvania Station, the tracks would continue inside the tunnel across the island, dive further underground, cross under the East River in four single-tracked mile long bores, and resurface once more in Sunnyside, Queens at the world’s largest passenger classification yard.8 From Sunnyside, Pennsy tracks would be elevated onto a lengthy trestle which would arch over Queens and eventually lead onto a great bridge over the formidable Hell Gate. The seventeen thousand foot long Hell Gate Bridge would be the largest and strongest steel arch bridge in the world,9 and provide a through-rail line across the entire Atlantic Coast.10 With its subsidiary, the New Haven Railroad, the Pennsylvania would have access to potential customers from as distant as St. Louis to Boston. The entire project could only be described by superlatives, and it would cost the railroad in excess of one-hundred million dollars—an unfathomable sum of money in 1900.11 But, if one company could afford it, it was indeed the Pennsylvania Railroad. In one year, the permits and approvals were acquired, and soon the massive project broke ground. In a few years time, there would be no more lush Pennsylvania ferries traversing the busy Hudson.
November 27th, 1910 was a momentous day for New York City as the main components of one of the largest constructions projects in history—certainly New York City’s history—was finally complete. Only the Hell Gate Bridge portion was incomplete, and there would be seven more years until the first train finally rolled over the graceful, arched red bridge. Trains were now crisscrossing the Pennsylvania Station tubes, an engineering marvel, and the Pennsylvania alas had her grand entrance into America’s city of dreams and aspirations.12 Colossal in every sense of the word was the project’s crowning achievement—Pennsylvania Station. Designed by Charles F. McKim of the premier architectural firm of the United States at the turn of the century, McKim, Mead and White, whose neoclassical emphasis was very much in fashion at the time, Pennsylvania Station was a sensational Beaux Arts masterpiece. For a commission of two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Charles McKim’s fifty million dollar celebration of rail travel did not disappoint.13
Requiring the demolition of over five-hundred buildings, fifteen million bricks, twenty-seven thousand tons of steel, five-hundred and fifty thousand cubic feet of Milford pink granite, and digging so far deep New Yorker’s exclaimed, “I can see down to China!,”14 the station towered over one hundred-fifty feet high. Lavishly clad in pink ornamental granite quarried from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania Station was a Roman dream. One’s first view of the dignified station was typically on Eighth Avenue in the center of New York City, where eighty-four prodigious Doric columns fronted a façade modeled after Berlin’s legendary Brandenburg Gate. A commanding concentration of meticulously organized stone-sheathed steel columns and imperial cornices, McKim produced a most effective visual power that demanded respect from both Pennsylvania Railroad patrons and hurried passers-by alike. Seemingly carved from the tough, earthen granite composing Manhattan isle herself, the same storied rock that anchors the reaching skyscrapers down at Wall Street and Broad, Pennsylvania Station stirred only the most tremendous excitement and exaltation. With the stone-weighted appearance of being millions of tons, the station shoved its intense weight to the ground and dominated its large Manhattan block like a regal throne. High above pedestrians, the loftiest position on the entrance façade was concluded by a stone balustrade which supported a magnificent seven foot wide clock draped in granite wreaths. Here, sculpted maidens were guarded on their sides by powerful stone eagles, those meticulously stylized and manually crafted by the praised Adolph Weinman.15 The composition was arresting.
