Remembering the former Pennsylvania Station

Remembering the former Pennsylvania Station
Architect Philip Johnson and Aline Saarinen march in protest of the impending demolition of Penn Station.

1963: American writer Jane Jacobs (L) and architect Philip Johnson (R) stand with picketing crowds outside Penn Station to protest the building’s demolition, New York City. Placards read: ‘AGBANY is here’ and ‘Save Penn Station.’ (Photo by Walter Daran/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On August 2, 1962, a group of concerned citizens protested in front of Pennsylvania Station, the McKim, Mead, and White Beaux Art structure in pink granite that spanned two full city blocks. The impending demolition of this historic structure was opposed by leading architects, artists, and critics, including Philip Johnson, Aline Saarinen, and Villagers Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Jacobs, and Norman Mailer. The destruction of the building is often referred to (somewhat misleadingly) as the beginning of New York City’s preservation movement. While the demolition of Penn Station does not necessarily mark the beginning of the preservation movement, it galvanized a generation of thinkers and actors to recognize the value of our built environment and our history, helped lead to the establishment of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and catalyzed a strong preservation movement in our city.

The former Pennsylvania Station, which spanned two full city blocks. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, 1962.

The former Pennsylvania Station, which spanned two full city blocks. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, 1962.

The demolition of Penn Station is considered by many a seminal moment in 20th century New York’s history; following closely on the heels of the publication of Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it was a watershed in raising public consciousness about and turning public opinion against the growing destruction of our city’s built fabric for questionable urban renewal projects and short-term corporate profit. The Pennsylvania Railroad, which owned the station, was experiencing a decline in rail travel and the company wanted to use their biggest asset, the land and air rights that comprised Pennsylvania Station, to generate funds. In exchange for the air-rights to Penn Station, the Pennsylvania Railroad would get a new, smaller station located completely below street level at no cost, and a partial stake in the new Madison Square Garden Complex which would be built in the place of the station by developer Irving M Felt. When this plan finally came to light, several architects formed the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York (AGBANY), organizing a protest and a letter writing campaign. Demolition of the station took three years, and images of the destruction further fueled the public’s outrage at the loss. Comparing the grandeur of the original Penn Station, which was flooded with natural sunlight, with its flourescent-lighted subterranean replacement, architetural historian Vincent Scully noted “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat,” and many New Yorkers agreed.  The New York Preservation Archive Project has more resources for the history of the building and its demolition on its website.

The interior of former Pennsylvania Station. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, 1962.

The interior of former Pennsylvania Station. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, 1962.

Articles  in the New York Times, the real estate blog Curbed, and the New York City based blog Gothamist all paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of these protests.  What does this  tell us? New Yorkers are still concerned with preserving our collective landmarks. Even with the passage of the Landmarks Law in 1965, landmarks and landmark districts do not come easily, as those familiar with the work of GVSHP know. Groups like the “Responsible Landmarks Coalition” will lead you to believe that the regulation that comes with the designation of individual landmarks and landmark districts cripples new development and construction job growth in New York City. But architects, preservationists, and contractors know better.

As demolition began of Penn Station, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable notably wrote “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 tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

Let’s hope this warning, and the memory of the former Pennsylvania Station, is not forgotten.

To see images of Penn Station being demolished in our Historic Image Archive, click here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Sheryl Woodruff was GVSHP's Senior Director of Operations until December 2014.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,
One comment on “Remembering the former Pennsylvania Station
  1. Sheryl Matthew Coody says:

    Great piece, thanks for pointing readers to the New York Preservation Archive Project’s entry on Penn Station. Glad that we can all continue to learn from this loss and turn something destructive into something productive.

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "Remembering the former Pennsylvania Station"
  1. […] great Penn Station that inspired the scene design here no longer exists, torn down as one of the last terrible decisions made with regard to historic structures in New York. (However, it’s fair to say that maybe […]

  2. […] and uses were rapidly changing, the Carnegie Mansion’s fate was in doubt. Some worried it would go the way of Penn Station and other no-longer-used mansions, succumbing to the wrecking […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *