Penn Station was unequivocally hailed as a landmark gateway for the city of New York, it was designed for the future of transportation of the urban landscape. It redefined what a stood for. It was no longer just a terminating element of the city, but a central point uniting all the modes of urban transportation – standard rail, automotive, and pedestrian. This colossal building established the impact of a big and sober industrial building on the monumental power it possesses. This history of the Penn Station, however, isn’t that smooth. It has a path of roadblocks and a commemorative legacy.
The Pennsylvania Railroad announced a $150 million expansion on December 12, 1901, with a new and innovative program – it would bring Pennsylvania Railroad and Long Island Rail Road trains into Manhattan Island without the use of ferries. This new project would involve new tunnels – and, more importantly, a new station in Manhattan. This station termed as ‘Pennsylvania Station’ would be a celebration to the Pennsylvania Railroad, a mighty symbol as well as a railroad terminal. During the beginning of the 20th century, America was finding its foot in architecture and had developed a true character of oneself that wasn’t resembling the British. McKim, Mead and White were the harbingers for this new identity. They stood head and shoulders above all others in designing grand civic structures. McKim, Mead and White was the most prestigious and most highly regarded architectural firm in the United States. They had designed other important landmarks such as the Boston Public Library and the Rhode Island Capitol.
“The architectural design of Pennsylvania Station undoubtedly represented the largest, most difficult, and most rewarding commission for any architect of the time, or any other time in American architectural history, for that matter, and the firm was chosen for this honor was with equally little question the one most fully qualified for the creation of the greatest civic works” Carl Condit describes the station in the Publication ‘Port of New York’.
The firm took on the challenge to design Penn Station to be not just a civic structure but also a public space open to all that integrates itself into the urban fabric of New York. The beauty of its design needed to inspire citizens and awe them by the prospects of the achievable in architecture. The station was now marked to be the center of a new commercial district and a nucleus for public activity. McKim was quoted saying he “envisioned Penn Station as a dynamic, popular facility, patronized by more than just harried commuters rushing to catch the evening local”.
The daily commuters of New York considered their new station an immediate success as it saw tremendous economic growth just in its first year of operation. In its first week of operation, Pennsylvania Railroad saw an increase of passengers by 15 percent.
McKim and Richardson had succeeded in designing a railroad station that grabbed the attention of the city and clawed its way into their daily commute. The architecture also attested to the same. The station was segregated into two principal areas: the modern steel concourse of the tracks and the neoclassical waiting room and the service areas. The contrast was intended to express the function of each space. The waiting room was designed after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. This was designed by McKim whose formal education was heavily impacted by L’ecole Des Beaux-Arts.
On the tracks hundreds of steel columns extended from the tracks, which were located 45’ below the street level, to support the main concourse overhead. For circulation, the slender steel stairways rose upward from the platforms terminating in an atrium. The ceiling consisted of three-barrel vaults with intricate steel patterns. McKim, Mead and White inarguably designed a gateway and a public space that was also a powerful, though not outwardly obvious, commercial symbol.
However, the tracks were not as smooth sailing for the Penn Station. By 1910, Pennsylvania experienced massive financial problems, due to the centralization of the country’s railroads for several years during and after World War I. During the following years as well as after World War II the Penn Station saw a rapid decline in passengers and financial income. During the prosperous 1950s, automobile, airplane travel came within the economic reach of millions, and as a result of the railroad, saw its ridership decline steeply.
The state of New York needed a revamp for the station and they needed it fast. A replacement building called Madison Square Garden was devised. This was an ideal business solution for both the Pennsylvania Railroad and the city. The railroad would move underground and open up the site for a new commercial complex. This significantly cut its overhead costs and fashioned a modern new image for itself. This new building was designed to be the largest single building area in Manhattan. The Old Penn State was to be demolished and construction began shortly after. New Yorkers did not bat an eye as historic preservation simply wasn’t a concern. It had not yet occurred to most New Yorkers that certain structures might be worthy of public protection. Especially a structure of valued historical significance.
The Old Penn Station’s construction and demolition play an important role in illustrating New York City’s attitude toward historic preservation between the 1960s and the 1990s. Today, NYC is synonymous with historic preservation. Architects and citizens alike are vocal about demolishing a historical monument. However, as indicated by the Penn station this was untrue in the period of 1960-1990s. The Penn Station was built as a civic monument in 1910, not just a train station but an enduring gateway to New York. It was demolished in search of profits in 1963, at a time when the idea of historic preservation held very little sway, and economic considerations were permitted to reign supreme. Today, the James Farley Post Office stands as a reincarnation of the Penn to fulfill the monumental hopes of McKim, Mead and White. Penn Station was originally designed and built as a colossal mammoth of a structure to exude permanence and its compatibility with the urban landscape. But by the early 1960s, to be a “monument” was a curse. Monumentality was no longer an asset; it was a liability. The grandeur of the station only spoke of its unfit addition to the modern, commercial- savvy Manhattan.