Proceeding through the royal main portico, one of four great gateways under giant, airy windows, one would find themselves inside the barrel-vaulted arcade, a stone thoroughfare lined with shops and lunette windows that playfully bounced rays of sunlight onto the marble floor. Here, upscale boutiques sold oddities and standard fare items for both the traditional commuter and the hordes of tourists, as well as general services for the hundreds of thousands of daily pedestrians. The end of this lengthy passageway carefully linked with two loggias, expansive colonnaded, gender-separated waiting rooms that set precedent with regards to the sumptuousness of its furnishings and architectural details.16 In these rooms, gentlemen shared stories over swirling cigar smoke and fine brandy, while dressy women gossiped over the latest New York scandals and tended to their children. Often both parties would soon reunite inside the regal dining room and café, capable of welcoming over five hundred individuals at one time, possibly for a relaxing brunch with fellow commuters and travelers.17 Presumably after the partaking of a gourmet meal or snack, a passenger would exit the dining room and re-enter the arcade through to the main waiting room via a grandiose staircase. The room was a sight to behold! Surrounded entirely by dominating, sixty-five feet wide lunette windows which allowed sunlight to pour in from outside, the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla inspired waiting room was an apex of the station, a culmination of superior design and revolutionary American technology.18 The lofty, coffered ceiling rose an incredible one-hundred and fifty feet high, supported by monolithic six story high columns of pink travertine, while the two entrances to paralleling avenues were protected by six commanding Doric columns.19 Marble ticketing offices were carefully carved into the station’s walls, providing shelter for ticketing agents, and marble pedestals supporting intricately designed lampposts provided the only artificial light source in the entire great room.20 At night, these lampposts illuminated hushed New York commuters on their shuffle home to their wives and children, while the great vaulted void soaring above them remained shrouded in mystic darkness. There were no chairs in this waiting room for this was a space to stand and admire! 21 Alas, if there were any doubts about who funded the completion of this outrageously expensive and pretentious wonder, one needed to look no further than north or south. Vast blue and tan topographical maps of the United States flanked the avenue entrances, and the Pennsylvania Railroad valiantly marked her rapidly expanding commercial territory—territory that produced such enormous wealth that the Pennsylvania was isolated in its terrific success and endless accolades. An unrivaled work of architecture and stunning in its complex entanglement of design and engineering, the waiting hall was truly a sublime public space, a genuine work of art that encouraged the profound human act of imagination and wonder. Experiencing the waiting hall, one knew they were not anywhere; they were in New York City!
The great tour of the possibility of humankind was not over. To board waiting passenger trains, one needed to encounter one more magnificent flight of stone steps and advance into the grand concourse. From the stairwell vantage, the encompassing view was awe-inspiring. Soaring above all pedestrians was a dreamlike glass and steel train shed reminiscent of the great railway sheds of industrial Europe, particularly London’s Liverpool Street Station. Graceful, slender and delicate steel beams thrust ever-skyward from the floor and culminated in superb glass domes that framed magically the nighttime constellations of New York’s sky—a true ethereal quality.22 The concourse floor, wonderfully suspended over the busy railroad tracks by the resolute strength of steel, provided a stunning visual feast by leading the understandably wandering eye into the depths of the station and to the crowded trains themselves (the marvel of an electric train, no less). 23
The train platforms, which are sunk deep beneath Pennsylvania Station’s street level floor, are accessible only through stairs and elevators, but are exposed to the brilliance of sunlight—a terrific feat considering the depth of which the tracks are buried.24 A passenger on a premier Pennsylvania train set, such as the Broadway Limited, must have been quite captivated with the splendid glass and steel room after riding the subterranean rails underneath the metropolis for quite some time. Today, words and photographs fail miserably to accurately capture the great space’s class and elegance. The grand concourse was the ultimate in concourse design and construction, a marvelously successful implementation of modern technology. After a decade of construction, the verdict was clear and unanimous: the Pennsylvania Railroad had created a New York City treasure.
Pennsylvania Station was inevitably an enormous success simply by the demand it serviced, and by 1912 the station was handling at least five hundred trains daily, with a maximum of fifty during the brisk rush hours.25 The rush hour scenes played out daily were world famous, captured on film by both amateurs and Hollywood studios. Upwards of three billion people passed through the monumental station’s stone caverns between 1910 and 1963, with peak usage in the roaring 1920’s and especially World War II. During this period of wartime, passengers traveled on the nation’s railroads ninety-five billion miles in 1944, 26 compared to only thirty-four billion in 1938.27 Pennsylvania Station was ground zero for thousands of tearful goodbyes between American soldiers and their families, and was the majestic entrance for lowly country boys seeking the ‘American dream’ in the city they believed could make it possible. For many, it did. Pennsylvania Station was the embodiment of all that was majestic, beautiful and often heartbreaking. The station was the soul of the city she served, yet in time, in a horrific act of abhorrent vandalism, her loyalty would be betrayed.
The 1960’s were a particularly troubled time in the United States, with political turmoil rampant and stirred by the Civil Rights Movement, a presidential assassination, a hugely unpopular war in Vietnam, and severe riots affecting a great many American cities. Guided by massive government subsidies for highways and suburban housing, white, middle class families continued the mass exodus out of cities in what would become known as the “white flight,” leaving previously prosperous cities of the nation, America’s proudest achievements, to rot as the social buffer between concentrated poverty and great wealth was eradicated. Dismayingly, individual and family priorities had largely become the primary concern over those of civic and community importance. New York City would not truly feel the weight of these overwhelming burdens until the 1970’s, when the paramount city of the world, the only metropolis left intact during the world war, collapsed into a corrupt, bankrupt crisis.
