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Pennsylvania Station, The Myth

New York’s Lost Treasure

Introduction: New York City before the station.

In May 2015, after the New York City’s landmark preservation agency prevented the famous Seagram Building’s restaurant from suffering a refurbishement, Nick Bryant, a BBC News journalist, wrote an article titled : “How Penn Station saved New York\'s architectural history”.

The Pennsylvania Station circa 1910.

Because New York City back in 1950 had no landmark laws and every building would just be destroyed and rebuilt. The fast growth of the city explains why not many people actually gave thought to saving the historical buildings. But after the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, people realised how important it was to actually give a chance of survival to those buildings that defined the city. On October 30th 1963 Ada Louise, architecture critic wrote in her article on the destruction of the station in the New York Times “And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

The landmark laws of today are the aftermath of the destruction of Penn for the station was an essential representation of society at the time. According to Architectural Historian Paul Goldberger: “Pennsylvania Station was a symbol not only of the greatness and power of the railroad but also of the greatness and power of the city. It was a gift to the city as well as a creation of a corporation.” And the reason why people mourn the old station is probably because the current station is a disaster. Nick Byant states in his BBC news article: “To descend into Penn Station in midtown New York is to visit an architectural crime scene.”

 In this essay, we will discuss the reasons why Pennsylvania Station used to be a masterpiece of it’s time, how terribly it was replaced by an underground maze and what the options for the future of the site are.  The Context

A. New York Post Industrial Revolution

During the progressive era, 1898 to 1920, New York City went through one of its most important changes. In 1898, the 5 boroughs: Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island consolidated. This unification allowed the city to become stronger. A number of new transportation means were set up in order to facilitate the movement of people. Not only multiple bridges were built but also the New York City Subway opened its doors to the public in 1904. It was at the time one of the first public transit systems and is still today one of the most used metro systems in the world.

At the time of consolidation, New York’s population was counted at 3.4 million and quickly rose by 38% between 1890 and 1900. New York City was booming and came to dominate American life. It was the capital of national communications, trade and finance, and of popular culture and high culture.

New York City also had the biggest port of entry in the United States. It handled people and also goods on a daily basis and made New York the main hub. In 1910 the Port was the busiest in the world.

B. The need for a train connection

Until the building of the Pennsylvania Station, Manhattan was not connected to its surrounding train terminals on its East and West coast neighbours. The PRR (Pennsylvania Rail Road), had its terminal to the west of Manhattan in Jersey City and the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) had its terminal to the east of Manhattan, in Queens.

Reaching these two terminals, passengers would have to exit their trains and make their way to ferries in order to be carried across the Hudson and East River. In 1906 alone, 295 million people transported across the East River by ferry.

This is the compelling evidence that Pennsylvania Station was a necessity. Manhattan had become a crucial component of the American trade system and economy and necessitated a direct train connection to its surrounding cities and boroughs. But the Pennsylvania Station was not the first attempt in connecting Manhattan to its neighbours, in 1884 Gustav Lindenthal made a very hopeful proposal for a railway bridge over the Hudson. The plan was declined due to excessive costs.

Later on, Austin Corbin, the man who made the LIRR into what it is today, took over all the various little railroads on Long Island and united them which made it possible for Long Island to develop well. As the president of the LIRR, A. Corbin also proposed to link his network with the PRR and tunnel into Manhattan but his plan never came through. He died recently after in a carriage accident in 1896.

C. Lindenthal’s failure and Cassatt’s master plan

Alexander Cassatt, former vice president of the PRR who had left to Europe in order to take care of his horses, was called back in 1899 by the PRR to take on the presidency. As he had started as an engineer for the railroad company in 1861 and had quickly risen to vice president in 1877, he was believe to be the most adequate candidate to take over the company.

When three railroad presidents met casually and wondered who would be best to take on the presidency of the PRR, one of them stated “A. J. Cassatt” and when he was asked why he answered “He is the only man who knows all about every part of the Pennsylvania system […]”. When he got back and saw the mess that PRR was and all of the failed attempts at connecting their terminal in Jersey City to Manhattan he resolved to working alone on his master plan. He slowly put the PRR back on tracks and had some great ambitions for it.

