Yes, it sounds like a pipe dream. Rebuild Penn Station? Why imagine that’s possible when New York can’t even build a new subway line or bring a direct rail link to any of its three airports? Paralysis is the general rule. More than a dozen years after 9/11, the rebuilding of the site is still only half finished. But maybe, just maybe, rebuilding the old Penn Station is possible. And if possible, surely a civic necessity.
New York’s original Penn Station was one of the most remarkable public buildings ever built in America. Its designer, the great mid-century architect, Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, & White, married the grand scale and expansive ambitions of modern industrial society with the serene sense of eternity characteristic of ancient Greek and Roman designs.
McKim’s other buildings include the Boston Public Library, the Morgan Library and University Club in New York. He also designed the Columbia University campus at Morningside Heights and along with Daniel Burnham revived the L’Enfant plan for Washington, D.C.—in effect, the Mall and the monumental capital city as we now know it.
But Penn Station was McKim’s masterpiece. Its gracious column evoked Bernini’s colonnade in front of St. Peter’s in Rome. The main waiting room with soaring vaulted ceiling was inspired by the Baths of Caracalla, also in Rome.
After World War II, the Pennsylvania Rail Road started to lose money. By the late Fifties the railroad was bent on selling the station from street level up. (The underlying tracks and platforms were of course indispensable for the inter-city and commuter rail system of New York.) In 1961 developer Irving Felt made a deal. The station was demolished and in its place he built the office towers and Madison Square Garden that stand there today. Underneath? The miserable subterranean railroad “station” that makes the banal Port Authority Bus Station on 42nd Street seem gracious.
Although few resisted the destruction of Penn Station at the time, only a year or two later civic leaders realized the gravity of the loss. Popular outcry managed to save Grand Central from a similar fate a couple of years later. In 1965 the powerful New York City Landmarks Commission was established. Horror over the loss of Penn Station galvanized the historic preservation movement nationwide. Never again were its watchwords.
But what’s done is done, right? Well, yes, but no. As my architect friend Richard Cameron pointed out to me, many of historic buildings in war-ravaged Europe were rebuilt. The entire baroque city of Dresden was destroyed by Allied bombs, but after a loving and historically accurate rebuilding it is now a tourist destination. On December 5, 1931, Stalin had the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior dynamited to make way for a Palace of the Soviets (which was never built). It was rebuilt in the 1990s. There’s certainly precedent for rebuilding Penn Station.
But isn’t it too expensive? Again, yes, but no. Cameron estimates that the cost of demolishing the existing buildings sitting on top of the site of the old Penn Station, and then rebuilding it according to McKim’s plans (which are available in full detail), would cost $2-3 billion. That sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But its pocket change compared to the $15 billion and counting being spent to rebuild the World Trade Center site, including $2.5 billion for the Path train hub on the site. Moreover, with creative zoning, it’s possible that transferable air rights on the Penn Station site could come close to paying for the entire project.
At the end of the day, the real impediments are almost entirely political. Pretty much everyone agrees the current Penn Station is an embarrassment. No other global city of New York’s stature—or any stature for that matter—would put up with something so aesthetically degrading. But our cultural leaders don’t want a beautiful classical building to be rebuilt. They want something “new and exciting,” which invariably means a building that looks like an airline terminal. Sigh.
We don’t need another glass and steel building. Quite frankly, that’s the style of our now global corporate culture, not American civic culture. I have no objection to commerce. But I don’t want all our public spaces monopolized by the aesthetic of IBM and United Airlines and TimeWarner. (The design of the new 9/11 museum is best described as an upscale, underground multiplex cinema.) Although the old Penn Station was build by a private railroad company, its architectural style draws from ancient and Renaissance public buildings and public spaces that were designed to uplift and ennoble all who enter.
Bill de Blasio is a natural champion for this project. He’s populist, or at least says he is, serving the 99 percent rather than the one percent. The really rich in New York don’t have to put up with the current Penn Station. They have limos and drivers and private jets. But the rest of us must share our public spaces. That’s especially true when we commute to and from work, which is what so many do by rail here in New York.
Architectural critic Vincent Scully famously wrote this of the old Penn Station. “Through it one entered the city like a god.” Of the current station: “One scuttles in now like a rat.” Why not bang some heads politically and push around some rich developers to come up with a plan to rebuild a train station and make even the poorest New Yorker feel like a god?