Old Pennsylvania Station: The Demolished Landmark that Sparked a Movement
What happens when money and progress interfere with history and cultural significance? How do communities mobilize when they see an injustice, and how does big business respond? How do relics of the past get repurposed today, and why does it matter?
In June 1904, construction began on Pennsylvania Station. Eight acres of existing buildings were cleared to make way for what was meant to be a gateway into the city. McKim, Mead & White, the architects commissioned by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to build this major transit hub, had been planning for years, drawing on neoclassical architectural styles to create a Beaux-Arts masterpiece in midtown Manhattan.
After 6 years of construction, Pennsylvania Station received its first travelers in 1910. The millions of commuters who passed through enjoyed shops, lounges, long benches, phone booths, and daylight pouring in through semi-circular windows on all four sides. Travelers and locals stopped on the street to admire Penn Station’s imposing beauty; The New York Times called it “the largest building in the world ever built at one time,” and Thomas Wolfe said the building was “vast enough to hold the sound of time.”
Needless to say, the building was revered upon completion. The exterior of Pennsylvania Station was lined with columns (84 in total!), and each side had a center entrance, with ornate statues above the doors. The statues were eagles (22 in total!), women (2 on each side: a “day maiden” and a “night maiden”), and clocks (1 on each side). These statues are some of the many features that made Pennsylvania Station—at the point the largest indoor public space in the country—a hallmark of New York’s architectural history. For fifty-three years, Pennsylvania Station was iconic. Today, most New Yorkers don’t know that it’s ever looked different than it does right now.
Pennsylvania Station fell into a rapid decline right after World War II. Between 1947 and 1957, the use of railroads for inter-city travel decreased, automobiles were on the rise, and big business encroached on the area surround the building. By this point, Penn Station was dirty, crowded, and emptier than it had ever been.
The Pennsylvania Railroad was near bankruptcy. They’d been operating with over $1 million in annual losses, and when another firm tried to purchase the air rights above the building (which stood at only 3 stories tall), they were not in a position to refuse the offer. So, construction on an entertainment complex and accompanying office building were underway by 1963.
Architects, city planners, and other New Yorkers protested this change. They knew that, if demolition proceeded, the elegant, iconic building would be replaced by austerity, big business, and newfound prioritization of money over stories. But on October 28, 1963, a three-year demolition of Pennsylvania Station began. This process is said to have inspired The Landmarks Preservation Commission, which went into effect in 1965, just in time to prevent destruction of Grand Central Terminal. This law, still in place today, protects structures of cultural significance from demolition, and encourages the city to put money into their preservation.
Though most of Pennsylvania Station was lost in demolition, the 22 eagles have been moved to new sites throughout the county. You’ll find three of them outside Penn Station today: 1 is behind a fence on the 7th avenue side, between 31st and 32nd streets. The other 2 are at the entrance on 7th avenue and 33rd street on granite pedestals. The eagles were placed outside Madison Square Garden / the new Penn Station in 1968. The only other eagle that remains in New York City is atop the Cooper Union building on Astor Place.