Thursday, August 14, 2008
Pennsylvania Station, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, New York City, represented the high point of railroad architecture. Built from 1904 to 1910 at a cost of $100 million (about $5.6 billion in today’s terms), it was over 30 percent larger than its largest contemporary, Liverpool Street Station in London, England. In its first year of operation 112,000 trains carrying over 10 million passengers passed through Pennsylvania Station. It is not remarkable for its size alone, but also because it epitomized Beaux Arts architecture on the eastern seaboard of the United States just at the time when modernist ideas were challenging it in Europe.
At the end of the nineteenth century, rail transport in the United States was dominated by the rich and powerful Pennsylvania Railroad. It carried more passengers and freight than any other company, servicing about 20,000 stations. It also led in technology, management, and operating practices. But the company had no station in New York; passengers were obliged to reach the metropolis by ferry from the Pennsylvania Railroad terminus in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1899, the railroad’s new president Alexander J. Cassett set about to remedy the situation, and the following year he acquired control of the Long Island Railroad. Direct access to Manhattan was critical, and Cassett planned a terminal there to service both railroads, making use of the tunnel then being built under the East River. Twenty-five acres of real estate, bordered by Seventh and Eighth Avenues and Thirty-first and Thirty-third Streets, was secured at a cost of $10 million. Existing buildings were demolished, and Thirty-second Street from Seventh to Ninth Avenues was closed and incorporated into the site. The New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was commissioned and the design work for Pennsylvania Station began in 1902. One architectural historian has written that the outcome 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” (Wilson 1983, 211).
The Seventh Avenue entrance was approached through a 780-foot-long (239-meter) Roman Doric colonnade with 35-foot-high (10.6-meter) columns, carrying a low, flat-roofed attic story. Within the colonnade was a row of shops, and at either end pedimented porticoes led into carriageways for motor vehicles that gave access to the waiting room. The central pavilion, higher than the rest, carried sculptured eagles and figures of women supporting a large clock. The 430-foot (131-meter) facades to Thirty-First and Thirty-Third Streets were relatively plain, but reduced to human scale with attached architectural orders. The main waiting room was probably the most striking part of the building. Based on the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome, its 320-by-110-foot (98-by-34-meter) area was roofed with three coffered cross vaults soaring 150 feet (46 meters) above the pink marble floor. The walls, interspersed with giant Corinthian orders at the springing of the vaults, were lined with Italian travertine, and the subtlety of the beautiful stone was brought out by
the light that streamed through the huge windows beneath the vaults. The entrance landings at either end of the waiting room were framed with Ionic colonnades. Commuters, dwarfed in the magnificent space, reached the street-level entrances by means of broad stairways. The concourse, about twice the area of the waiting room and down one level from it, was as delicate as the other was massive. It was roofed with barrel vaults of glass framed in a filigree of iron, and therefore flooded with light. The twenty-one railroad tracks were on another lower level, 40 feet (12 meters) below the street.
Excavation work started in summer 1904 and the station was mostly completed by August 1910. At first dubbed the “Manhattan Gateway,” Pennsylvania Station soon became the gateway to America. It reached its peak usage toward the end of World War II, with over 109 million passengers in 1944. After that, changes took place in intercity travel. Congress adopted a 40,000-mile (48,000-kilometer) national system of interstate highways in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944; although the roads were not built immediately, that eventually led to the automobile’s taking precedence over the train, a situation that was exacerbated by the advent of inexpensive air travel. By about 1955 the railroad was eclipsed as Americans’ preferred form of passenger transport.
In 1962, Madison Square Garden purchased the air rights to Pennsylvania Station and in October 1963 began demolition, despite public outcry. All that remains is the underground section; its twenty-one tracks carry 600,000 passengers every day. One positive outcome of the loss of the magnificent building was New York’s Landmarks Preservation Law, enacted in 1965. There is also an increased national awareness of the importance of preserving architectural heritage. New York’s Grand Central Terminal, a contemporary of Pennsylvania Station, was saved and rehabilitated at a cost of $196 million; the work was finished in 1998. In May 1999 the Metropolitan Art Society announced a $484 million proposal to convert New York’s central post office (also designed by McKim, Mead and White), which once faced Pennsylvania Station across Eighth Avenue, into a new Pennsvlvania Station. The commission was won by architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and their design was made public early in 2000.