Friday, July 11, 2008

(The Old) Penn Station

In May and June I made three trips on the Long Island Rail Road via trains departing from and returning to Pennsylvania Station. Of course I've been to Long Island many other times before that, usually by rental car or catching a ride with friends. But on one of my recent trips I noticed a stone marker above a southern stairway entrance to Penn Station's LIRR waiting room that tells the reader, "You Are Here." Above the words is an architectural blueprint-like rendering of what the old station used to look like when viewed from the south. Despite the marker's lack of context or explanation, it ignited my curiosity about the old days.

Truth be told, I've long known the basic history of the station, namely that the above-ground portion of it was torn down in the 1960s to make way for the current Madison Square Garden. I knew that its loss caused a community uproar that eventually lead to the formation of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. But it was the nuts and bolts of the old station that I wanted to get to know–its "footprint," if you will. And so for the past few weeks I've been trying to track down a book of photographs that I remember seeing last year, titled "The Destruction of Penn Station." The other day, after checking every bookstore I could think of, I finally found a copy, appropriately, at the Borders bookstore at One Penn Plaza. As the book's title suggests, it's rather heavy with pictures showing the station's dismantling from late 1963 until the middle of 1966. The photographer, Peter Moore, lived near Penn Station and so it was very easy for him to make regular trips to document the process. In all, he made about thirty trips throughout the two and a half years of the station's deconstruction. In the few pictures at the beginning of the book, Moore does a nice job of capturing the dignity of the station in its last months (Concourse at left and Main Waiting Room below). In fact, those were the pictures that I found myself looking at the most. I found a lot of other pictures elsewhere, online mostly, including this collection, that show the station in its heyday, from completion in 1910 up until the early 1960s.In the book there are some nice essays as well, one of which quotes Thomas Wolfe from his book "You Can't Go Home Again," when the main character, George Webber, walks into Penn Station's Main Waiting Room: "The station, as he entered it, was murmurous with the immense and distant sound of time. Great, slant beams of moted light fell ponderously athwart the station's floor, and the calm voice of time hovered along the walls and ceiling of that mighty room, distilled out of the voices and movements of the people who swarmed beneath. It had the murmur of a distant sea, the langorous lapse and flow of waters on a beach. It was elemental, detached, indifferent to the lives of men...Few buildings are vast enough to hold the sound of time, and...there was a superb fitness in the fact that one which held it better than all others should be a railroad station."

Known primarily for his photographs of avant-garde performances, Moore (1932-1993) worked briefly at Life Magazine's darkrooms. In the 1950s he was an assistant to the photographer O. Winston Link. He hung out with David Heath and Garry Winogrand and he even participated in a workshop hosted by W. Eugene Smith. He eventually became Senior Technical Editor of Modern Photography Magazine until 1989. "The Destruction of Penn Station" was edited by his wife, Barbara, and published in 2000. The book is wonderful and I'm totally grateful for Moore's "humble, evidentiary work" (a phrase borrowed from Joel Meyerowitz) that documents the station's dismantling.

The architecture critic Vincent Scully famously wrote that with the old station, "One entered the city like a god." With its replacement, "One scuttles in now like a rat." It's hard not to agree, especially considering how low the ceilings are in some areas of the subway connections/entrances. Taking a few laps in and around Penn Station, a few words come to mind: crowded, maze, tunnel, cramped, underground, artificial light. For reference, here are some random shots of the Penn Station of 2008:And below are a few overall pictures I've taken inside Madison Square Garden (Republican National Convention in 2004, a boxing match also in 2004, and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2005).The original Penn Station station was built by the architects McKim, Mead and White. It was based, in part, on the Roman baths of Caracalla. The Beaux-Arts style building was widely considered to be a masterpiece of architectural classicism, and it was the biggest indoor space in New York City at the time. I think it's important to realize that the original station was built when the automobile was in its infancy and that it connected New York City with the continental United States for the first time. By the 1960s, however, maintaining the aging station had become too costly. And the Pennsylvania Rail Road had been struggling to bring revenue into the station. Taking it down and replacing it with something more commercial must've seemed like the easiest route. I'm not going to get into the politics of why it was torn down, or even current plans to resurrect the station in the Farley Post Office Building across the street. But looking back, one can easily see the forces of capitalism at play.

I think it would have been cool to take pictures inside the old station. I suspect that the available light in its western-most concourse area was much-loved by photographers for decades. My favorite picture by Louis Faurer is a picture from Penn Station (right). When I first began studying Peter Moore's photographs, I had a hard time figuring out which direction was which. But eventually it came to me (much like the time I figured out where that famous Grand Central Station image was taken from) that if you start with the Main Waiting Room and orient yourself accordingly to the incoming sunlight, it's very easy to tell which way is east and which way is west. On the exterior it was a little more difficult to tell which Avenue was which (7th or 8th), unless of course the Empire State Building was in the background of the photograph.

