Home Penn Station Video: ‘The Rise and Fall of Penn Station’

Video: ‘The Rise and Fall of Penn Station’

by Benjamin Kabak

I mentioned briefly on Tuesday the hour-long program on Penn Station’s construction and destruction. Although mine’s still waiting on the DVR, if you missed the special, you can now watch in online. I’ve embedded it above for your viewing pleasure.

Those who’ve seen it speak glowingly of the story but note how quick the 51 minutes seem. There’s enough backstory in Penn Station’s history, use and untimely destruction to fill many hours of quality public television, and we’re left with just a snippet. Anyway, enjoy. I’ll post some thoughts after I’ve had a chance to watch the program myself.

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Keith Williams February 20, 2014 - 3:31 pm

I really enjoyed this, although I was glancing at my watch about three-quarters through wondering if the “fall” segment was going to be a second installment. That part felt a bit rushed – but then again, maybe there wasn’t much to say.

Chet February 20, 2014 - 3:33 pm

The show was quite good…as most American Experience shows are. I would have liked more about what led to the destruction of the station, and even some of the plans to revive something like it.

I suggest to everyone, get the book Conquering Gotham, by Jill Jonnes (she’s in the video as well). It is the full story of what it took to build the tunnels and the station. It’s a great read.

One thing that I’m curious to see- is there a floor plan of the old station anywhere online? Just curious to see what was where in that massive structure.

Subutay Musluoglu February 20, 2014 - 8:00 pm

This book, originally published by Phaidon Press in 1996 and now out of print but available used on Amazon, has the best floor plans of the station that I’ve seen so far.


?ar?chitect February 21, 2014 - 1:19 am

I found some drawings of it at this post, including a plan.

I’m actually a little surprised how much had no street frontage. With all that granite, did anyone ever think it was a little bleak on the exterior?

EgoTripExpress February 24, 2014 - 2:12 pm

That’s an great observation. I kind of get that feeling today with the Farley Post office. Though MSG/new Penn can be far more bleaker.

I guess McKim was such a die-hard Classicist, that not even street level store fronts should mar his homage to the Baths of Caracalla.

Michael_G February 20, 2014 - 10:46 pm

My biggest takeaway from “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station” was this: Old Penn Station’s biggest gift to New York City was not its architecture, but the rail infrastructure bringing trains in and out of the city via the Hudson River and East River tunnels and the Hell Gate Bridge. That infrastructure legacy has outlived the old station and continues to serve the city, metropolitan area and the entire Northeast Corridor.

That being said, the destruction of old Penn Station was an architectural crime, but it served as a terrible wake-up call to New York City (and the nation) that helped save so many other landmarks.

Some of the over-the-top plans for Penn Station’s future replacement may be inspiring but seem to be an exercise of distraction to the more important needs to expand the track infrastructure, in particular, constructing new Hudson River tunnels. Tunnels, tracks and platforms aren’t necessarily sexy. A beautiful new gateway to the city will inspire, but doesn’t necessarily translate as a transportation improvement. Just look at the new PATH terminal at the World Trade Center.

WaltGekko February 21, 2014 - 8:47 am

I realize there is still a lot of sentiment towards the old Penn Station, however, what is forgotten in that is this:

The entire area near Penn Station by the time it was decided to build a new Madison Square Garden and what would become Two Penn Plaza on top of it was beginning to go into what would be a steep decline during the late 1960’s and continuing into the ’70s. The old Penn Station, while elegant would have in my view become quite unsafe if not downright dangerous had it remained and a new MSG (which was going to have to be done anyway as the building that housed what at that time was the current version of MSG on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Street was RAPIDLY becoming obsolete, even by 1962).