The first step of his “imperial program” took place in 1900 when he bought the LIRR. His goal was to have one big system surrounding Manhattan in order to later on connect it to its East and West neighbours. His goal was now to tunnel from Jersey City and from Queens which sounds simple but was at the time the biggest engineering project imagined. In 1902 he hired Charles M. Jacobs, renown engineer to undertake the project of the tunnels which promised to be very difficult and commissioned McKim, Mead and White to draw plans for the tunnels that would channel into the city centre and terminated in a huge gateway station and hotel,The Pennsylvania Station. Some people think he hired McKim, Mead and White instead of Furness in order to win political favour by hiring a New York City based firm.

II.   The Project

A. McKim, Mead and White

McKim, Mead and White was founded in 1879 when White joined forces with the other two who had partnered up in 1972 already. Their work was inspired by the Beaux-Arts and consisted mostly of very large, godly structures with contrasts to modern age.

Charles Follen McKim head of the Pennsylvania Station project was the anchor of the practice. William Rutherford Mead was described as the quiet, thoughtful and administrator character and Stanford White was the most celebrated partner. J. P. Morgan said that he was”always crazy” and “verged on genius”. Their office covered more than 1000 projects within the first 30 years of practice. It is safe to say that their business and style was a success. NPR even titled one of their articles: “These Architects Designed A Nation”.  They represent “turn of the century” America.

B. Design

Alexandre J. Cassatt’s original idea for the station was a train station and hotel but as Charles Follen McKim was known to be opinionated and strongly against tall buildings when Cassatt requested him to design it, he refused. The two got in an argument but McKim managed to get Cassatt on his side. The project then started with the intention of being the “[…] give to the building the character of a monumental entrance to the commercial metropolis of the country which would at the same time conform to the traditional aspect of a great railway terminus.”.

There were very few problems faced during the design process and building. One of them was in the planning of the tunnels. The smoke from the trains was too dangerous and had already caused multiple accidents around the world. But as Cassatt had himself attended the grand opening of the Quai d’Orsay in Paris in 1900, first electrified railway in the world, he knew this was the step forward to make in order to make his train line efficient, safe and sustainable. The building of those electrified tunnels caused some issues, many workers died in the process. As the ground under the Hudson and East River is soft silt, the fear of the tunnels moving was a true concern and it was at the time the most intricate engineering plan ever made.

Plan and section of the tunnels from New Jersey.

The digging process of the site of the station through bombing also caused some issues as it made the surrounding apartments shake and broke several windows.

McKim on his end was finalising the design. The site being large scaled, allowed for the building to be a true monument and since the tracks ran from east to west McKim made an unconventional decision at that time. He decided the tracks would lay below the waiting rooms in order to have a vertical alignment in the station. This decision went against the classical horizontal alignment in most train stations. The American Architect noted the station was a “wide departure from the conventional railway station” and also that its was “unique among all the railway stations of the world in the number and convenience of its entrances and exits.”

For example, the Chicago Union Station, built in 1925, 15 years after the opening of Pennsylvania Station, was far less forward looking. The movement of people not being vertically dealt with made it like just any other regular train station.

           Section Through the General Waiting Room.

The innovating idea of McKim and his vertical alignment in the train stations became famous only fifty years after the building of Penn. The arrivals would exit straight outside without colliding with the departing passengers. It also allowed for the baggages to be separately taken to the arrivals while not interrupting the flow of passengers. The Architectural Review remarked in solving the passenger flow: “Pennsylvania station is modern in the strictest sense.”

      Inspiration board for the station’s interiors.

William Couper said in 1912: “The separation of incoming and outgoing passengers on different levels makes this building unique.”

The interior of station was divided in two, very contrasting, themes. The main entry and waiting rooms were inspired by the Baths of Caracalla and the roman Colosseum. While the other part of the station where the tracks lay was in the Beaux-Arts style, inspired by St-Pancras and the Quai d’Orsay.

Although the two distinct parts of the station were perfectly made and contrasted, it is one of the few critiques people made about the design itself.

In the subject of technology and hidden processes the direct connection to the post office on the opposite side of the road was a key feature of the station. It allowed Penn to take care of carrying 40% of New York’s mail through spiral gravity chutes directly connected to the post office.

