Monday, October 10, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

This post also appears on Fashion Herald, a 34th Street  fashion and retail blog written by Tricia Lewis.

Penn Station, neighbor to the still standing Farley Post Office is mostly remembered as one of New York City's great losses. The photo below shows the station as most choose to remember it -- a beautifully designed structure filled with natural light, that makes train travel look like the best idea ever. For out-of-town travelers new to the city, it was often their first glimpse of New York City.

Penn Station, 1935. Photo:New York Public Library

Before Penn Station was conceived of and built, railroad service terminated in Jersey City on the western side of the Hudson River. From there, passengers boarded a ferry into the city. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR) put forth several proposals to bring service into the city, including elevated tracks over the Hudson. It was eventually decided to tunnel under it instead, and an initial excavation began on July 21, 1880 to link the new passage with an existing, partially completed tunnel. Unfortunately this effort ended in disaster for several workers who perished when the tunnel collapsed.

The disaster cast a shadow on the project, and it wasn't until twenty years later that PRR President Alexander Cassatt, announced plans to resume the project, tunneling under the Hudson and into the City at West 34th Street.

Architecture firm McKim, Mead & White was chosen to design the station; construction started on May 1, 1904, and was completed in 1910. September 8, 1910 was the official opening day of the station, though full train service didn't begin until November 27, 1910.

The early stages of construction, photo: Library of Congress

Penn Station in 1910 looking southwest. Photo: Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress

Known for their Beaux-Arts style, McKim, Mead & White placed Doric columns along the eastern facade, crowning them with twenty-two eagles. The form used for the eagles was sculpted by Adolph A. Weinman.

The station had high vaulted glass ceilings that let in natural light and lent a refinery to the terminal, almost as if it was a museum devoted to transportation, rather than just a terminal. This feature of the building also likened it to another architectural jewel that burned down years before, the Crystal Palace exhibition hall, built mostly of glass and steel and erected in Bryant Park in 1853.

Like all good architecture photos, this one is entirely without people.
Penn Station interior, 1910. Photo: Shorpy's

With the increasing practice of traveling by car in the 1950s, the railroad industry began to suffer financially. The station and air rights were eventually sold and plans for the new Penn Station and Madison Square Garden were announced in 1962. In exchange for optioning out the air rights over Penn Station, the PRR was permitted a new station underneath the future site of MSG at no cost to the railroad company and a 25% stake in the new MSG sports complex. Destruction began on October 28, 1963. The following photos are housed at the Museum of the City of New York, and were taken by one of my favorite living photographers, and I'm lucky to say, a friend, Aaron Rose.

The demolition of Penn Station, 1964-1965. Photo: MCNY, Aaron Rose

The demolition of Penn Station, 1964-1965. Photo: MCNY, Aaron Rose
The public outcry against the destruction of Penn Station was significant, though not enough to save the building. It did however, help solidify and unify architectural preservation efforts, and led to founding of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in 1965. 

Additional sources:
The Late, Great Penn Station by Lorraine Diehl (My favorite book on Penn Station.)
Forgotten NY has a lot of digestible facts and pictures
Library of Congress digital photo archive


  1. Any idea what was on that property prior to the Penn Station?

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think it may have been residential. The Penn Railroad Co. had their sights on the area long before any construction began, and hired Stuyvesant Real Estate Co. to buy up all the necessary land. They had other real estate companies doing the same in Jersey too.

    2. The area that Penn Station built on was called the "Tenderloin," a slummy neighborhood filled with tenements that were home to saloons, gambling dens, and other "vices." It was sort of like the "Bowery" of its day-- dangerous, dirty, and "sinful". One of the reasons why this area was chosen was precisely because of how many people hoped to clear it out of "riff raff" in the hopes of elevating that section of Midtown. There may have been a racial component, too, because this area had a sizable black population either frequenting or living there.

    3. Thant makes much more sense. Thank you for the additional info. There are several low-lying buildings surrounding the excavation site. The MCNY has a few in their digital archive here:

  2. One of the photos I have of the main waiting room shows a couple of scrolled keystones over the two huge arches, I was able to find a larger res version but even then the angle of view, glare and grainyness at that res makes the keystone hard to see well, but going by scaling a person standing on the floor below these keystones were a massive 6 to 7 feet tall and they featured a Romanesque looking robed standing figure. These figures were about the size of lifesized statues, carved out of one large block of solid stone.
    They saved the eagles but these keystones must be sitting in the bottom of the landfill, what a stupid waste!
    I've never found any other photos showing them.

  3. It's terrible. I haven't seem many photos of the statuary -- just mostly the building or rooms from a distance. There are some on the MCNY website though, and they give a better idea of how massive and grand Penn Station actually was.


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