History Repeats Itself: The Old Penn Station

Cervin Robinson, Photographer April 24, 1962

When it comes to urban planning blunders, especially those in New York, there’s probably no bigger embarrassment and shame-worthy decision than that to tear down the old Pennsylvania Station and erect the monstrosity that is Madison Square Garden. MSG is unambitious, difficult to navigate, unsafe, and just plain bland. 

As for its precursor, the Old Penn Station, quite the opposite. And there’s an excellent read in the New York Times lamenting the loss of this significant building.  In the piece, Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully compares the Old Penn with the New Penn by saying, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

It couldn't be more true.

If you’ve never had the unfortunate experience to scuttle in like a rat, consider yourself lucky. Penn Station is the ultimate failure in urban planning. And not just because it’s ugly and hard to navigate. The cavernous tunnels one has to traverse to get to the jam-packed Amtrak waiting area would, god forbid, cause catastrophic mayhem in the case of an emergency. 

And, of course, the Old Pennsylvania Station represented so much more. By all accounts it was ambitious and welcoming, and worthy of the city and the people who entered it. Not anymore. We tore it down. 

Michael Beschloss, in the New York Times, does a nice job running down how this came about. And, it’s worth noting a few parallels to similar urban planning fights currently playing out in New York. 

As Beschloss writes, Penn Station was privately owned by the railroad. 

“The problem was that its existence was a gift to New York City and, because it was privately owned, one that could be taken back. As the parent railroad’s passenger traffic began plunging from the record highs of World War II, when G.I.s flowed through its arches, the station’s overlords cut spending for the maintenance of the once-gleaming station, and it assumed a grimy atmosphere of neglect.”

And, as Beschloss notes, efforts to stop the scrapping of Old Penn Station were pretty pathetic. Some architects signed petitions, but demonstrations were barely attended. 

The whole situation reminds me of the ongoing fight against building mega skyscrapers that now cast giant shadows over Manhattan. Corporate interests reign. Municipal government lacks vision and ambition. And, citizenry could care less. 

Consider “Billionaires Row” on the southern end of central park, where the shadows of projects currently under construction will jut “half a mile into the park at midday on the solstice and elongate to around a mile in length as they angled across the park toward the Upper East Side, darkening playgrounds and ball fields, as well as paths and green space like Sheep Meadow that are enjoyed by 38 million visitors each year.

We’re in a slow motion crash with reality when, years from now, we’ll longingly remember the days of sunshine in Central Park, just as we mourn the Old Penn station today. It’s sad to see. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t seem we can expect much to change. Buildings will go taller, and the streets and the parks will go darker.