They began tearing down the original New York Pennsylvania Station fifty-five years ago today. It was a mammoth undertaking that would go on for three years into 1966. When built in 1910 everyone assumed it would stand on the west side of Manhattan for the ages, and yet it lasted just barely more than half a century. In some ways it lasted less than half a century: a major renovation in 1958 had already obliterated much of Charles McKim’s original design. Penn Station’s destruction was a tragedy from which we have never fully recovered and yet its demolition made sense in a way. First of all it was private property, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to tie Manhattan to the continental United States. Before Penn Station opened in 1910 passengers traveling eastward by rail had to disembark in New Jersey and ferry across the Hudson River. It was a perilous undertaking; the ferry boats zigzagged their way between other ferries, around tug boats, and dangerously close to the huge ocean liners that came into New York Harbor daily.
The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, like all the major railroad companies, was hugely powerful and profitable. It would have been difficult to imagine when the station opened just a decade into the twentieth century that it and most other railroads would be rendered obsolete by the 1960s. By this time however, the highway were largely built. Trucks and automobiles, not locomotives, now moved people and products. For longer travel, why spend five days on a train when an airplane could get you there in five hours? Like Kodak after the invention of digital photography, the railroad company’s demise happened swiftly.
New York City and the nation were fortunate Pennsylvania Station opened when it did. It proved hugely important to the Allied war effort, moving men and materiel across the country. Interpreted a certain way it can be seen as a triumvirate of public works projects done in time for the war: Pennsylvania Station in 1910, Grand Central in 1913, and the Panama Canal in 1914 just as the Guns of August began going off. On one day in June 1918 alone over 4,000 men were inducted into the U.S. Army and shipped off from Pennsylvania Station to training camps in various locales. Just a few weeks after his tragic plane accident John Purroy Mitchel’s remains were brought back from Louisiana on a train that pulled into Pennsylvania Station. Theodore Roosevelt, his health rapidly declining in that same summer of 1918, traveled to and from Pennsylvania Station on various trips out West to advocate for the American war effort. I could go on but one gets the idea.
Fourteen of the twenty-two eagles that once adorned New York Pennsylvania Station are still known to exist. A few remain in New York and others got sent elsewhere. Four of them decorate the Market Street Bridge in Philadelphia, which is where I took the photo one sees directly above a few summers ago.
(top image/New York Times)