I've been writing this post for weeks, in fits and starts. It has occupied a large part of my thinking about NYC history lately. But how can somebody who's never set foot in the old station even begin write about it with authority? I guess anybody who knows me knows I have a pretty strong sense of nostalgia, photographic in particular. In the end, thankfully, we have the photos. The saddest thing to deal with is the fact that the documenting of the destruction of Penn Station was likely much more unmonitored and, therefore, considered much less suspicious than, the documenting of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center has been (Editor's Note: Peter Moore did seek, and receive, permission from the railroad's PR department and was granted access to otherwise restricted demolition areas, with no hard hat required). Forty-five years after the fact, it doesn't seem right that there aren't more photographic books dedicated to this topic (the destruction). No doubt forty-five years from now there'll be dozens of photography books detailing the rebuilding of the WTC.

The New York Times, in its "Farewell to Penn Station" editorial dated October 30, 1963, said it best: "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."

7 Comments:

Blogger tomleininger said...

I have been reading a lot of writing about photography lately, and this is one of the best things I have read in some time. I guess I need to find better sources. Nice job.

July 11, 2008 at 7:26 PM  
Blogger Thom said...

Great shots of the old station.

I would like to share an ancient memory. It was a Friday afternoon in April,1960 and I was in the second grade at Our Lady of the Scapular school on east 29th street. Our class was on our way to the Carmelite church on 28th street when mom suddenly appeared and asked the nun if I could be dismissed early. She told Sister Ancilla that she was taling me for a weekend in Washington DC.

We got a taxi to the old Penn Station and purchased our tickets. Then we settled on a long wooden bench to wait for our departure.

After a while we noticed a bit of commotion not too far away. It was Casey Stengel and the New York Yankees on their way to spring training in St. Petersberg. My mom gave me part of a ripped and wrinkled brown paper bag with a stub of pencil, and told me to go up to Mr Stengel and ask him for his autograph. I did it without even a second thought. He interrupted the conversation that he was having and obliged my request.

It was almost fifty years ago. Wow, I'm getting old.

March 31, 2009 at 6:28 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I really dig this post and I may add a few more responses if I think of them.

As for the 7th vs 8th avenue sides, it is actually quite easy to tell which is which. The station was designed to have a processional quality to it which entailed entrance on 7th ave, walking down a large arcade, then down some steps into the main waiting room then further down the concourse (and perhaps further down a set of stairs to access the arrival concourse and the LIRR). Therefore, the 8th avenue side was considered the "back" whereas the 7th ave was considered the "front" of the station. Thus, the 8th avenue side did not have a full colonnade whereas the 7th avenue side did.


One of the many design advantages of Grand Central is the centrality (as it were) of the concourse. You can't miss it. Through my study of the old Penn (I'm only 21), and my experience with the current Penn and Grand Central, I believe that Grand Central is a superior design. However, I don't believe that Penn should have been demolished. Not only was it a great building, but Penn's usage has skyrocketed since the demolition. While many of today's circulation problems are the result of the original design, and were by no means caused by the demolition, the sheer number of people using the station deserve better than what's currently there. Grand Central, while far grander than the current Penn, only handles a small fraction of Penn's passenger count. This is not to mention the fact long-distance travelers arrive in Penn. The old Penn, had it been preserved, would have been the crown jewel of the Amtrak northeast corridor service.

I disagree a bit regarding the idea that capitalism alone killed the station. The fact was that heavy-handed government regulations hurt the already-hurting railroad industry more. The Pennsy and the New York Central could not shut down their unprofitable lines. In addition, the already-suffering railroads actually had to pay property taxes on their terminals, which were already costly to maintain. The MSG Corporation made a great offer from an economic standpoint, and the Pennsy took it.

March 9, 2010 at 6:27 PM  
Anonymous Sunil said...

Totally agree. Capitalism is what CREATED penn station back in the early twentieth century! In fact, if the government laid off, the LIRR + Amtrak + NJ Transit would become enormously profitable, and they'd be able to buy MSG at any price, and they'd build a penn station even larger than the old one. The big 3 rail roads would bring in billions of dollars and better service if the government didn't tell the railroads how to do business. It's socialism (know how much the railroad workers get paid?) that knocked down MSG.

September 14, 2010 at 7:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no profitable commuter rail system in the world. There is a reason that the private companies gave up, got out of the business. In 1964 Penn Central wanted out of the passenger rail hauling business. Both intercity and commuter. The only local commuter services still running privately in the late 1960s, were forced to by the local government agencies.

The railroads were given the land they built their railroads on with a promise to always have passenger service, but they were allowed to renege. When Amtrak began all railroads could pay to let Amtrak run passenger service. Only two in the entire country, no, three decided to stay as carriers of passengers. In the entire country. In Britain they tried privatizing the rail system and it's mostly failed.

The idea of privately run mass transit systems, privately run passenger trains and commuter trains is pretty funny. Thanks for the entertainment. Even Fox News wouldn't make up that fantasy.

August 14, 2012 at 8:30 PM  
Anonymous Chrigid said...

Penn Sta was the first picket line/demonstration I was ever involved in. Up until then, I had always gone out of my way to take a "short cut" through the station. I don't think Grand Central ever was or ever could be so thrilling.

June 11, 2013 at 11:22 PM  
Anonymous Chrigid said...

What I've heard is that air travel displaced long-distance train travel, which is what Penn Sta served. I believe Grand Central is mainly commuter oriented and therefore survived.

June 11, 2013 at 11:30 PM  

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