Inside the station, pneumatic tubes were installed to send instant messages within the station. Which was a very futuristic and innovative feature.

The station was said to have the latest technologies and unrivalled passenger facilities. One of those were 158 drinking fountains around the station and also private rooms were were reserved specifically for funeral parties so that they would not have to deal with the crowds on the platforms as well as six electrical trucks that would carry the bodies out of the station quickly and silently. Employees had their own YMCA and had access to an assembly hall, lecture rooms, a library, a billiard room, bowling alleys and a gymnasium.

C. The Success

The Pennsylvania Station quietly opened its doors in September 1910 after four years of construction. The building was made of 17 million bricks, 27’000 tons of structural steel, 80’000 square feet of glazing and 550’000 cubic feet of granite. It was monumental, the tracks and the station itself covered five large city blocks.

William Couper announced Penn to be “The largest building in the world constructed at one time” and said the large inside space allowed “no audible evidence of the hastening throngs seen all around us”.

The New York Architect said the station was: “a lasting monument worthy of the great city of which it was to form the western gateway.”

With time, very few changes were made to the station during the first 46 years. Minor details were changed such as the information booth being moved and other. A more subsequent change that was made during those years (according to McKim, Mead and White’s design) was the building of the Pennsylvania Hotel above the tracks to the east of Seventh Avenue.

 Ken Macrorie said “One feels important going to the toilet here.”

Ten years after the grand opening the station had already increased the number of passengers by 208 percent. In 1911, 9’861’427 people were brought in and out of the station while eight years later, 30’343’205 people. Even the number of passengers on the Pennsylvania Rail Road and Long Island Rail Road rose by more than 180 percent.

The station was a perfect match. It was exactly what every New Yorker needed but it also was an amazing emblem of the city. It represented the glory  and wealth of New York City and welcomed people with glory. Paul Goldberger said “Pennsylvania Station is one of the greatest symbols of monumental public space that any american city has ever had. It ennobles the acts of daily life, it makes every citizens feel important.” First impressions are always important and Pennsylvania Station used to be the perfect one.

III.   The Demolition and The Future of the Site

A. The reasons

Over the  years, the glorious Pennsylvania Station slowly became an humiliation. The PRR was losing considerable amounts of money. In the last years of the station’s existence, the loss’ were counted at 1.5 million dollars a year (440 million dollars today). The PRR was struggling to keep the station clean and running therefore they slowly took on any financial income they could get. Advertisement was one of the key element they used to try and save their business. Cars were placed on the train platforms as advertisements were put up everywhere for airplane transportation which really was ironical as it took down the station and diminished railway transportation as a thing of the past.

In 1955 the PRR attempted to sell the air rights and allow the station to be demolished with a secret deal that was quickly aborted and instead, the station was offered a refurbishment. In 1956, Lester C. Tichy was appointed to design a new ticket counter. But as the architect himself believed Penn Station would soon be torn into pieces, he designed the counter completely ignoring the original design. In order to build the counter, the Men’s and Women’s waiting rooms were removed and the whole structure he created was disrespectfully hanging from the carefully designed wall by McKim. The refurbishment was believed to have been done badly on purpose by the PRR.

Lewis Mumford wrote in his article for The New Yorker in 1958:

“What on earth were the railroad men in charge really attempting to achieve? And why is the result such a disaster? Did the people who once announced that they were planning to convert the station property into a great skyscraper market and Fun Fair decide, finding themselves thwarted in that scheme, to turn their energies to destroying the station from, the inside in order to provide a better justification for their plans?”

The final official announcement for the station’s destruction was made in 1958? According to all the articles I have read, the people of New York did not bring much attention to the announcement. Pennsylvania Station’s destruction again? After the unsuccessful announcement that had already been made in 1955 people did not believe the station would actually be torn down. In an article from September 29, 1962 in the New York Times, the journalist displeasedly wrote: “The Age of Elegance bowed to the Age of Plastic when the railroad began to sell tickets on the half shell in the giant plastic clam with which it effectively and tastelessly demolished the building’s massive Roman interior.”

