Thursday, November 5, 2015

Introducing the Penn Station Project

Editor's Note: I am currently reading the book Looking For America On The New Jersey Turnpike by Angus Kress Gillespie and Michael Aaron Rockland and am blown away at how they are able to derive so much meaning from such a mundanely inhumane institution.  This morning while reading the book on the train I had an "a ha!" moment: shouldn't Penn Station get similar treatment?  I then remembered that I have not the time, talent, or resources to write a similar book about America's busiest train station.  I then remembered that I at least have this humble blog.  I plan on making the Penn Station Project a running series.  Today is the first chapter.


Penn Station might be the most unloveable place of its importance in the world, on par with Heathrow and LAX, but worse because it isn't even allowed to be its own space.  It is first and foremost the basement of Madison Square Garden, an afterthought beneath The World's Greatest Arena.

It is even more unloveable for being a poor replacement for what had been one of the most impressive train stations ever constructed.  The original was completed in 1910, a Beaux Arts beauty made of pink marble and meant to symbolize permanence.  In perhaps the greatest crime against New York's built environment ever perpetuated, Penn Station was torn down in the mid-1960s, its marble and famed eagles dumped into a swamp in New Jersey.  In less than sixty years a great monument to the ascendance of rail travel had been obliterated, a sign of its obsolescence in the age of the automobile.

The new Penn Station would be part of a multipurpose space, a concept so beloved by architects and urban planners of the day.  On top would be Madison Square Garden and a tall office building, jammed beneath, like an unwanted child, would be Penn Station.  Never mind that 650,000 people pass through it everyday, more than the number of passengers at all three major New York area airports combined.  Before 1963 travelers to New York would emerge from the tunnel under the Hudson into a spectacular cathedral to trains, a grand place befitting a world-dominating city. Now they are disgorged into a dirty, grungy rabbit warren with claustrophobically low ceilings and foul air.

I pass through this place twice every day.  I am in it so often that I my brain doesn't really register what my eyes see. I once joked that I could walk through Penn Station and pass right on by Dick Cheney administering fellatio to Satan. I know there are hundreds of thousands of fellow commuters who have the same relationship to the place that I do.  I would like to slow down a bit and actually take a look around.  That's what this series will be all about.


Rich Goldstein said...

Penn Station gets so much (semi-deserved) hate, but I love it.

Sure, it makes me angry when I have to transfer in Secaucus Junction and think about how much further the money for a station like that would go in Newark or Jersey City. Or when I walk through Grand Central and think about how differently New York City treats its Connecticut commuters compared to Jerseyans and Long Islanders. But if they cleaned up the rat's nest that is Penn Station, rats like me wouldn't be allowed anywhere near the place.

To be ugly in a beautiful space is an act of resistance.

Buddy said...

These photos of the old Penn Station are heart-breakingly beautiful:

Modern and brutalist architecture gives me heartburn. I took a walk yesterday and saw a new apartment complex that just went up. It's all boxes. A cold-looking place.

I have friends who disagree. They say new buildings shouldn't copy old styles. That there's something phony and dishonorable about continuing old architectural traditions. But it's my opinion that those traditions arose for a reason. They make people feel more human. To throw everything away and build cold boxes seems somehow anti-human to me.