Similar to the collapse of civic involvement and community awareness in America, railroads were also feeling the pressure of the individual: the personal automobile. While freight shipments on rails prospered (it too would eventually falter), journeys by passenger train were rarely the preferred mode of travel. The airplane had finally become a viable transport alternative, replacing trains as the primary long-distance carrier. The automobile, the mainstay of sprawl and the American people, had snatched a significant portion of the railroad industry’s short distance traffic.28 This left only intercity traffic remaining, and with respect to the Pennsylvania Railroad, the fall in rail traffic erased an enormous chunk of Pennsylvania Station’s usage. Use of the station had declined from one hundred-nine million people in 1945, to only fifty-five million in 1960.29 The Pennsylvania Railroad was experiencing a major decline in traffic that had once made the station supportable. If the railroad was to maintain its operations, it would either have to encourage and regain new ridership, or immediately reduce expenses. In due time, the Pennsylvania, the great railroad that had financed and erected the station, was becoming desperate. Maintenance costs of the station were drastically expensive, and the struggling railroad could no longer afford the price tag. As Pennsylvania patronage continued to decline and revenues dwindled, faced with a horrendous funding crunch, the railroad proceeded to allow for the natural degradation of the beautiful station.30 Months without bathing, commuters began to notice severe decay within the grand station: rust began to overcome the black steel which held aloft the once-cleaned dusty windows, and dirt accumulated on the coffered ceilings of the waiting room. Wafts of odor, akin to that of a decades unused bedroom, confronted passersby. In short time, the station was but a shadow of her former glorious self, a dark and forbidding space. Pennsylvania Station had fallen into disrepair. New York City watched. Through the tragedy of the scene, Pennsylvania Station retained her undeniable timeless element. Her tired, dirty exteriors only reinforced this attribute of permanence. Even through difficult times, Pennsylvania Station would remain to welcome those to New York and its magic island—always. Disregarding all of the unforgivable withering and corrosion, who could imagine a New York City without the magnificence of Pennsylvania Station? The ‘Grand Dame’ of Eighth Avenue was a civic landmark, one to be protected for the generations. It was to be loved.
But of course, with great sadness, her owners embarked on a process to challenge the station’s very existence. The Pennsylvania Railroad eventually rejected the idea of continued ownership, and quietly began talks with potential buyers for the station property development rights.31 The motive propelling the action was that the station’s plot of property, a large expanse of area near Midtown Manhattan and located on desirable transit lines, was very valuable and thus of interest to commercial developers.32 Not only could the Pennsylvania Railroad eradicate the money-losing Pennsylvania Station, but simultaneously make a profit off of a tremendous real estate sale and a portion of new commercial revenues.33 Timing for the placement of the property onto the real estate market was essentially perfect, and soon the Pennsylvania Railroad was in contact with an interested party. Madison Square Garden, Inc., whose company was interested in replacing the aged 1925 Madison Square Garden, needed a suitable location within New York for a large new facility capable of accommodating larger crowds and events without obstructing views.34 After thoroughly examining the prospect, Madison Square Garden, Inc. made aware of its attraction for the plot of land, and with the railroad, would work out a blockbuster real estate deal behind closed doors.
