Home Asides Destroyed, but not forgotten, national rail stations

Destroyed, but not forgotten, national rail stations

by Benjamin Kabak

The history of the United States is pockmarked with terrible architectural and urban design decisions. We tear out trolley tracks in favor of cars. We build massive roadways without leaving rights-of-way in place for rapid mass transit. We tear down architectural gems such as Penn Station and replace them with, well, Madison Square Garden. Today, Infrastructurist examined 10 train stations along with an endangered one that faced the wrecking ball during the Twentieth Century. How and why city planners decided to destroy these beautiful and useful buildings make up some of the saddest tales of transit neglect from the last 100 years.

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Marc Shepherd June 22, 2009 - 9:18 pm

It’s a fascinating and beautiful post, but there are points the writer fails to make, and perhaps doesn’t appreciate.

With the exception of NY Penn, all of these stations were no longer seeing significant rail traffic by the time they were demolished. They may have been beautiful structures, but they were built for a function that no longer existed. These structures were extremely expensive to maintain, and could not readily be converted to other purposes. They were artifacts of an era when railroad barons were the captains of capitalism, and ornate stations were the symbols of their dominance.

The steep decline of passenger rail in the U.S. had many causes. In New York, Robert Moses was the principal villain, but he had a lot of help. I neither defend nor agree with the extremely poor and short-sighted decisions that led to this decline. But given what had happened, the loss of these stations was simply inevitable.

rhywun June 22, 2009 - 11:09 pm

I disagree that they couldn’t have been converted to other uses. Museums. Office buildings. Shopping. In other words, the same uses that predominate in the stations that WERE spared in America. But the truth is, in most cases, the stations simply stood in the way of convenient freeway routes. And in typical American fashion, anything that isn’t immediately useful must go.

Benjamin Kabak June 22, 2009 - 11:11 pm

Rhywun pretty much beat me to it. From a functional perspective, the stations may have outlived their capacity and/or usefulness. But from a form perspective, they should never have been torn down. Look at how many of them are now empty lots and parking lots. They could have been converted into some type of commercial or mixed-use space instead.

Marc Shepherd June 23, 2009 - 8:30 am

Sorry, that’s just hopelessly naive. Converting a space like that is monumentally difficult—as a practical matter, often impossible. They weren’t made to be office buildings or museums. They weren’t even remotely close to suitable for that purpose, and the maintenance expenses were stratospheric. The firms that had built them were bankrupt. The government cannot undertake “saving” every beautiful structure constructed by private enterprise for purposes no longer needed. Most of the gorgeous passenger-ship terminals are likewise long gone, along with the business they were built for.

Sometimes it can be done. The New York Transit Museum is built atop a disused subway station, and the Fulton Street Transit Center is incorporating the Corbin Building. But often, there simply is no practical and cost-effective use for an old building, and the government cannot be the “archivist of last resort,” holding an inventory of exorbitant structures whose original owners long since ran out of the money to pay for them.

rhywun June 23, 2009 - 11:03 am

In most other cultures, grandiose old buildings are seen as treasures, not garbage. Imagine if European cities demolished all their castles and palaces after they no longer served any function. But you are right in the sense that American culture–especially at that time–demanded function over form. Everyone with means was fleeing the cities anyway; reusing a train station for tourist or business purposes would have been ludicrous to the average mid-20th century American.

john b June 23, 2009 - 10:21 am

philadelphia’s reading terminal market is a great example of how to save old train terminals. its really not that difficult to do but you actually have to try, most of the time we don’t. we follow the path of least resistance which as we are seeing with Penn Station was a disaster.

i think we need to take a more european approach with our architecture and preserve rather than demolish it even if there is no immediate payback in doing so. turns out people will pay money to see old buildings for some reason.

Kid Twist June 23, 2009 - 10:34 am

I’ve seen the Detroit station and it’s a sad sight indeed. I’ve never seen so many broken windows in one place in my life.

Marc Shepherd June 23, 2009 - 12:02 pm

The Detroit situation admirably illustrates the problems posed by these abandoned stations. Michigan Central is very poorly located. It was built in anticipation of surrounding development that never happened. Once streetcar and local rail disappeared, it was effectively cut off from the city center. Renovation is currently estimated at $80-300 million. If it’s at all like most estimates, that’s probably on the low side. For a state that’s probably in the worst shape of any in the country, where do you find that kind of money?

rhywun June 23, 2009 - 12:30 pm

Yes, but you’re picking probably the worst-located example. The others all appear to be centrally-located.

Marc Shepherd June 23, 2009 - 1:20 pm

Yes, but it’s a distinction the article’s writer doesn’t seem to be making. His entire thesis is, “Beautiful train stations should always be saved.” He never considers the costs or the practicality of saving them. The others may well have been centrally located, but I suspect there were other issues the writer hasn’t bothered to investigate. Now, I’m not saying that all of those demolitions were justified. I am only questioning the claim that none of them were.


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