Tag Archives: Demolition

Penn Station and the Rise of Historic Preservation

After reading Lauren Robinson’s fantastic blog post about the return of Mad Men, I found myself haunted by the destruction of the original Penn Station. And as I dug deeper, I discovered that this was a drama of almost mythic proportions; a classic tale of David and Goliath; big corporations against a rag-tag group of underdogs; and art versus profit.

But first, the backstory: the original Pennsylvania Station was designed by Charles F. McKim, of McKim, Mead & White fame, the preeminent East Coast architectural firm of the Gilded Age. McKim’s designs drew heavily on classical architecture like the Roman Baths of Caracalla and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin that elevated the mere activity of entering and leaving the city into a  momentous occasion.

McKim, Mead & White. Pennsylvania Station. 1905. Museum of the City of New York.

Penn Station was opened on September 8th, 1910, and its sheer scale immediately evoked a sense of awe. At the time it was completed, it was the largest building ever built (with the qualifier of “at one time”), and boasted the biggest waiting room in history. With 150-foot ceilings and natural light streaming through an iron and glass roof — how could one not think that they were somewhere magical?

George P. Hall and Son. Interior of Pennsylvania Station. 1911. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.5113.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Pennsylvania Station. 1936. Museum of the City of New York.

Wide World Photos, Inc. Crowds in Pennsylvania Station. ca. 1920. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.5088.

Yet only 50 years after it was opened, Penn Station was in trouble. The owners of the station, Pennsylvania Railroad, were broke. The station was falling into disrepair. Airplanes and automobiles had begun to eclipse rail travel. With all this, the nine-acre lot between 7th and 8th Avenues from 31st to 33rd Street was just far too valuable not to sell.  Even the architecture had gone out of style. The opulence and grandeur that were so popular in the Gilded Age were seen as an ungainly relic compared to the modern architecture of the 1960s.

At the same time, Madison Square Garden was outgrowing its location on 8th Avenue and 50th Street and its owners were eying possible building sites for a new, completely modernized sports arena. Suddenly there appeared an answer for both Pennsylvania Railroad’s financial problems and the continuation of Madison Square Garden. On July 25, 1961, the New York Times published the first mention of the relocation of Madison Square Garden to the site of Penn Station. What’s intriguing about this article is that the developers meant to keep the original station waiting room as part of the new facility. Two days later it became apparent that this was not going to happen, and on July 27, 1961 the front page of the New York Times ran the headline “’62 Start is Set for New Garden — Penn Station to Be Razed to Street Level in Project.” The planned $75 million complex included a hotel and a 34-story office building, along with a 25,000 seat arena and a smaller 4,000 seat arena, which the article described as “a huge, sagging pancake.” But, Irving Felt, the president of the company that owned Madison Square Garden, believed “that the gain from the new buildings and sports center would more than offset any aesthetic loss.”

This galvanized a group of five twenty-something architects calling themselves the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York, shortened to AGBANY, to organize a public protest against the demolition on August 21, 1962.  From 5 to 7 P.M, they picketed in front of Penn Station carrying signs reading “Shame” and “Don’t Amputate — Renovate.”  Reports vary that at least 150 people participated and soon organizations like the Municipal Arts Council joined the fight to save Penn Station. For the next year, the battle continued. Larger protests from city residents, however, didn’t come until it was too late.

On October 28, 1963 at 9 A.M., as a light rain fell and picketers wearing black armbands watched silently, electric jackhammers began to destroy Penn Station. For the next three years, Penn Station was slowly demolished.  The destruction was brutal and total; the station’s monumental ornamentation – 16-ton decorative eagles and the 84 Doric columns that made up the Seventh Avenue facade – were dumped unceremoniously into the marshlands of Secaucus, New Jersey.

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.82

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.2

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.79.

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.95.

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.117.

As a direct result, on April 15, 1965, Mayor Robert Wagner signed the Landmark Law, which created the Landmarks Preservation Commission. For the first time there was an agency with government power to designate and even save historical buildings and neighborhoods. The legal ramification didn’t end there though. A year later, after growing countrywide preservation efforts, the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted, ensuring that other cities wouldn’t also have to lose a landmark to realize the importance of its preservation.

