Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pennsylvania Station: The New York City Mistake That Won't Die

By Mitch Broder

The New York City symbol of man’s contempt for himself is Pennsylvania Station.

Either one.

The magnificent original was a monument to civility. It declared us all worthy of elegance. It was demolished.

The sweaty substitute is a monument to debasement. It’s a basement. It’s demeaning. It stands — that is, squats — to this day.

It’s also, incidentally, a testament to my passion: As a kid, I climbed in and out of that dump to get to New York from Long Island. But in its dinginess, it spawned the reprieve of, among other things, Grand Central Terminal. Man’s contempt for himself wasn’t such that he could miss the boat at two train stations.

Farley Post Office.
It’s fitting, then, that the survivor host a remembrance of the casualty. It’s an exhibition called “The Once and Future Pennsylvania Station.” It takes you back to the graceful station — and to its slow, haunting murder. And it takes you forward to its resurrection in the Farley Post Office Building.

I never feel more mortal than when I consider my actual chances of seeing that project completed within my first three lifetimes. But it’s nice to read about — as is the original station, which, as the show reminds us, was “an architectural masterpiece and a major enhancement to the lives of people throughout the region.”

It didn’t enhance every life. It displaced an entire neighborhood, even if it was “an infamous neighborhood with brothels, saloons, casinos, and dancehalls.”  Now we’re short on dancehalls. But the loss was worth it, at least from 1910 to 1963. Then we had no great Pennsylvania Station as well as no dancehalls.

The exhibition includes a few ruins, including a lamp globe, an iron railing, and a glass-block floor tile. But they are disembodied, and don’t evoke much in the way of grandeur. What ended up moving me more were words — words of wisdom and warning, echoing from the regrettable past on the exhibition’s video screen.

 “It’s a building which makes man feel noble, which gives him a sense of space and dignity,” says the art and architecture critic Aline Saarinen. The architect Philip Johnson then completes the thought: “And if you have to — as you will in the future, when they tear it down — come out of the Pennsylvania Station as if you’re in a subway station, how degrading for the entrance to what we like to think of as the greatest city in the world.”

The exhibition continues through October 30th at The New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex and Store at Grand Central Terminal. Admission is free.


  1. Great posting! Thanks for the preview of the show ~

  2. Well said! A true loss to the city. Thanks for not sugar-coating the truth about the original Penn. Displacing neighborhoods has been a big part of the city's (not so proud) history.

  3. Must all good things come to an end?

  4. Still, it's home. Grand as it is, Grand Central will NEVER be home.