I admit up front that I’m a fan of railway architecture, so I readily followed along with the narrative that the wanton destruction of Penn Station in New York City was merely the most recent vandalic excess of the urban rejuvenation movement. Jim Epstein suggests that I was wrong:
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.
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.