Penn Station Comes With Old Scars

A December 30th 2015 New York Times article asserted that Penn Station was already “ruined” long before it was destroyed. Author David W. Dunlap wrote that those who came into the station in the late 50’s would have been in a place that bore little resemblance to its once great former self.  Dunlap focused on a  1950’s renovation that he felt diminished the look of the station. The New Yorker magazine columnist Lewis Mumford at the time termed it an “indescribable botch.”

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“The Clamshell” in MTA Transit Museum 1958 Photo

The centerpiece of the 50’s remodel was a huge new lighting apparatus that came to be known as “the clamshell.” It was 164 feet wide, made of aluminum and steel, and was intended to brighten newly installed ticket booths and make getting a train ticket comparable to that of a plane.

Critics accused Penn of intentionally putting in a design so bad that demolition would seem to make more sense. What would they have said if Penn had done nothing in the 50’s? Dunlap may be right that the renovation was poor, but most of us would probably still choose the Penn of the 50’s over the one that replaced it in the next decade. Whenever the decline set in for rail travel, the date of no turning back in the eyes of New Yorkers will always be 1963 when the wrecking ball crumbled the station to the ground.

If you want to get New Yorkers riled up, you can just ask them about Penn Station. They still can’t believe the same company that had the creative genius to put a timeless transportation hall in the heart of their city would see fit to dismantle it just fifty years later. The current station has been unpopular with New Yorkers from the moment it opened. It is looked at with disdain not only because of its basement-like feel, with narrow halls and low ceilings, but because it is the impostor put in place of their once cherished Penn Station. New Yorkers are literally reminded every day of what was taken from them.

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New Yorkers are almost universally dissatisfied with the current station. They want something better put in its place. Something closer to what that original station was. To them, injustice has been done and it needs to be rectified.

And so the groundswell to improve it has grown year after year as commuters trudge through it. A plan inspired by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was developed in the early 2000’s to move some of it one block west to the Farley Post Office. The Farley between 8th and 9th was designed by the same architects as Penn. But the plan has been dreadfully slow in progressing.

The City Council voted 47-1 in 2013 to terminate Madison Square Garden’s lease so a better station could be constructed. (The one nay vote came from a former executive of the Garden.) Not much else came from the council in terms of definitive plans though. The vote without substantive plans is reflective of the great distance between the emotional desire to get something better in the station, and the struggle to deal with the practicality of actually getting it done.

Just this week, Governor Cuomo announced that he will try to speed up the stalled Moynihan plan and add new features like a glass wall on the 8th Avenue entrance.  Madison Square Garden apparently gets to stay, much to the dismay of the New York Times editorial board which likened it to a manhole cover, blocking light and air to the station below. If the garden were forced to move, where could it go? Cuomo’s plan also included renaming Penn, the Empire Station. Critics thought it sounded more like something out of Star Wars.

If we have learned anything about the station both past and present, it’s not an easy place to renovate, and even when you do, people often don’t like the changes. We can never get the old station back, and whatever is done to it, however bad or good, people will keep coming to it. What choice do they have, that’s where they have to go to get to their trains.

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5 Comments

  1. The damage was done but it was 50 plus years ago. The good to come was the preservation committee that arose after this travesty. Never the less politicians can
    still have their way as Giuliani ddi with the early morning demolition of another NY
    icon the Thunderbolt roller coaster in Coney Island.

    Reply
    • Getting landmark protection in many cases does not solve all of the problems entailed with preserving old and historic structures. In some cases making the original buildings sustainable businesses is just as much a problem and if they fail they start to crumble with nobody to finance their preservation. The struggle to preserve that which once was is constant and often requires practical realism as much as legislative protection.

      Reply
  2. I read the Times article and immediately thought “What’s your point? And why now?” Maybe it was in anticipation of this announcement in retrospect. In any case, I felt as if the author was trying to say “oh it wasn’t so great anyway, so it’s not as much of a loss as you think.” Nice try at contextualizing, but that sorry fact should already be a given. For if the place was well kept up until the end, there wouldn’t have likely been any need for an end.

    Reply
    • I bet a lot of people had the same reaction Ron. You can’t take away what the loss means no matter what was done to the original station short of its destruction. Dunlap gets to the external factors affecting the railroad near the end of his piece, which I think is to say that it didn’t matter what they did at the station because what they were working against. If they had come up with a brilliant redesign in the eyes of critics, whatever that may have been, it probably wouldn’t have changed much. But if that’s the case, it didn’t matter what they would have done to improve the station.

      I think the timing of the article in relation to the new announcement was coincidence but who knows.

      Reply
  3. I am not a New Yorker by birth, but I have been a New Yorker by heart for the past 30 years. I think it is just terrible what they did to the old Penn Station, but if they want to rebuild it, go right ahead, and please get rid of that ugly Madison Square Garden, It cannot get worse than what there is right now! Lin in Germany

    Reply

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