(Image: Richard Cameron, Atelier & Co.)
New York City’s massive Pennsylvania Station serves an average of 1,000 people every 90 seconds. With 21 tracks and a location right in the heart of Manhattan (at 7th and 8th Avenues, between 31st and 33rd Streets), more than 600,000 people pass through the station every day.
Entirely underground and designed in a cold, modernist style, there’s nothing really particularly impressive about it (other than its vast scale) – but it wasn’t always that way. Penn Station as it stands today was built in 1969 following the demolition of the original station in 1963.
(Image: Wikipedia; the magnificent Pennsylvania Station prior to demolition)
Though the old Penn Station was a beautiful example of New York civic architecture at its finest, framed by iron and glass and making the most of the natural light, the present building is a vast, uninviting subterranean labyrinth. Indeed, the author and critic Michael Kimmelman remarked:
To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift. To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.
Bearing the name of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company which first built the station in 1910, the original facility was all magnificent columns, high windows, graceful arches and beautiful metalwork. It rivaled Grand Central in its elegance, until it was destroyed in 1963.
(Image: Cervin Robinson)
By that time space in the city was at a premium, and housing a railway station of those proportions above-ground was seen by many as a waste – especially when the concourse could be moved below street-level, and the surface area used for something else. So it was destroyed, in spite of attempts to save the building. All was not lost, however, as the loss of was the historic Penn Station raised public awareness of the importance of preservation and effectively kick-started the movement in the United States.
Those whose protests had fallen on deaf ears formed The Action Group for Better Architecture in New York, which launched a movement aimed at raising awareness of the importance of preserving the country’s history – even when that history involved something as “lowly” as a train station.
(Image: New York Public Library)
Decades later, the society’s voice might finally be heard with regard to New York’s Penn Station. Treehugger reported in May that architecture firm Atelier & Co. are looking at the practicalities of rebuild the station as it once was – and while the plan would carry an estimated $2.5 billion price tag, that’s a whole lot less than a more modern building would run.
The pitch includes the concept of a combining the old design with modern production methods – the old Pennsylvania Station had incredible stonework and carvings, which could be replicated from original plans using 3D printers.
(Image: Berenice Abbott)
Those in support of the project see it as a way of redeeming a major transportation hub in the city, returning it to more than the grimy underworld that 600,000 people must endure daily. It’s a fascinating idea, and the thought of walking into a turn-of-the-century train station is one that we can, pardon the pun, absolutely get on board with.
More to the point, it could pave the way for other high-quality buildings demolished in favour of questionably fashionable concrete monstrosities that failed to stand the test of time, in function as well as form, to once again grave our cityscapes. Maybe London can start by returning Euston Station to its pre-1960s splendour.