Piece Of Original Penn Station Hides In Plain Sight

Monday, August 06, 2012

This steel and glass doorframe is the sole remnant of the old Penn Station, opened in 1910 and demolished in 1963, to be found in the new. (Jennifer Hsu/WNYC)

At first, MTA spokesman Sal Arena insisted that no part of the architectural glory of the old Penn Station survived in the stripped down bunker of today's Penn Station. But the carved leaf pattern in the large steel and glass entryway on the lower level seemed so at odds with Penn Station’s no-frills style that we asked him to re-check that.

Arena obliged. Then wrote back, "I stand corrected."

As WNYC has learned, this entryway — part of the original Penn Station — was walled off in 1963, when the above-ground part of the station was razed. The destruction was decried by many as "historical vandalism." (Public ire at the leveling of the 1910 building is widely credited with launching the modern preservationist movement.) Madison Square Garden and a blocky office tower replaced the formerly grand public space; the train hub was shunted into the corridors beneath them.

There the entryway lay hidden for 30 years.

In the early 1990s, Penn Station underwent a major renovation, its first since the original building was demolished. That's when workers took down the wall and discovered the entryway. "It was found exactly where it is now," Arena said. "The contractor cleaned it, painted it and put in windows." It is now a deep umber color.

(Photo: Postcard image of the old Penn Station.)

The entryway went back into service quietly — no announcement was made about the salvaged piece of history. It's safe to assume that a large part of the station's 600,000 weekday travelers pass by it without an inkling of its provenance. In places, the paint on the entryway's columns is worn away from the hordes of travelers brushing past it, wanting only to leave Penn Station.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, called the discovery a "cool" but minor find. "It's the sort of thing that's a curiosity, an oddity, one of those pieces of history that you need a plaque to explain," he said.

He noted a remnant of the past that can be found outside the present station: two stone eagles from the vanished building that flank an entrance at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue. 

Bankoff said they're handsome, if hard to see, and small consolation for the "interplay of space and light" that was lost when the original station was torn down and tossed into a trash heap in New Jersey

Except for a pair of stone eagles and a strangely tenacious red entryway.

(Photo: Detail of glass and steel entryway from the old Penn Station. Jennifer Hsu / WNYC)

COMING SOON: A story about some of the small conveniences in the present Penn Station that can make passing through it more bearable. We'll also be asking for your Penn Station tips.


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Comments [3]

Jesse from New York

In addition to the stairs: the hanging clock at the 34th Street entrance, and some of the original glass floors are painted over and can be seen on the ceiling of track level on the LIRR tracks.

Aug. 08 2012 04:32 PM
David from New York City

I was going to say the same thing as Alex. There are a lot of banisters and railings left over on the track level - the demolition did not include any major changes to the platforms. Also of note, when NJTransit built the new entrance on 31th St. they echoed some of the ornamental styling used in the original station - including the pattern still seen on the railings going down to track level. The homage was a nice touch.

Aug. 06 2012 04:47 PM
Alex from New York City

Penn Station has many more remnants from the original Station building still embedded within it throughout, visible to the keen eye. One such remnant are the brass/bronze and wrought-iron stairs connecting the LIRR concourse-level with the track-level. There are many more fragments, though of course they do not and never will amount to the return of the atmosphere of the original transit hall.

Aug. 06 2012 01:01 PM

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