AGBANY (Action Group for Better Architecture in New York) was the only movement that put some effort in saving the station. But as David Dunlap wrote in his New York Times article, it was “too little and far too late”. The AGBANY was a group of young architects who were outraged by the situation of Penn Station. They marched and brought the media to their side in order to make sure the station would not disappear quietly. They knew at the time their chances to actually save the station were slim. Diana Goldstein (Kirsch), the AGBANY’s secretary said “we knew we would lose, but we wanted to protest, which was why we had the pickets; and we wanted to change the climate.” “We felt the moral obligation to protest the tearing down of a great building.”

The movement was the stepping stone in the saving of future buildings in New York, hence Grand Central was offered a comprehensive refurbishment instead of being torn down years later. Anthony Wood wrote in his book:

“Despite AGBANY’s best efforts, and those who rallied to its cause, the station was lost. Instead of preservation’s cause being buried in the rubble of the station, the loss of the battle for Pennsylvania Station ultimately helped secure passage of a landmarks law.”

It is only after the destruction of Pennsylvania Station that finally, the landmark laws came through.

One of the impressive informations about Penn, is the fact that the Municipal Art Society designated Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central in category 3 of architectural merit and therefore designated them as worthy of preservation. And not in category 1 which meant “should be preserved at all costs.” But why were the two stations only labelled grade 3? Back in the day, it seems like train stations were not given the necessary attention. Libraries and other buildings would be listed as Grade 1 but people did not realise the beauty and historical importance Penn would later have at the time.

and how bad it would become if it were made into an underground station instead. It is only after the damage was done and the new station opened that people reacted in fury. The station had become a disgrace. Calling what Penn is today a station is even difficult.

B. The current design

An article in Slate came out on January 7th, 2015. It’s title declared: “Penn Station Wasn’t Always the Laughingstock of New York City.” Indeed, the station today is terrible. It does not represent any of New York’s value. It actually just puts forward all the issues the City of New York is incapable of solving. The issues of space, homelessness and dirtiness are obvious when one enters the city through Pennsylvania Station, one of its main gates.

After the destruction of The Pennsylvania Station of 1910, not much thinking was given to how the station would look. The goal was to save as much overground space as possible as the plan was to build Maddison Square Gardens and an office block atop the tracks. The station was just disgracefully shaved off and the remains of the underground were just channeled in order to make it look like a station. Nick Bryant, a BBC News correspondant, wrote in one of his articles: “Outside of the US penitentiary system, it is hard to think of a more joyless building.” It is safe to say that the Pennsylvania station of today is terrible. One feels while entering the city that the decision to make the station underground has been taken under a lot of pressure and no thinking was involved. It is terrible.

One of the many issues at the current Pennsylvania Station are the homeless people who use the station as their beloved shelter. According to the New York Times, the nightly count of homeless people sleeping in the station every night is about 70 people (on worst nights the count almost reaches 100).

No need to say, the station of today is a horror. People going in and out every single day on their daily commute to Manhattan do not seize to criticise it. An article written in Slate notably states : “New Yorkers are known to disagree about a lot of things. Who’s got the best pizza? What’s the fastest subway route? Yankees or Mets? But all 8.5 million New Yorkers are likely to agree on one thing: Penn Station sucks.”

A video article was made by Fox News about the situation at Penn Station. The presenter of Watters’ World: Jesse Watters talks to people who use the station on a daily basis and although most people feel badly about the homeless people’s situation, some of them being aggressive human being or under drugs, does not help with the situation. Some people fear for their security.

Although the platforms and some of the staircases have been left intact since the old design this is where the problem is. Every worthy thing from the old station has been removed and everything that might actually necessitate some renewing has been left unaltered.

The station is only able to handle 200’000 passengers a day but it actually handles 600’000 passengers a day or more.

Vincent Scully, renown architecture professor at Yale wrote “One entered the city like a god, one scuttles in now like a rat.”

