The Demolition Of Penn Station: Losing Historic Architecture In The 1960s

Culture | October 14, 2021

An aerial view of Penn Station from 1910. Source: (Wikipedia).

Today, New York’s Penn Station is a confusing, unattractive underground maze of tunnels, but it wasn’t always that way. Up until its demolition in the 1960s, it was an architectural masterpiece, more grand than Grand Central, but it fell victim to progress, and by the late 1960s, it was gone. Penn Station, which was completed in 1910 and named for the builder and original tenant, the Pennsylvania Railroad, was considered a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style and one of the most impressive buildings in New York. It included separate waiting rooms for arriving and departing passengers (it was one of the first to do so), and these were some of the largest public spaces in the city at the time. It stretched between 31st and 33rd Streets, occupying two city blocks from Seventh Avenue to Eighth Avenue. To construct the station, 490,000 cubic feet of pink granite was used, and that’s to say nothing of the interior stone, steel, and brick, or of the 30,000 light bulbs it used to keep it lit. 

The main concourse. Source: (Wikipedia).

Travelers Were Greeted By The Impressive Exterior

It had colonnades of unfluted columns which were modeled after landmarks like the Acropolis of Athens on the exterior, and the rest of the façade was modeled on St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. The station had four entrances, with the most elaborate being at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 32nd Street. At the entrance, a 7-foot long clock hung 61 feet above the sidewalk.

The main waiting room. Source: (Wikipedia).

The Interior Did Not Disappoint

There were two carriageways modeled after the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin; these led to the two railroads that the station served. Within the station itself, Jules Guerin had created six murals which were each over 100 feet tall. Adolph Weinman designed four pairs of sculptures titled Day and Night, each accompanied by two stone eagles. Once inside the main entrance, there was a shopping arcade modeled after ones in Milan and Naples; it was lined with high-end shops. The arcade led to a staircase to take passengers to a waiting room.

The main waiting room, which stretched from 31st to 33rd Streets, included smoking lounges, newspaper stands, baggage windows, and telephone and telegraph booths. It had lower walls of travertine, and upper walls constructed to look like the lower walls. By the time construction was complete, the total cost was $114 million (equivalent to $2.3 billion in 2019).

The station in 1962, prior to demolition. Source: (Wikipedia).

Progress Brought The Station's Decline

After World War II, passenger traffic started to decline. The exterior was coated with grime by the 1950s, and some columns were covered by plastic when the building underwent renovation the late 1950s. The Pennsylvania Railroad sold the air rights and began to shrink the station; in the deal, the Railroad got a new, airconditioned station below the street as well as a 25 percent stake in the Madison Square Garden Complex. In 1962, plans for Madison Square Garden were announced. 

June 25, 1966. Source: (Wikipedia).

Beginning To Dismantle A Landmark

Prior to the demolition, proponents argued that the cost to maintain the building was prohibitive. There were architects who argued to save the station, rallying with cries of “Don’t Amputate—Renovate.” Despite public opposition, the New York City Department of City Planning voted in January 1963 to move forward with demolition plans. and in 1963, the train shed and above-ground head house were demolished, clearing the way for Madison Square Garden and Pennsylvania Plaza to be built in the space. demolition of the above-ground station house began on October 28, 1963. Meanwhile, the concourses and waiting areas underground were renovated. 

Source: (Pinterest).

What Was Left And What Was Lost

All that remained of the original was the underground platforms and the train tracks, although there are some artifacts on the mezzanine level. Other artifacts have been relocated to various sites around the country, and some elements have been lost, such as pairs of the Day and Night sculptures, which were discarded in the Meadowlands. In late 1965, construction began on Madison Square Garden, and by late 1966, most of the old station had been demolished and much of the new one had been built. Controversy over the demolition continued and has been considered a catalyst for the architectural preservation movement in the United States. In 1968, Grand Central Station almost fell victim to the same fate, but New York’s Landmarks Commission preserved it. 

Tags: Penn Station | Pennsylvania Railroad

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Linda Speckhals


When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.