The old Penn Station had many areas in it that would have likely become havens for drug dealers and other criminals as the 1960s progressed, and especially by the early ’70s when drugs were becoming an epidemic that only got worse through the ’70s and even moreso into the ’80s when Crack Cocaine became big. The building of the current MSG and 1 & 2 Penn Plaza were likely big reasons that neighborhood did not deteriorate even worse than it did in my view (and I remember how bad that area got by the mid-1980s in particular). In my view, the crack cocaine epidemic of the mid-1980s would have resulted in massive cries to tear down Penn Station by 1986 or so (the height of the crack cocaine era) given the number of areas people could have hidden in the old Penn Station that were not anywhere near as bad in the ugly, rebuilt version that many in my generation grew up with. Had the old Penn Station been able to survive that period (which extended into the early 1990s), it then likely would have gotten the same kind of work done with Grand Central to where that terminal is today.

As great as it would have been to have kept the old Penn Station, it could easily have turned into a case of “be careful what you wish for” had it actually been kept and not dismantled, given the severe rise in crime during the 1970s and ’80s fueled mostly by drugs and also by the twin recessions of 1969-’70 and 1973-’75 that were the worst since the Depression to that point. In this case, it likely was a “necessary evil” to dismantle the old Penn Station as was done given what happened after that.

WaltGekko February 21, 2014 - 8:50 am

I meant to say on MSG, even if not built above Penn Station, a new one was going to have to be built somewhere (or the then-MSG expanded) because the then-MSG was RAPIDLY becoming obsolete, even by 1962.

To expand on that, if the old MSG were to have remained, it would have had to someone be expanded possibly to where it ran on 8th-9th Avenues and 48th-51st street.

Phil February 21, 2014 - 12:05 pm

You posted the exact same garbage somewhere else. I think you may have even copy and pasted it into this post. I find it hilarious that you are convinced the Old Penn Station would have become a drug den if it weren’t destroyed. Granted it was neglected, you fail to even realize that Grand Central had been neglected too, so why didn’t that become a drug den instead since Penn wasn’t an option anymore?

You also mention that the area got worse through the 80’s, but yet Penn Station was gone for 20 years so how could Penn have been a cause of the decline? If anything, all the attention Penn Station got at the time of its destruction lead to the land marking movement, if it was saved that momentum probably would have gotten the station cleaned, likely improving the neighborhood.

Matthew February 21, 2014 - 11:28 am

Couldn’t agree more. Let’s just assume that Penn station had not been demolished. There would still be a major discrepancy between use and capacity. And this wouldn’t have been limited to just tracks and platforms. The actual square footage for the concourse space of the original Penn station is less than what we have today with the addition of a New Jersey transit concourse and expanded Long Island Railroad Concourse on the west side of eighth Avenue. What we didn’t have then, of course, was low ceilings and the supports for MSG throughout the station. NY needs not just a replacement for the physical structure of Penn station, but an entirely new railroad terminus. This would allow for a dramatic expansion of both cross Hudson River tunnels, incoming tracks, and Manhattan platform space. Without more, the replacement of the physical structure of Penn Station would be a tragic waste of money with little public benefit.

Ryan February 21, 2014 - 9:59 pm

NY absolutely does not need “an entirely new railroad terminus.” That’s patently ridiculous. What NY needs is, firstly, to not have a 820,000 square-foot gorilla squatting on top of its intercity rail hub regularly taking dumps on something already generously described as a “steaming pile of shit.” If the City Council had any testicular fortitude whatsoever, it would have issued an eviction notice and begun eminent domain proceedings against Madison Square Garden instead of giving it another ten year lease on life; to think that MSG is ever going to move without being forced to do so is hopelessly naive and overly optimistic, so we may as well get the ball rolling right now.

Secondly, Penn Station’s physical location is superb. It quite literally could not be located anywhere better than where it is right now. Replacing the physical structure needs to happen; and I extend that to reconfiguring the track layout and platforms, which is also an immediate necessity. Fortunately, with 21 tracks to work with, we have the ability to take tracks offline in waves – making sure that there’s never less than 15 active tracks with the final track count being somewhere between that and 18.