The agreement was soon finalized between the two enterprises, and details regarding the plan were released to the unknowing public.35 The plan: Pennsylvania Railroad would sell the station’s land to Madison Square Garden, Inc., who would in turn demolish the above ground portion of Pennsylvania Station.36 Below ground, a “new” station would be built by “modernizing” the old facilities, an awfully disingenuous term meaning MSG Inc. would clad the walls with tile and cover the ceiling in drop panels. Once the above ground structure was completely demolished, a one hundred-twenty million dollar sports entertainment complex, as well as a new office building, would be erected.37 The two companies praised the idea as a win-win situation, essentially proclaiming that the Pennsylvania Railroad would make a profit off the sale allowing the railroad to become profitable, as would MSG Inc., and New York would in turn receive a modern new rail station and first class sports complex. The talk was bought. In less than a year New York City would grant the project approval, and in 1963, demolition would commence.38
In Jet and Space Age Manhattan, epicenter of all that was futuristic, the Modernist dogma of buildings-as-sculpture and the outright rejection of Classicism and ornament onto buildings was the antithesis of all that Pennsylvania Station represented—ornament for the public’s enjoyment, Classicism for the projection of permanence and stability, and coherence with the cityscape, as opposed to the isolation required by sculpture. In the throwaway culture that was Modernist New York, a city in the midst of knocking down its historic classical treasures,39 from elegant and palatial hotels to Parisianesque public theatres—all under the guise of Modernism and progressivism—Pennsylvania Station was destined to become the symbol of all that was dreadfully wrong in the era. All was not hopeless, however. Some recognized the importance of the public space, and thus Pennsylvania Station’s existence was not without supporters. A modest sized community composed of a vocal minority of architects, artists, writers, art museums, newspaper editorials, people who use the station, and ordinary people concerned about the loss of an important New York City railway station, city landmark, and neighborhood treasure, protested the impending demolition.40 Two of those protesters were world famous urbanists: one a middle-aged lady who lived on Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan—Jane Jacobs—the other, prominent urban historian Lewis Mumford.41 Gathering outside the chain-link fences protecting the construction site, protesters carried signs of pro-Penn Station messages, and attempted, sometimes successfully, to spread their message of preservation through the media.42 If New York City allowed for the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, the preservationists argued, the city would lose an extraordinary public space to a stadium and an office tower. What would this say about us as a society, a progressive civilization, if we knock down an important civic space for one that sells hotdogs at a basketball tournament—a space only provided to those who pay a hefty ticket price? But it was to no avail. The numerous signs and newspaper awareness articles failed to stir any action from the general public, and despite the desperate pleas of the protesters, construction workers walked into the demolition zone with their tool-belts and climbed into their wrecker’s ball cranes. Kept away by that chain-link fence, the preservationists could only watch horrified. The great Pennsylvania Station was coming down.
And it did. By 1966, Pennsylvania Station existed only in photographs and in the memories of those who were lucky enough to view it, touch it, sense it, and experience its majesty.43 Brick by brick, column by column, the station was taken apart, the wrecker’s ball swinging mercilessly into the magnificent glass and steel domes that once sheltered New Yorkers from those pummeling summer rains, those heavy Christmastime snows. Pennsylvania Station’s limestone and other precious materials were salvaged, while her remains were sent to their grave, carelessly discarded in the New Jersey Meadowlands near the entrance to the tunnels that once lead directly into the great, pink granite station. There was nothing more…
New York City relatively quickly recognized what it had lost once Madison Square Garden was completed. The complex, a poorly planned area with a miserably uninspired Modernist design, left much to be desired. It also left much to be missed. Sitte, in his essay The Art of Building Cities, describes the anguishing process that allowed for the tumultuous rise of Madison Square Garden, writing, “We need the talent of the artist. Thus it was in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and in the Renaissance, wherever the fine arts were held in high esteem. It is only in our mathematical century that the construction and extension of cities has become a purely technical matter.”44 Most certainly, Madison Square was only technical and mathematical—technical in its rigid use of modern technology, unforgiving in its complete ignorance of human-scaled ornamentation, and mathematical in its cold, bottom-line construction and short-sighted destruction of treasured urban fabric for short-term numbers profit. Further enforcing this deserved criticism is the Garden’s heartless shape. A result of form-follows-function Modernist dogma that renders the structure circular-shaped (due to the stadium’s oval seating arrangement), Madison Garden is awkwardly out-of-context with boxy, gridded Manhattan. From the aerial perspective it appears helplessly ridiculous—its overall shape embarrassingly akin to that of a toilet.
