Home Asides Link: Penn Station past, Penn Station present

Link: Penn Station past, Penn Station present

by Benjamin Kabak

Some short history tonight as I’m not feeling 100 percent: Penn Station, the original version, has been in the news lately as last week marked the 50th anniversary of the march to save the station. As David Dunlap detailed in The Times last week, the upper crust of Manhattan along with city historians marched, albeit futilely, against the plan to demolish Penn Station. While they failed in their efforts, many credit the Penn Station movement with saving Grand Central a few years later. New York would not wipe two historic train stations from its streets in as many years.

Today, we mourn the loss of Penn Station as an architectural calamity. After all, the current iteration is an eyesore underneath an arena. But the old version suffered from a capacity too small to meet the demand. Ultimately, something had to give, and out of its destruction arose the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, both a barrier to urban growth and a nod to the city’s history. Whether that’s a net positive is heavily debated today.

Meanwhile, bits of Penn Station, as Jim O’Grady discovered earlier this week, survive. Entryways, design elements and staircases survived the destruction, and one day, if the money shows up Moynihan Station could become the city’s next grand train depot, welcoming visitors in a more regal manner than today’s Penn Station does. The city sure does spend a lot of time living down the legacy and fighting for the future of train stations that often seem to prioritize aesthetics over functionality.

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Bolwerk August 8, 2012 - 12:40 am

Hate to say it, but that battle is over. Scarce public funds should go toward new rail routes – like the Second Avenue Subway! – not stations ever further away from where commuters actually need to go.

If they want to deliver commuters to a grand central station, send them to Grand Central Terminal.

John-2 August 8, 2012 - 1:05 am

If and when the Dolans decide they need a new Madison Square Garden after the current renovations become obsolete — and given the current lifespan of sports arenas, I’d say we’re talking a decade from now (less if the Nets and Barclay’s Center get really successful in stealing MSG’s thunder) — I’d hope they would consider some way of building a new Garden that would not be crushed down to street level, turning the train station into a rat’s maze. And modern construction technology might even allow for recreating part of the original Penn, as long as the current $$$ earned from the two-block area are kept in place.

It wouldn’t take much space to stack the current office space from 2 Penn Plaza on top of a new retro-looking Garden (2 Penn’s really not that big an office building), and place both on the Seventh Avenue end of the site. The Garden’s not leaving the area — the train and subway connections make it just too ideal for an arena location. But using the air space above the station more efficiently would open up some room to recreate a station at least on the Eighth Avenue side that would restore some of the symmetry the old Penn had with the Farley Post Office building.

Benjamin Kabak August 8, 2012 - 9:44 am

I don’t think the Dolans are going to get a new MSG just a decade after an ambitious three-year renovation, no?

John-2 August 8, 2012 - 10:09 am

Not likely they’ll get it. Not surprising if they start asking/demanding a new one if the Barclay’s Center’s basketball team becomes the dominant one in the city and the building becomes a hot/hip concert venue that begins to steal serious business from MSG in ways Nassau Coliseum, the Byrne Arena or the Prudential Center never have.

Realistically, you’re probably looking at 2030 or so before any major changes would be likely on the Penn Station site, even if the yelps from the Dolans start around 2020. But if you look at a lot of the new arenas, they are built vertically, like the old Garden, because the technology’s there now to have a smaller footprint and build an arena without obstructed seat views. So a new Garden could fit on the site next to the current one, with office space on top of that, which would free up the Garden’s current footprint for a re-imagined Penn Station — mimicking at least part of the original — while at the same time not losing the money the current office space is bringing in.

bob August 8, 2012 - 8:44 pm

Not likely, if the Dolans had shown some leadership they could have had a brand new facility. But you have to remember they made thier money with a government granted monoply (cable TV) so they’ve never proven any real business acumen.

MSG must be one of the older venues out there now – it opened February 1968. It also had a rennovation in the late 1980s – 1991, after a proposal to build a new one on a platform over the Hudson River didn’t gain traction. That was probably pre-Dolan. (Transportation-wise, that idea never made sense to me.)

John-2 August 8, 2012 - 9:35 pm

The oldest arena by far in the NBA, while in the NHL only the Islanders’ Nassau Coliseum (1972) comes close to the Garden in age.

The Dolans (or anyone who buys them out, if the cable industry goes kerplunk) aren’t moving the Garden away from the Penn Station site, because it offers Long Island and New Jersey rail access, as well as four of the city’s five main subway trunk lines being within one avenue block of Penn Station. Any future restoration of anything resembling the original McKim, Mead, and White building will have to take both the Garden and maintaining the 2 Penn Plaza office space into account.

bob August 8, 2012 - 8:26 pm

“But the old version suffered from a capacity too small to meet the demand.”

I don’t understand what that sentence is supposed to mean. It implies something was improved by the tear-down. While I’m not old enough to remember the original PSNY, everything I’ve seen in photos, plans, and movies shows a facility much larger than the present one. So capacity for riders (people on foot) couldn’t have been lower than the current facility. A few additional entrances have been built (West End Concourse, NJ Transit entrance, and the LIRR entrance to 34th St) but those don’t change things that much.

Since the actual railroad facilities (tracks, switches, platforms) didn’t change that capacity didn’t change.

So exactly what do you mean Ben?

A few years ago I went to a presentation by someone who used to do the NEC planning for Amtrak. He had figures that the number of trains handled by PSNY is far higher than 1980. Mostly LIRR due to the construction of West Side Yard – before that all the empties had to go back east, and come back in the afternoon. WSY freed up a lot of capacity under the East River.

While I don’t remember the great PSNY, I am old enough to remember the 1980s. What we have now isn’t great, but what we had then was much worse. In particular, no air conditioning. I used to go through the LIRR concourse a lot, and I remember the first time the AC was on (they had put in giant green units temporarily). It seemed like a miracle of biblical proportions.


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