Capacity across the East River can be effectively doubled by eliminating the Borden Avenue grade crossing and widening the LIRR Main Line to four tracks, then punching a new set of tunnels out from Long Island City (radical idea: move MSG here! It’s already a blank canvas that I desperately want something, anything painted on) to the existing tracks 1-10 in Penn Station, reconfiguring the existing track connections as necessary. At the same time, widen Secaucus and everything east of it on the NEC to six tracks, and have the additional tracks feed into a new four-track tunnel under the Hudson aimed straight at those same ten tracks. That alone basically eliminates the capacity problem at Penn for the time being (and eliminates the capacity problem between the Hudson and Secaucus forever) because the real capacity crisis here is (1) in the tunnels and (2) on the too-narrow platforms; actual track capacity in Penn is more than sufficient and we can actually stand to lose 3-6 tracks to make room for wider platforms.

Connecting the existing Tracks 1-10 to four through tunnel tracks under either river on either side is also basically at least one of the many ARC (or ARC by any other name) proposals with the added benefit of not requiring an “annex” or Moynihan Station; and the moral imperative of building a crown jewel gateway rail station that is fueling all these nonsensical cries for Moynihan Station can instead be channeled into cries for building a brand new crown jewel gateway rail station on the existing site of New York Penn.

DF February 21, 2014 - 9:25 am

Of course we all wish the old Penn Station had stayed around, with “someone” paying the cost of maintenance.

But as we contemplate how the lack of landmark laws in 1962 allowed the station to be destroyed, it is also worth contemplating whether the railroad’s board would have approved such grand designs in the first place if a landmark law had been around in 1902 – that is, if they knew that should they be successful in building a beautiful and popular public place, they would be punished by having their rights to all the area above ground essentially expropriated, and being forced to pay for the upkeep of the building even should it become a white elephant. Of course at the time they would no doubt have considered the possibility that by 1960 the building would be a white elephant and the railroad all but bankrupt to be remote, perhaps even too remote to affect their approval of the project. But we can’t consider the benefits of landmark laws without considering the costs as well.

Spendmor Wastemor February 21, 2014 - 8:11 pm

There’s more to the story; Penn did not simply decide to tear the station down at some arbitrary time. There are ways to preserve such places which don’t involve the destructive expropriation you describe. It’s easy to play ‘sucka’ with other people’s investments by changing the rules after the someone else has done the work (e.g. Venezuela) the worst way is hardly the only way.

Given the durable old materials and the lack of AC I think it would not have cost a great deal to maintain.

al February 24, 2014 - 1:46 pm

The best hope to the old NY Penn would what happened to the Hearst Tower. A modern structure on top of a gutted base. Soldier Field in Chicago fits that mold too.

Phantom February 21, 2014 - 1:17 pm

I very much enjoyed this small documentary, despite the sad ending.

I wish I had seen the real Penn Station, even once.

Michael February 21, 2014 - 3:44 pm

Other People’s Property

One aspect that is not often covered in such video’s is the state of 1960’s historic preservation laws and practices, namely that there was not much. Here was a beloved facility that was completely built and operated by a private company that was not profitable. All of the worthwhile architectural and history of the city arguments aside, the bottom line was that Penn Central owned the whole place to do with as they pleased. Often in NYC transit circles or forums it is often not reflected upon that much of the public transit that exists today is due to companies that went bankrupt, and the public stepped in. From the earliest with the Staten Island Ferry in 1905, to more recent bus lines. Much to think about.

Subutay Musluoglu February 21, 2014 - 4:15 pm

Over the years I have given thought to what Penn Station would look like today had it survived. Obviously it’s an exercise in alternative history (fantasy really). The first thing to consider is ownership. If by some miracle the PRR did not sell the building’s air rights, its future was still written – the merger with the NY Central would most likely still have taken place along with the eventual bankruptcy of the Penn-Central. Assuming that the Federal government still steps in, as it did in reality, what would have happened next – would Amtrak still have ended up as the owner, or would the State of New York have accepted the Federal government’s original offer and taken over the station, the river tunnels, and all of the associated infrastructure? If Amtrak took over, I question whether they would have been good stewards of the station, considering their perpetual annual begging exercise for funding from Congress and the way they take care of the station as it is today.

