Land Use

The Destruction of Penn Station Led to the Landmarks Preservation Movement. But Was the Old Structure Worth Saving After All?

On the 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Preservation Act, a re-evaluation of the mythic demise of an iconic train station.


Pennsylvania Station (1910-1963) |||

In all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of New York's Landmarks Preservation Act—Mayor Robert F. Wagner signed the legislation exactly a half century ago today—you'll see plenty of photos of the old Penn Station taken around the time of its 1910 opening. These images depict the grand, light-filled main hall modeled after the Baths of Caracalla and the spectacular iron-and-glass train shed in its pristine state. Another series of photos shows the station being taken apart in the 1960s. In this set of images, the station looks like an ancient Roman palace; it's as if the cranes pulling it apart are destroying the very bedrock of Western civilization.

"Seven-year-olds gasp…[when] we show them the old Penn Station," Tara Kelly, the executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, told the New York Times at an event last week celebrating the law's half-centennial. 

Pennsylvania Station (1910-1963) |||

Penn Station's destruction in the mid-1960s was a call to arms for the landmarks movement, leading directly to the passage of the 1965 law. Preservationists trot out these photos capable of leaving second graders breathless to remind us of why we need a government-appointed commission to save our historic buildings from cold market logic.

But this narrative is as one-sided as those photos. Profit-driven developers left to their own devices value wonderful old buildings as much as the general public they serve, but the old Penn Station was a deeply flawed structure. It emphasized form over function, so it was never a particularly good train station. And New Yorkers didn't care for it very much—when it was still around, at least. It's easy to revere the dead.

What you won't see are pictures of Penn Station as it looked in its final years, when the entire building was smothered in inches of grime and its cracked windows were patched over with sheets of metal. There were "color ads…like blasphemous utterances in the marbled halls…automobiles revolved on turntables; [and] shops and stands…added in jazzy cacophony," The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable recalled in a 1966 article.

So what? Grand Central Terminal was once falling apart and then it was lovingly restored in 2007. Couldn't Penn Station also have been returned to its original grandeur? Perhaps, but there would have been no way to defray the cost of its upkeep because unlike its east side counterpart, Penn Station wasn't built to neatly integrate retail space into its corridors. And its high glass windows made it unusually expensive to clean and maintain.

Pennsylvania Station (1910-1963) |||

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) company, which built and operated the station, declared bankruptcy in 1968, so if the building had survived, maintaining it would have likely fallen either to the city or the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). In the early 1970s, the MTA struggled to finance basic maintenance costs and upgrades. (Remember what the MTA-run subways looked like in the 70s and 80s?) By the time of PRR's bankruptcy, New York City's government was on the precipice of its own fiscal crisis. Penn Station could have continued deteriorating for another forty years, right up through the city's economic resurgence in the late-1990s.

Charles McKim's grand design was impractical for other reasons as well. The Times' Huxtable, who wrote that the station's passing "confirms the demise of an age of opulent elegance," also acknowledged that "[f]unctionally, [it] was considerably less noble." She wrote: "The complexity and ambiguity of its train levels and entrances and exits were a constant frustration…a better expression of ancient Rome than of 20th-century America."

It's a "hard truth" that "New Yorkers had never come to really love Penn Station," wrote Jill Jonnes in her 2007 history Conquering Gotham, A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels. Jonnes tells the story of how a group of architects set up a picket line in 1962 to oppose the station's impending demise, but found it hard to get the general public interested in their cause. "There was not consciousness among most New Yorkers of the value of old architecture," recalled preservationist Elliot Willensky, who stood on that picket line. 

I don't buy Willensky's explanation. A year before the architects held their poorly attended protest, Jane Jacobs had published her bestselling and consciousness-raising The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which made a case for the tremendous value of old buildings (albeit mainly on functional grounds).

The same year nobody was getting riled up over Penn Station's impending destruction, Jacobs was rallying a neighborhood movement that would eventually halt plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a Robert Moses-project that would have plowed straight through the historic West Village. Maybe there was no similar public groundswell to save Penn Station because most people didn't care about that particular old building. (Jacobs herself did picket to save the station.)

