9 Mar 2013

The Life of a Photo Icon

Pennsylvania Train Station, NY

Penn Station vs Eiffel Tower?

Seeing this amazing iconic image of our urban/industrial civilization I decided to look more for its history.  The design and architecture seems as fascinating as that of the Eiffel Tower.
The French obviously know how to preserve their heritage, even at the cost of mythologization.

Borrowed from: Daytonian in Manhattan  
The stories behind the buildings, statues and other points of interest that make Manhattan fascinating.
[The interior, however, was the show-stopper.

In its 1939 “New York City Guide” written for the Works Progress Administration, Random House described the progression of spaces. “The interior is a sequence of tremendous spaces. From a long, barrel-vaulted arcade, lined with shops, a marble stairway and escalators lead to the floor of the main hall. In this vast Hall, which is a copy of the Tepidarium of a Roman bath, are ticket booths and the information desk. Six murals by Jules Guerin depict scenes of the area served by the Pennslyvania Railroad. Along the west side are twin waiting rooms. Beyond them a great glass-roofed concourse gives access to the track platforms.”

The main hall was a copy of the Baths of Caracalla on a larger, grander scale. The vast space was approximately equal to the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – the largest interior space in the city, rising 15 stories upward. The concourse – a soaring conservatory of iron arches supporting a glass ceiling – was breathtaking. Writer Thomas Wolfe, overcome by its immensity, said that Penn Station was large enough to "hold the sound of time."

Glass and Iron Concourse 1935  NYPL Collection
Over 2000 railroad employees worked within the station and tens of thousands of passengers passed through it daily.  The station yard, part of which was below the concourse, covered 350,000 square feet requiring 650 steel foundation columns to support the floor.

Author Richard Guy Wilson in his 1983 “McKim, Mead & White Architects” said it “…was one of McKim's most monumental and moving designs, a giant of a building that still retained a human scale. In catching or meeting a train at Pennsylvania Station one became part of a pageant—actions and movements gained significance while processing through such grand spaces."

By the 1950s train travel was severely on the decline. The automobile and airplane took over as the preferred means of travel and the Pennsylvania Railroad felt the financial pinch. The cost of maintaining the colossal structure forced the railroad to attempt to divest itself from operating costs. Plans were announced to join forces with Madison Square Garden in 1961. The deal would provide the railroad with a new, air-conditioned station and a one-quarter stake in the new Madison Square Garden Complex.

Initially, nearly no one truly thought the monumental station would be demolished.(...)
On August 2, 1962 over 100 protesters wearing black armbands of mourning, almost all of them architects, picketed in front of Pennsylvania Station with placards that read “''Shame'' and ''Don't Amputate -- Renovate.''
Irving Felt, president of Madison Square Garden, found the preservationists to be a nuisance.  As the picketers marched he derided “Fifty years from now, when it’s time for [the new Madison Square Garden] to be torn down, there will be a new group of architects who will protest.”

But despite cries from the press, politicians and architects, the largest, grandest train station in America was pulled down.  Irving Felt offered no regrets. "It was not, architecturally, a monument," he said.

The world at large disagreed.

In its editorial “Farewell to Penn Station” on October 30, 1963 The New York Times wrote "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”]
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