If NYS had taken over, most likely through the MTA, with the Long Island Rail Road in charge (only natural since the LIRR is clearly the majority user of the station in terms of train traffic and passenger numbers), then one could assume that the MTA would have embarked on a major capital project of historic architectural preservation and physical plant restoration, as was done with GCT.

But regardless of who assumed control, the station would have needed significant attention. What would that have looked like? Absent a station elevation cutaway that illustrates the three primary levels (Main Concourse, Exit Concourse, Platforms), or a plan view that shows the original arcade and the two flanking open courts, I will do my best to describe a possible scenario. Please note that I am only addressing the 1910 station building and its original internal spaces – I am not speculating on new tunnels and track infrastructure, which has been discussed in depth here and elsewhere.

The original station’s functional limitations would have to have been addressed, including the constrained concourses and limited vertical circulation. It must be noted that when one walks around the station today, you are walking in spaces and levels that are more or less the same as they were pre-1963 – the Main Concourse, the Exit Concourse, and the LIRR Concourse (which is on the same level as the Exit Concourse). Taking that as a starting point and assuming they are fixed in place, because altering them would have entailed massive structural alterations and operational implications, then one can assume that the renovations that have occurred over the last 20 years would still have taken place in a similar manner. The early 1990s expansion and renovation of the LIRR concourse would still have occurred. Today’s Central Concourse (east of, and on the same level as the Exit Concourse) would most likely still have been built (a review of the original plans does not rule that out structurally). The LIRR’s Main Gate Area would have been built more or less where it is today (the footprint of the original station’s northeast open court), and the NJT 7th Avenue Concourse would take up the area of the southeast open court and the south taxi ramp, as it does today. Note that the NJT concourse is actually split on two levels (Main and Exit).

The taxi ramps present an interesting dilemma – would they have been sacrificed eventually in the interest of expanding station capacity, and what implications would that have had in terms of historic preservation, or would they have succumbed to the realities of post 9/11 security considerations and been closed to vehicular traffic? In which case they could have been repurposed, either for expanding station capacity or adding revenue generating retail.

On the topic of retail, I think it’s safe to assume that the Arcade (the 1910 primary entrance and corridor from 7th Avenue to the Main Waiting Room, aligned with 32nd Street) would have survived and undergone a transformation similar to what we see at GCT. In this case, a row of stores typical of today’s retail environment – Starbucks, Banana Republic, Duane Reade, and the like. The lunchroom would most likely be a food court comprised of multiple vendors, and if the formal restaurant wasn’t similarly transformed, then I could envision a stand-alone fine dining establishment there.

The Main Waiting Room would have been thoroughly cleaned and renovated, with special attention to the murals, the Alexander Cassatt and Samuel Rea statues, and the clerestory windows. I suspect that the ticket windows would have survived, but in a limited manner, with TVMs sprinkled throughout. The awful intrusions that we see in photos from the decade prior to the station’s demolition would have been cleared and probably replaced with free standing retail stalls similar to what we have today in GCT’s Graybar Passage, but in a more limited manner so as not to interfere with passengers making their way to and from the arcade, the side street entrances, the main concourse, or those waiting on the ticket lines.

The Main Concourse would also have been cleared of clutter, and appropriately restored, with special attention to the skylights. It’s possible that some retail stalls would have been introduced, but I suspect not in order to maximize pedestrian circulation. The open space above the tracks on the 8th Avenue side of the concourse, clearly visible in the station’s early days but later covered over with a floor containing waiting benches and storage lockers (and level with the Exit Concourse), ideally would have been restored, unless it was absolutely necessary to retain from a circulation perspective. In my opinion, this was one of the station’s most dramatic aspects – the allowance of natural light coming down from the skylights all the way to the platforms.