Jonnes cites a 1939 article in Fortune that offers some theories about why New Yorkers never took to the building: "Pennsylvania Station affronts the very architectural rationale on which New York is founded by daring to be horizontal rather than a vertical giant….To sensitive New Yorkers the station's body is on Seventh Avenue, but its soul is in Philadelphia."

The underground Penn Station that replaced the old structure is a planning nightmare that's outright disliked by the general public, but that's an argument for replacing it with something new, not saving the flawed structure that preceded it. New York became the world's preeminent city by letting its developers sometimes violently tear down old buildings. Progress isn't free, and neither is preservation.

That's the argument I made in this recent Reason TV video to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmarks act: 

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  1. And at the start of the fourth paragraph common sense sets in.

    Yeah, if there was any potential to make useful and old structure the first to see it would be the profiteers. People love old, impressive things. Especially massive structures. If it could in any way be profitable to save such things they’d be the first to climb on board.

    But sometimes all that can be reasonably done with a badly flawed design that’s falling to pieces is to tear it down and leave in it in the history books. About the only other alternative is to completely rebuild it as an extremely expensive, more sound replica of what it was. And what’s the point in that? A replica could be built better and more cheaply from the ground up and it still be a replica.

    1. Oh for f**ks sake. I need a better proof reader than myself.

      1. How much you paying?

  2. It goes back to the romantic notion a lot of people of have about old Europe, with it’s beautiful buildings and ever present history. And that is pretty awesome. But not everything that is old is beautiful and not all history is worth preserving. There are how many buildings in NYC? It stands to reason that most of them will be mediocre at best, no matter when they were built.

    Plus, it might be nice to celebrate America for what sets it apart from Europe and the rest of the world, rather than trying to play copycat.

    1. “But not everything that is old is beautiful and not all history is worth preserving.”

      That. Doubled, and redoubled, in spades. My Mother was active in the early stages of the Preservation movement, mostly in and around Cleveland, but elsewhere too. She started pulling out in the late 1970’s when the local groups was looking at preserving old clapboard worker housing from the post civil war era. They had been bug ugly when they went up in about 1870, and had been getting uglier by the year. They served no useful purpose anymore; not even welfare families would live in quarters that cramped and drafty. And no repurposing was really possible. They were basically stables for work-hands, and society doesn’t do that to people anymore. But there was grant money available, and people were getting all excited. My mother made herself terribly unpopular by pointing out that the grant money was tax money, which was her money they were talking about wasting.

      1. That sounds like the kind of thing that might be nice to preserve in limited quantity as part of a little museum or educational thing.

      2. Meanwhile, where I now live, the most historic and very first in the region structures sit on what’s now usually federal land. There’s never even a “show” discussion on whether these structures will be preserved or not. They come in, doze them into a pile, burn them and plant native trees and brush where they stood.

        The hypocrisy is astounding.

      3. As Noah Cross said in Chinatown….”Of course I’m respectable – I’m OLD. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all become respectable if they last long enough”

    2. Plus, it might be nice to celebrate America for what sets it apart from Europe and the rest of the world, rather than trying to play copycat.

      But Europe is so correct about everything!

    3. There’s a reason the oldies stations play the same few songs over and over — the rest were dreck. Most songs today are dreck and will be forgotten in a month.

      Everything works that way. I knew someone who only liked foreign movies. She did not like me pointing out that only the good ones make it overseas, what with the expense of subtitles and a second marketing campaign.

  3. In fairness, I could not imagine how it could get any worse than the current Penn Station.

  4. One of the things I loved about living in Las Vegas. Everything there has been built within the last 2 decades and not a single person gives a single fuck about demolishing anything. If you’re that fucking enamored of stasis, go raise the funds to purchase some of these “historic” (mostly decrepit old shitholes) properties and keep them out of the hands of teh eeeeevil developers. Problem solved.

    1. To be fair, has anything ever been built in Las Vegas that was *intended* to last more than a few years?

    2. Same with Phoenix, AZ. There just isn’t a lot that wasn’t built fairly recently. It’s still got that nice new car smell about it. It’s nice.

  5. Pennsylvania Station affronts the very architectural rationale on which New York is founded by daring to be horizontal rather than a vertical giant

    I know! See all those other unloved horizontal buildings like the NY Public Library, the Museum of Natural History, or The Cloisters.

