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The rise and fall of Penn Station

And other N.Y. tales that have a hold on me
by Steve McKee on December 7, 2014

On my last full day in New York I decided to give my daughter a break from me while I went off on my own for a few hours to see some sights that only I would enjoy.

I realized this was a good idea the previous day when she and I were walking around Midtown and I asked if we could detour to see inside the Penn Station train terminal because I wanted “to see if it was really as bad as they say it is.” As I said it, even I could sense how weird that request sounded, so I dropped the idea and we continued on in search of good pizza.

Weeks before, I had seen a documentary that described in detail how the first Penn Station had been created just over a hundred years ago. It was a beautiful lofty train terminal filled with light and huge arched ceilings that matched the rhythms and grandeur of old Rome. Then, just half a century later, they decided to demolish it. Yep, someone decided to tear down one of the nicest buildings ever. Everything except for the train track concourse at the lowest level was jack hammered into oblivion. Then they built a claustrophobic version of a train station with the Madison Square Garden sports arena above it.

Penn Station concourse

Penn Station concourse

This saga all began in the early 1900’s when Alexander Cassat, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, noticed how much he hated that his company’s trains didn’t actually arrive in New York, but instead stopped on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, requiring passengers to scramble for a fleet of ferries to make it the rest of the way into Manhattan. So he quietly set about buying up the tenements in an entire two block area on the West Side of Manhattan while his team of engineers and diggers began to tunnel through the thick sludge under the Hudson River, the first time such a feat was ever attempted. He hired a leading architect of that era, Charles McKim, to design the train station. McKim and Cassat fed off each other’s enthusiasm. The end result was a masterpiece of Beaux Arts magnificence, modeled on the massive Roman Baths of Caracalla with a bit of Paris’s newest train station, Gare D’Orsay, thrown in as an influence.

It was a beautiful building for the ages. Unfortunately, robust patronage of train travel was not for the ages. As more and more passengers turned to automobiles in the 1950’s, the finances of Pennsylvania Railroad suffered and the decision was made to sell the development rights above the station, so it was demolished in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden and an office building. The train concourse below was kept in place and a new dumpy 1960’s version of a train station was made to fit between the train tracks below and the arena above.

The documentary that I saw about all this (“The Rise and Fall of Penn Station” available for viewing on Youtube) included footage of workers matter-of-factly jackhammering beautiful granite plinths into rubble. It’s appalling to watch that, just as it

Penn Station waiting room

Penn Station waiting room

appalled New Yorkers to see one of their finest buildings turned to ruins and realize too late that they had not done enough to try to save it. Never again would this sort of thing happen in New York. This building became the martyr that let other notable buildings live.

 

“Where we once entered like kings, we exit like rats,” wrote architectural historian Vincent Scully about the new Penn Station.  That’s why I wanted to see it, so I could get in on the story. Was it really all that bad?

I found it to be indeed a dumpy 1960’s version of a train station – utilitarian at best. Rome was gone. In its place were ceilings and escalators and fluorescent lights that felt sort of like being in a J.C. Penney, except darker.

These days train travel is on the rise and there is talk about redoing Madison Square Garden and relocating Penn Station into the grand neo-classical post office right across the street. I’ll keep track of that in case it gets interesting.

From there, I walked over to Grand Central Station (site of many a viral video of flash mobs breaking out in surprise performances) to remember what an impressive train station felt like. Then it was up Park Avenue for a brief visit to the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Nothing remarkable to report there.

I made sure to seek out Paley Park, a delightful little plaza with trees between two buildings on 53rd Street that has been a favorite of mine ever since I saw a short film that discussed it years ago in school. It’s only 42′ wide and 100′ deep, but has a full width waterfall at the back. The sound of the rushing water softens city noises. The grid of trees makes for good dappled shade, and all the chairs are movable to allow people to arrange their own sitting choices. These factors somehow combine to make this little park a wonderful place to briefly leave the city behind. The people watching is good, and that in turn draws more visitors, making the people watching even better. I know about the synergistic aspects of this park because of a film by William Whyte, a sensitive man with a droll sense of humor and great insights as to how humans really use urban spaces. His one hour film is called “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.” It too can be seen on Youtube. He has a book by the same name that is an easy read.

In the 1960’s Whyte became an advisor to the New York Planning Commission because of his skill in collecting useful data on how to create truly user-friendly plazas and small parks. Through endless months of charting where people actually hung out in existing plazas (and with time-lapse photography) he obtained measureable information on how people really use these sorts of spaces, sometimes in direct contrast to conventional wisdom. This led to the creation of very specific zoning guidelines, such as how to best include ledges for sitting and why it’s best to plant trees in groves.  His work led to people-friendly plazas and parks throughout New York. Job well done, I say.

Perhaps my biggest plunge into being a tourist came when I decided to spend a couple hours on one of those “hop on, hop off” double-decker busses with the top level open to the city. There could be nothing more touristy that this. I decided not to care – an attitude I found very liberating.  I chose to see this as a way to effortlessly be toured about the interesting parts of Manhattan in an elevated convertible. What’s not to like about that?

 

The iconic Flatiron building

The iconic Flatiron building

Through the traffic of the Theater District crept the bus. Then slowly through Greenwich Village, where we actually had to duck our heads under overhanging branches. Dangerous, sure, but I saw it as added adventure. After that it was down Fifth Avenue past the famous “Flatiron” building of 1902 on its narrow triangular lot. This slender tapered building was quite tall for its era. Some of the locals were sure it would topple in a strong wind. It didn’t.

When my bus got to Little Italy, I used my “hop off” privilege to better explore the area on foot. I was on a mission to see Mulberry Street because of an image I had seen two days before in a coffee-table book at my daughter’s apartment called “New York – Then and Now.” It showed that street as it was a hundred years ago when it overflowed with Italian culture.

Mulberry Street Little Italy circa 1900

Mulberry Street
Little Italy circa 1900

 

Mulberry Street had been the cultural heart of Little Italy. Think of those great scenes in the second Godfather movie of the bustling and boisterous street life in that immigrant community. The Italian-Americans have since spread out across America from there. These days the Italian restaurants are moving out of Little Italy due to high rent. Chinatown is creeping in, so the bustle of Little Italy that I saw was just about gone. But it was the staggered roof tops and jumbled fire escapes that I had come to see – just like where a young Robert DeNiro playing Vito Corleone hopped from roof to roof to dump pieces of his gun down various stove pipes after he rid the neighborhood of that mean old Don Fanucci.

I got a call from Gwenna who seemed bored and anxious for us to meet up again, this time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a couple hours of world class art. So I used my nascent subway skills to head uptown. Before taking off for California the next morning, I bought her a one-month subway pass so she would be free to travel at will and not worry about scrimping and altering her errands to save on subway fare. A dad’s got to do something to help out his little girl before he leaves her alone in such a big city!

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