The new, “updated” Pennsylvania Station was (and remains) a cramped and confusing narrow collection of tubes that led to and from the train platforms. One exited the station from a non-descript door out onto one of the major avenues, where six years previously one would have walked through an inspirational collection of carved columns and stone. The new station was pathetic, hardly befitting the largest city in the world at the time. But New York City had brought the disturbing mess upon itself. It traded public for private, people for commerce. It reinforced that old New York stereotype, but dramatically upped the ante. A New York Times editorial encapsulated the situation, criticizing, “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”45
The saving grace in the Pennsylvania Station saga is that its appalling demolition was the inspiration for the revolutionary historic preservation movement.46 Spurred by this singular yet profound example of stupidity, there arose a new emphasis on the saving of important buildings, neighborhoods, and even entire cities to maintain not only the historically significant fabric of our cities and towns, but its history as well. In 1965, following heated outcry from New York City citizens who were angered by the destruction of such a significant building, an importance piece of legislation called the Landmarks Law was passed by the city.47 The Landmarks Law would pave the way for signature New York City buildings to be landmarked, and thus protected from demolition.48 The preservation movement became a popular phenomenon soon afterwards as New York City exported its ideas across the nation—similar to most trends.
Since 1965, hundreds of historically and architecturally significant buildings have been saved from undeserved destruction by the Landmarks Law and supporters of the preservationist movement. Ironically, the most famous incident of such a rescued building was Pennsylvania Station’s rival railroad’s terminus—New York Central’s Grand Central Terminal.49 Held in high esteem and adored by many New Yorkers, Grand Central, constructed as a response to the completion of Pennsylvania Station, was in serious danger. In the late 60’s, plans were composed for the crippled New York Central Railroad showing a crudely designed Modernist skyscraper sprouting off the roof of Grand Central.50 The railroad, in dire need of a new income source to recuperate depleted operating revenue, proposed to construct the building directly over the Beaux Arts station, the tower and the terminal’s style clashing awkwardly. With the demolition of Pennsylvania Station fresh in the minds of citizens, determined opposition rallies were held, often with the attendance of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and soon the Landmarks Law was put to one of its first major tests.51
The Landmarks Preservation Committee, established by the Landmarks Law, added Grand Central Terminal to the landmarks list in 1966.52 The ramifications of this act meant the committee now held sway over any development which would affect Grand Central Terminal itself or its immediate surroundings.53 Once renderings were released, the committee, performing the duty required of it, examined the prospects of the new construction, and in 1969, refused to allow the construction of the tower, citing, “In its opinion the new office tower would degrade the architectural and aesthetic qualities of Grand Central.”54 As the Penn-Central Railroad (the New York Central merged with the Pennsylvania in 1968 to avoid faltering)55 swayed dangerously between the black and insolvency, it believed the situation it now found itself in was nothing less than a taking, and thus unconstitutional—the railroad filed suit.56
The Supreme Court of New York County took up “Penn-Central v. City of New York” in the early 1970s, hearing the arguments from both sides of the debate. In 1975, the court would eventually rule in favour of Penn-Central, agreeing the city held no authority over private land, thus rendering the Landmarks Law an exercise in futility.57 However, the decision was overturned by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court,
which reinforced the city’s ability to landmark and preserve important monuments.58 Brought to the Court of Appeals in 1977 by the Penn-Central, a court which once again favoured New York City’s right to landmark, the railroad supported taking the case to the United States Supreme Court as a final resolution to the matter, confident in their argument that no government entity has any rightful claim over the use of private property. The Supreme Court, on June 26th, 1978, failed to agree.59 Upholding New York City’s ability to landmark and preserve structures it feels significant by a healthy 6-3 vote, Justice William Brennan stated the decision of the court:
“The Landmarks Law, which does not interfere with the terminal’s present uses or prevent Penn- Central from realizing a ‘reasonable return’ on its investment, does not impose the drastic limitations on appellants’ ability to use the air rights above the terminal that appellants claim, for, on this record, there is no showing that a smaller, harmonizing, structure would not be authorized.”60
The decision at last gave the preservation movement legislation with teeth. Not only was New York and its citizens granted the unique ability to landmark important private structures through the Landmarks Law, it was now federally supported. As long as there was a careful eye monitoring the sites New Yorkers felt were needed to maintain the character of the city, a situation like that of the appalling demolition of the great Pennsylvania Station—an act of vandalism—would never occur again. Of course, even today meaningful structures are destroyed in the sadly apathetic city. However, In lieu of these ever-present difficulties facing the transforming metropolis, the law continues to protect the landmarked structures of the city, while valiantly keeping the flame of Pennsylvania Station’s spirit and legacy burning.