    New York became the world’s preeminent city by letting its developers sometimes violently tear down old buildings.

    True. And the history of tearing down wonderful if outdated old structures and replacing them with absolute shit certainly has a much longer history than 1963.

  6. An owner of a building Minneapolis decided to replace his old shitty windows with new energy efficient ones.

    City finds out and demands he replace the new ones with historically authentic ones. It will cost the owner $100K to do so.

    The building is totally blah. I can’t believe it is on the historical register in the first place. I’m so glad I’m not a building owner because I would fucking dynamite my building before I would pay $100K to make it look old.…..storic-pre

    1. Hard to believe he didn’t know what he was getting himself into.

      1. Eh, Canadian experience, but when I lived in Ottawa I had a friend who bought a house from the early 1920s(I believe), lived in it for a couple years, then planned to do some renovations. Suddenly the red tape springs up because the house is classified as a ‘heritage site’ or some such, and the real estate company conveniently didn’t really mention that.

  7. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link,
    Go to tech tab for work detail ?????????????

  8. When I run across a historical preservationist, I suggest holding a fund raiser. Their argument of course is always that there are not enough people enlightened enough to pay what is needed to preserve what needs preserving; and they personally should not have to pay a disproportionate share of the cost of preserving this stuff. My next tack is to point out that if they want this preservation to be tax funded then they will in fact be paying a more than proportionate share of the cost; if you are an average to above average taxpayer, it is YOUR JOB (under our current system) to be paying not only your own share of the cost of anything tax subsidized; but also at least a part of somebody else’s share — those who are not taxpayers (the wealthier you are, the more full people shares you should be supporting). Sometimes this turns on a light bulb, sometimes not.

    1. Generally this isn’t tax subsidized (except where the building in question happens to be government owned). Usually the costs of historic preservation regulations falls on the property owner. There are some grants and tax programs that mitigate some of the costs, but not nearly all and they are very widely available (so far as I’m aware).

  9. While I agree that the preservation movement can be unselective in its chosen targets, it isn’t necessarily as simple as the market driving the demolition opt old buildings. Cities, and other levels of government, often have layers of regulation that drive the market in buildings in certain directions. When my mother got involved in Preservation in Cleveland, one of their biggest problems was that tax and land use regulations were structured in a way that made it far more profitable to tear down a beautiful and historic building and pave over the land as a parking lot. The roadblocks to, for example, restoring on old building and subdividing it for apartments or offices were many and in many cases unintentional. I’m not saying that getting the regulations revised wouldn’t be better – that is part of what my Mother and here associates worked to do – but sometimes the local government is so obdurate that if you really want to save a particular building you need to set one arm of the government against another.

  10. Jim Epstein has done for Vitruvius and Palladio what the Discovery Institute has done for Darwin and Einstein.

  11. The underground Penn Station that replaced the old structure is a planning nightmare that’s outright disliked by the general public, but that’s an argument for replacing it with something new, not saving the flawed structure that preceded it.

    And if they did, you know the Preservation Commission would be the first in line telling you you can’t do that.

  12. //”but that’s an argument for replacing it with something new, not saving the flawed structure that preceded it.”

    uhhh…. is anybody making that argument? He doesn’t even say that anyone is in the article, and I can’t imagine anybody nowadays is making that argument.

    Is this another case of a libertarian anticipating/imagining arguments that don’t actually exist; the sort of reactionary aspberger douche libertarianism? Because as far as I know no one has said “let’s tear down the New Penn Station and make it into the crappy old one!”. If they have, doubtless the argument has few subscribers, and the author doesn’t mention anyone making that argument.

    //”The underground Penn Station that replaced the old structure is a planning nightmare that’s outright disliked by the general public,”

    uhhh…, is this even true? I’ve used Penn station a million times (I live in New Jersey and LOVE ethnic food, hence NYC). Most of the time I haven’t even seen the outside of it, which is the point. Yeah It’s underground, because NYC has SUBways all over it, and train tunnels from NJ! What the hell is it supposed to be? Ground-level? Elevated? Those would suck.
    Penn Station isn’t pretty, and maybe it could be designed a little better (the amount I have to walk through it is always surprising, but could that even be fixed? It needs to service SO much other transit lines), but it’s practical and works well enough.

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