Below are some of the strikingly emotional reactions to the destruction of Penn Station from the New York Times:

“Farewell to Penn Station” on October 30, 1963 “Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance. Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed”

Ada Louise Huxtable wrote the following on July 16, 1966:  “Pennsylvania Station succumbed to progress this week at the age of 56, after a lingering decline.  The building’s one remaining facade was shorn of eagles and ornament yesterday, preparatory to leveling the last wall.  It went not with a bang, or a whimper, but to the rustle of real estate stock shares.  The passing of Penn Station is more than the end of a landmark.  It makes the priority of real estate values over preservation conclusively clear.  It confirms the demise of an age of opulent elegance, of conspicuous, magnificent spaces, rich and enduring materials, the monumental civic gesture, and extravagant expenditure for esthetic ends.”

Vincent Scully, Jr., as quoted in the New York Times on February 12, 2012 about the differences in the Penn Station:  “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

For a detailed  study of the demolition of Penn Station,  check out The Fall and Rise of Pennsylvania Station. Changing Attitudes Toward Historic Preservation in New York City by Eric J. Plosky, found here.

During the month of May, we’ll be posting more entries on historic preservation in the city. The Museum of the City of New York is competing for a $250,000 grant from Partners in Preservation, a joint program sponsored by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The winner is determined by popular vote, and individuals may vote once a day through May 21st. Please help us by going to http://www.helpmcny.com/ and voting today.

It’s Toasted: Mad Men and New York City

The digital team is eagerly awaiting the return of Mad Men to television on Sunday, March 25, after a 17-month hiatus. In anticipation of this, we have  pulled together an assortment of Mad Men-related images to share with you.

While imaging the Anthony F. Dumas theater drawings, our photographer Mia Moffett noticed the Lucky Strike advertisement bearing the famous “It’s Toasted” slogan on the theater’s signboard. In Mad Men’s pilot episode, Don Draper of Sterling Cooper successfully saves the firm’s Lucky Strike account by envisioning a new campaign for the beleaguered tobacco company: “Everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous, but Lucky Strike’s is toasted.”

Anthony F. Dumas. Rialto Theatre. Museum of the City of New York. 75.200.52

Near the end of the first season, Sterling Cooper employees have an all-night, booze-fueled party to watch the presidential election of 1960 live on television. Here is a photo of John F. Kennedy with Jackie on October 19, 1960, less than a month away from his election to the office of President.

Burton Berinsky. John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy in a ticker-tape parade. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.10964

Angelo Lomeo. After Nixon Lost Election, 1960. Museum of the City of New York. 97.99.3

In season 3, representatives of Madison Square Garden hire Sterling Cooper for a public relations campaign, hoping to diminish negative publicity surrounding the proposed demolition of Pennsylvania Station. The station was designed by renowned Beaux-Arts architecture firm McKim, Mead & White. The New York Times glowingly reported on the opening of Penn Station in an article from August 29, 1910: “This Seventh Avenue facade was conceived especially to symbolize in most imposing fashion a monumental gateway. It may be compared, with due allowance for its more massive proportions, to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, through which passes so much of the traffic of that city.”

Construction of Pennsylvania Station. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archive.X2010.11.5087

Irving Underhill. Penn R. R. Depot, 7th Avenue & 33rd St. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.28.720

Berenice Abbott. Federal Art Project. Pennsylvania Station. Museum of the City of New York.

In 1961, owners of Madison Square Garden announced that the entertainment arena would be moving from its  location on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets to the site of Penn Station.  The relocation would require the demolition of the Penn Station structure, billed by Garden officials as necessary for modernization and progress. But the decision to demolish Penn Station was a controversial one. A New York Times article from October 29, 1963 bemoaned the change: “A building that sometimes made a ceremony out of a journey, the station reached the end of the line, architecturally, at 9 A.M. Electric jackhammers tore at the granite slabs of the side of the terminal near the 33rd Street entrance, crushing the hopes of a band of architects who had rallied to save what the Municipal Art Society called ‘one of the great monuments of classical America.'”  Partly in response to Penn Station’s demolition, NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Commission was established in 1965.

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.43

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.78

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.33

The specter of the Vietnam War appears in season 4, with a character preparing to be shipped off to Vietnam.

Line in an Army reception station. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archive. X2010.11.13987

Benedict J. Fernandez. Burning of Draftcards. 1963. Museum of the City of New York. 99.150.17

As these photos illustrate, attitudes about the war were divergent and often politically divisive. Below is Martin Luther King, Jr., marching with pediatrician Dr. Spock and labor activist Monsignor Rice in the Spring Mobilization for Peace in 1967.

Benedict J. Fernandez. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Benjamin Spock and Monsignor Rice. Museum of the City of New York. 99.150.9

Benedict J. Fernandez. Pro-Vietnam War Demonstration, New York, 1970. Museum of the City of New York. 99.150.15

We look forward to seeing more of New York City’s history replayed in season 5 of Mad Men.