Monday, July 7, 2014

Penn Station

It has long been my opinion based on observed behavior that just as some people are tone-deaf, there are others who are blind to architectural beauty. For several terms I served on my city's Landmarks Commission. We were tasked with passing on proposed changes to "landmarked" buildings as well as the compatibility of new construction in designated neighborhoods. The very existence of the commission was inspired by the demolition of several beautiful late 19th century structures replaced by genuinely uninspired buildings. Once a building is gone it can almost never be brought back. A signal atrocity in this regard was the demolition of the 1910 Penn Station in New York City. R.R. Reno in "Rebuild Penn Station" argues that it could be and should be rebuilt: 

New York’s original Penn Station was one of the most remarkable public buildings ever built in America. Its designer, the great mid-century architect, Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, & White, married the grand scale and expansive ambitions of modern industrial society with the serene sense of eternity characteristic of ancient Greek and Roman designs. ....

...Penn Station was McKim’s masterpiece. Its gracious column evoked Bernini’s colonnade in front of St. Peter’s in Rome. The main waiting room with soaring vaulted ceiling was inspired by the Baths of Caracalla, also in Rome.

After World War II, the Pennsylvania Rail Road started to lose money. By the late Fifties the railroad was bent on selling the station from street level up. (The underlying tracks and platforms were of course indispensable for the inter-city and commuter rail system of New York.) In 1961 developer Irving Felt made a deal. The station was demolished and in its place he built the office towers and Madison Square Garden that stand there today. Underneath? The miserable subterranean railroad “station” that makes the banal Port Authority Bus Station on 42nd Street seem gracious. ....

.... As my architect friend Richard Cameron pointed out to me, many of historic buildings in war-ravaged Europe were rebuilt. The entire baroque city of Dresden was destroyed by Allied bombs, but after a loving and historically accurate rebuilding it is now a tourist destination. On December 5, 1931, Stalin had the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior dynamited to make way for a Palace of the Soviets (which was never built). It was rebuilt in the 1990s. There’s certainly precedent for rebuilding Penn Station. ....

Architectural critic Vincent Scully famously wrote this of the old Penn Station. “Through it one entered the city like a god.” Of the current station: “One scuttles in now like a rat.” .... [more]
"The Rise and Fall of Penn Station" from PBS's American Experience: