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Battle Lines Over Penn Station

Develop the area to pay for renovating the old station – or move MSG and build a new one? 

Our Town, MICHAEL ORESKES, June 23, 2022

Once upon a rather different time, the Pennsylvania Railroad, then the nation’s second largest corporation, decided it could no longer deposit its New York bound passengers in New Jersey to cross the North River by ferry boats.

So it tunneled under the river and built a resplendent Pennsylvania Station, paid for entirely out of its own ample coffers.

“The Pennsylvania is preparing to pour out money like water for the privilege of placing a station in the heart of the nation’s metropolis,” the New-York Tribune marveled, to use the evocative verb of author Jill Jonnes, who chronicled the endeavor in her book, “Conquering Gotham.”

That was then, 120 years ago, in a Glided Age when the Great City seemed capable of such marvels of public building (as distinct from this Gilded Age when, well, not).

With that original Penn Station long interred in what we can now recognize as the city’s defining development tragedy, the “privilege” of placing a station in the heart of the metropolis is something no one wants to pay for.

Solving that dilemma is what has landed us in the current controversy about renovating Penn Station.

It would be hard to find anyone against a new station. Aptly described as the worst train station in North America, the current Penn Station resembles what’s left after a tooth is extracted.

That original masterpiece was yanked down in 1963 and capped by Madison Square Garden and some office towers, crunching access to the trains through a warren of dark and narrow corridors below street level.

Indeed, the tragedy of losing one of the city’s architectural masterpieces was compounded because the successor station, built at no cost to the then financially failing railroad, had to conform to the needs of the people paying the bills, the developers of the Garden and the rest of the space above.

“So station configuration and design efficiency took a back seat to the structural requirements of the buildings that were constructed above the station,” the state’s development corporation wrote last year. “This lack of attention to the architectural needs of a major train station resulted in a dysfunctional layout … The existing station consists of vestiges of the below ground portions of the original structure, punctuated at all levels by structural columns that support MSG and 2 Penn Plaza.”

This engineering trade-off can be followed all the way back to the original station. Charles McKim, the architect, convinced alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania, to abandon plans for an eighteen story hotel above the station.

Such a tower, Jill Jonnes reports, would have cut two or more tracks from the terminal and, as the railroad’s directors concluded, made “the railroad business a secondary feature.”

Source: Our Town