A similar situation existed at the eastern end of the platforms underneath the two open courts, however these courts were partially taken up by baggage handling functions and eventually covered over. As much as I would like to see natural light penetrating down to the platforms here as well, I cannot envision a scenario where these would have survived in their original configuration, given the pressing need for the circulation provided today by the LIRR Main Gate Area and the NJT Concourse.

The glass tile floor of the Main Concourse, which was the ceiling of the Exit Concourse, would hopefully have survived, and restored to its original appearance.

The east-west connecting corridor that runs from the IRT subway to the central concourse (on the same level as the Exit Concourse, sometimes referred to as the Hilton Passageway because it connected back over to the Pennsylvania Hotel through the IRT’s under mezzanine), under utilized today, would probably have been widened. In fact, if the structural framing would have allowed it, a new large, north-south concourse, encompassing the LIRR Main Gate Area, the Hilton Passageway, and the NJT Concourse could have been built, covering roughly the entire eastern third of the station. With new vertical circulation to the platforms, access directly from the Arcade and Main Waiting Room, as well as from the northeast and southeast corners of the headhouse, and possibly even from the taxi ramps, this new concourse would have solved many of the 1910 station’s circulation problems by equalizing access/egress to the station, and in turn to the trains themselves, resulting in balanced train loading. Not to mention that clearing the station in an emergency situation, a significant concern today, would become easier.

Other elements such as the West End Concourse could still have gone forward, hopefully in a wider configuration extending to the southern most platforms (being done now as part of Moynihan Station (Phase 1), but I wonder if the LIRR’s dedicated, signature 34th Street entrance (opened in 1994) would still have been built. I say that only because it’s difficult to speculate if the 1 Penn Plaza block would still have been developed the way it was if Penn Station was not demolished. Having said that, a single, contiguous headhouse as represented by the 1910 station building would have been much easier to penetrate with multiple entry points in a manner sympathetic to the original station’s exterior.

Of course it goes without saying that the building’s granite exterior and marble interior surfaces would have received a through cleansing (Pre-demolition color photos show just how dirty the station had become after five decades), and all surviving historic elements, such as light fixtures, platform stairway gates, balustrades, fencing, windows, and skylights would have been restored to as new. Lost and damaged elements would be replicated. Hidden infrastructure and vital building systems such as electrical services, heating, plumbing, ventilation, would have been brought up to today’s code, and a modern fire suppression system would have been installed. Basically, all the work that took place at GCT between 1992 and 2010 would have been carried out in a similar manner at Penn Station.

In the end, had Penn Station survived, endured, and treated with the care and respect that it deserved, then NYC would have not one, but two beautiful railway stations today, and Pennsylvania Station would be the pride of residents, the envy of visitors, and its daily users would be ennobled as they passed through its spaces. Alas, it was not meant to be. Like I said, fantasy…

Pathfinder February 26, 2014 - 3:25 pm

I just saw an article on Gizmodo about a Chinese company taking bids from architects to recreate the Crystal Palace in London (http://gizmodo.com/why-archite.....1531541742)

Imagine if that company could do that here with Penn Station… it probably would never happen but if anyone could make it happen, it’s probably the Chinese at this point.

Matthias February 27, 2014 - 1:30 pm

An incredible documentary program. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I kept thinking that the narrator sounded a tad inebriated…

It was painful to watch the demolition footage, with workers just jackhammering through valuable granite and marble. It’s mind-blowing. Every major political advance (historical preservation in this case) comes out of a crisis.

paulb March 5, 2014 - 5:18 pm

I don’t like the uncritical, elegaic tone of this film or its cliche-ridden script. I hate that “entered the city like a king” or whatever quote. Who wrote that again? Break his fingers. A French tourist cried. Stop me before I shoot someone. I agree with Michael_G about the rail network, but the building itself was a folly, a white elephant, which is why it was doomed. Even while it was being built some people were pleading to give it some other worthwhile use. Greed didn’t destroy Penn Station, bad planning from the beginning sealed its fate.


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