C. The future of the site

Nearing the end of the MSG’s air rights contract in 2013 (50 years), speculations arose that the station would get a fresh new look. Optimistic architects were already proposing new plans. The MAS and RPA were hosting design competitions for architects to propose their ideas for a brand New Penn Station. The MSG was not content with that and at the time did not believe those plans would go through. They argued that according tot he fact they were already in the process of refurbishing the Gardens and spending 1 billion dollars on it made no sense for them to move. MSG was not counting on moving, and politely wrote in an article that the plans were “pie-in-the-sky drawings” and while they had every reason to believe the hopeful plans of the architects were not feasible they were mistaken. They also wrote “It’s curious to see that there are so many ideas on how to tear down a privately owned building that is a thriving New York icon, supports thousands of jobs, and is currently completing a $1 billion transformation.” and more so, according to them, it would never happen as they were thinking about moving earlier when the plan for the new Moynihan station but it never got enough funding or support.  

Meanwhile, the MSG was making a demand to have perpetual air rights over the site. The MAS and RPA pressured the New York City Planning Commission to not allow this to happen. On April 10, 2013 RPA President Robert D. Yaro wrote a 3’000 word testimony to the New York City Planning Commission arguing that the demand of the MSG committee to have an infinite permit was inappropriate. In his written opposition, President Yaro wrote:

“Today, the physical limitations imposed on Penn Station by its position under Madison Square Garden undercut the quality of life and safety of several hundred thousand daily commuters and create a blighting influence on property values in the surrounding community.”

2013 marked the deadline of the site’s air rights and because of the pressure from the MAS (The Municipal Art Society of New York City) and RPA (The Regional Plan Association) and the incapacity of Penn Station to meet the needs of New York City’s community the New York City Planning Commission renewed Madison Square Garden’s air rights for a short 10 years refusing MSG’s request to remain on the site in perpetuity. Those ten years will allow the city to plan a new Penn Station.

 The site is therefore promised a make over in 2023. As the two associations worked separately on proposing the new plans. The RPA has been working with researchers from the Pennsylvania School of Design on plans for the future of the station site and they claim the 2023-2035 is the perfect window of time for the rebuilding of Penn as the completion year of southern extension of PSNY, ESA and Moynihan is 2023, it would allow the trains from Penn to be alternatively diverted during the reconstruction of the new Pennsylvania Station.

The MAS also had some great proposals come out of their design competition. The many proposals for the station involved some crazy ideas. For example, the Brooklyn Capital Partners proposed to rebuild  station overground and atop it, a 1’200 foot amusement ride. The goal would be to charge 35$ a ticket in order to pay for the refurbishment itself.

I have to say although the idea is for sure “out of the box” as we say, I think New York should prone what the people really need and not build up a crazy ride that in my opinion would not be worth the costs. Alexandros Washburn said to the media “You are experiencing New York City in an unforgettable way.” although John Gerber, chairman of the partnership admitted that whilst the project was feasible from an engineering standpoint, the New Yorkers might not be inclined to like the idea. In my opinion, the idea is absurd. The whole point of a train station is circulation of people and topping such an important hub of Manhattan with an amusement “park” so to say would be outrageous. The tourists would most probably end up paralysing the movement of the people in and around the station. The station needs to have some resting and waiting areas but there should not be a way for people to just linger around the station otherwise the citizens would be slowed down by the visitors. As a matter of fact, this is most probably the reason why blabla did not go for the idea. Instead, the blabla went for another plan.

Every New Yorker is now waiting for the grand masterplan. After all that has been said about the current situation at Pennsylvania Station the city needs change. The Municipal Art Society of New York wrote an article about the future of the station titled: “New York Needs a New Penn Station.”


As a conclusion, the tearing down of the original Pennsylvania Station was a horror, watching movies taking place in the old building are heartbreaking when one has visited the current state of the station. But the outcome of the stations destruction allowed for some amazing things to happen. Mostly the application of the Landmark Laws that now protect almost 30% of New York City’s buildings. Without it, most of Soho’s cast iron buildings and Brooklyn’s chic areas would have been torn down. It was a bad decision for some good outcome. All of those now desirable locations that define New York are safe from redevelopment.

Those Landmarks are also the one that allowed the MSG’s air rights to be discussed and reduced to only 10 more years in 2013. As the current situation is not suitable of New York City’s Manhattan glamour and glitter, the 2023 deadline for Maddison Square Garden to move the stadium is great news for the crowds of Manhattan and all the commuters from New Jersey and Long Island. In my opinion, there is no doubt that The Pennsylvania Station that McKim has design was a great gift to New York’s community even though it no longer stands.

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