Some theorize the loss of Pennsylvania Station was a necessary tragedy, for without this extraordinary example of undeserved destruction in one of the most important cities in the world, even more significant structures, or possibly entire neighborhoods, would have been lost through ‘progressivism’ and commercialism. This is certainly true. Pennsylvania Station’s demolition and subsequent court proceedings, which supported preservationist principles, established a sturdy precedent across the entire United States. With respect to the Pacific Northwest, if Pennsylvania Station’s ultimate and untimely destruction had not taken place, entire communities would have been eradicated by the wrecker’s ball ideology so predominate in the 1960s and 1970s. We can make a direct and undeniable connection between Penn Station and the continued physical existence of locales such as Pioneer Square in Seattle and the Warehouse District of Tacoma. Particularly with the city on deep Commencement Bay, Tacoma’s handsome Union Station and surrounding Warehouse District were saved from the wrecker’s ball as it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places before any regrettable action took place—a program created due to the backlash from Pennsylvania Station’s demise in 1966.61 The area, a compact neighborhood of century old multi-story red-brick factory buildings that construct a handsome and staid coherence through the shared use of brick design, cast iron storefronts and cornices, and the heavy use of the arch, is a picturesque display of the former wonders of American architecture—standards of design the nation has not been able to readily replicate or match since.
From the era of Penn Station’s destruction, when preservation was not often considered as a method of urban improvement, the theories behind the ideology has expanded from simply the saving of a structure to a much more holistic approach—conservation. To Calthorpe and Fulton, authors of the essay Designing the Region Is Designing the Neighborhood,“Conservation implies many things beyond husbanding resources and protecting natural systems; it implies preserving and restoring the cultural, historic, and architectural assets of a place as well.”62 Tacoma’s Union Station District is emblematic of this broader approach to preservation, and when being studied for renewal (the good kind), the researchers focused on more than esthetic qualities. According to the 1979 rehabilitation study on the station, “Tacoma’s Union Depot District is one of the oldest urban industrial areas still standing in the Northwest. As the terminus for the Northern Pacific [Railroad], the district played a critical role in the development of the entire northwest region. The financial and commercial dominance of Tacoma during the railroad era is reflected in the building environment still surrounding Union Station.”63 Continuing with the description, “Although the district remains largely intact, the bustle of the railroad era is gone…Driving or walking north along Pacific Avenue towards downtown Tacoma, the visitor sees a deserted district.”64 To our great fortune, as opposed to leveling the district for parking or future commercial interests, citizens invested in the area, and on April 2, 1980, had it protected through historic registration.65 Slowly, it recovered. In Tacoma, this historic district is now home to a thriving scholastic, artistic and business community, all housed in buildings that were rehabbed and reused as opposed to knocked down. We are extraordinarily lucky to able to experience such a unique locale, for this very precious commodity was once seriously threatened. We owe our older neighbors an enormous debt of gratitude for their resistance to destroying our collective heritage.
On a sorrowful final note, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the might railroad which commissioned the deconstruction of one of New York City’s grand entrance-ways, went bankrupt soon after the demolition of the station. The fledgling railroad’s hope for continued survival, the demolition of Pennsylvania Station for its valuable land, would become nothing more than a corporate pipe dream. In a heartbreaking blow to the activists who had tried to save the ill fated station while it was in its deathbed, the demolition had officially become futile.
* * * * * *
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2 Bain, David H. Empire Express. 545.
3 Nock, Oswald S. Railways of the USA. 31.
4 Klein, Aaron E. New York Central. 45.
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24 Jacobs, Timothy. The History of the Pennsylvania Railroad. 84-88.
25 Plosky, Eric J. The Fall and Rise of Pennsylvania Station. 19,50.
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31 Plosky, Eric J. The Fall and Rise of Pennsylvania Station. 22.
32 Plosky,. 27.
33 Plosky,. 24.
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38 Plosky, 49.
39 Ablarc. “Sixties Demolitions,” 4-9.
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43 Plosky, 49.
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49 Plosky, Eric J. The Fall and Rise of Pennsylvania Station. 55-56.
51 McFadden, Robert D. "Jackie, New Yorker; Friends Recall a Fighter for Her City." New York Times. 1994.
52 Plosky, Eric J. The Fall and Rise of Pennsylvania Station. 56-57.
57 Plosky, Eric J. The Fall and Rise of Pennsylvania Station. 56-57.
61 United States. National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places.
62 Calthorpe, Peter, and William Fulton. "Designing the Region is Designing the Region." 346.
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