Penn Station's Missing Grandeur

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(New York, NY -- Mark Ovenden)  Standing outside the Penn Station of today is a somewhat depressing experience for a train geek.  Sure there’s some functional enough Amtrak awnings -- but they protrude from the corners of the somewhat drab, utilitarian 1960’s slab that replaced one of the architectural gems of the railway world - so it’s no great surprise I feel a little gutted looking up at the Madison Square Garden complex lamenting what once stood here.

[To listen to Ovenden's and Andrea Bernstein's tour of Penn Station, a related article, and to see a slide show of maps click here]

The station name comes from the almost mythic old American company, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the main competitor of the New York Central.  Grand Central (1871 - rebuilt: 1913) was the NYC’s answer to a terminal in Manhattan and the Penn had ambitions to bring their trains onto the island for years and outdo their rivals.

It was always going to be a tough call due to the almost insurmountable barrier of the mighty Hudson River between the mainland in New Jersey and the island of Manhattan,  But slowly technology for the tunneling and using electric trains began to emerge. Plans were announced as early as 1901 to take the PRR under the Hudson to a new grand terminus near to 34th Street.

Station architects McKim, Mead, and White conceived of a monumental construction covering two entire city blocks between 7th and 8th Avenues and 31st-33rd Streets. It was to be built in their favored fashion - the French/Belgian influenced Beaux-Arts style (think Paris Garnier - Opera House) with the platforms and tracks at a sunken lower level.

Building the two single track tunnels from Exchange Place in Jersey City began in June 1903, while four single-track tunnels were bored under the East River to link the PRR directly the Long Island Rail Road, via Queens.  The work beneath the rivers required the most advanced construction techniques of the day and was completed between1906 (Hudson tunnels) and 1908 (East River tunnels).

Work on the vast 8 acre site of Pennsylvania Station itself was begun in May 1904. Many of the architectural concepts were modeled on classic European landmarks; Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate inspired the two sheds of the Long Island and Pennsylvania lines. The gargantuan waiting room is said to have evoked Roman baths. The exterior was faced in a colonnade of Greek style Doric columns of pink granite. The mammoth glazed steel sheds allowed light to pour onto the concourses from above. The effect of the building upon approach was of power, grace and grandeur. From inside the feeling of standing in the largest covered space in the city was simply breathtaking.

The connection from the LIRR to the PRR via the magnificent Penn Station was opened in 1910 and became a crucial link in America’s inter-city network. But at a cost of $2.7 billion (at today’s prices) it came arguably a little too late to take full advantage of the boom in railway patronage.

For the research into my book “Railway Maps of the World” (published this summer), I acknowledge that the peak year for the US network was 1918 when track mileages reached 254,000 - forming easily the biggest rail network in the world. But despite having its busiest throughput during the years of the Second World War, rail use was in decline thanks to the increased use of the private car and the growth of the highways plus the speed and ease of air travel after the invention of the jet engine.

Penn Station was used less and less frequently.  At times of the day, it was almost empty.

By the 1950s rail was in serious free fall and the PRR sold “air-rights” for the space above its potentially lucrative real estate in midtown Manhattan.  A plan was announced in 1962 for a so called “Penn Plaza” and Madison Square Garden complex right over the tracks, which would require the complete demolition of the elegant terminal building (or “head-house”) plus the exquisite train sheds.  The entire lot was torn down from October 1963 and the massive “Pennsylvania Plaza complex” which includes the Madison Square Garden sports arena and a ‘modernized’ air-conditioned fully enclosed concourse opened in 1968 with the original tracks beneath.

The loss of the world class building at street-level of course caused local outrage and even an international outcry. The New York Times called it a “monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age Incidentally, having clearly not learnt a single lesson from it’s wanton act of greedy decimation, the parent company of Grand Central, Penn Central, even sought to knock down that stunning building too! Luckily the courts rejected this barbaric act in 1978.

But all was not lost; a number of the angel and eagle statues from the original Penn Station plus some of the clocks were salvaged and dispersed to rail museums and public buildings around the world. And if you want a glimpse of what it might have felt like being in those imposing walls, you would do no better than take a trip to the Union Station in Ottawa (by rail of course), as this wonderful building, opened just a year after Penn, was also partially modeled on the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

For a companion article: "To the list of things not to like about Penn Station — the too-low ceilings, the lack of natural light, the unmemorable food — add this: no display map of Amtrak train routes.  From Penn Station, you can take the train to Montreal or Miami or Montana. But if you stand under the departure board, according to Railway Maps of the World author Mark Ovenden, “You can't see a map for love nor money..."

Click here the rest]


* Mark Ovenden is a freelance travel writer, broadcaster and author of books about railway design, architecture and cartography. His books include “Transit Maps of the World,” “Paris Underground: the maps, stations and design of the Metro” and . “Railway Maps of the World.”