Layla Law-Gisiko: How The Old Penn Station Got Demolished

(Layla Law-Gisiko) Layla Law-Gisiko, September 3, 2023

Numerous advocates, critics, members of civic organizations have stated with various levels of vociferation and on assorted tunes, that demolishing Penn Station was one of the worst acts of modern vandalism, and building an arena directly on top was terminally stupid.

In hindsight, we know it was a monumental mistake to construct Madison Square Garden on top of Penn Station. This week, at a subcommittee meeting of the NY City Council, Council Member Bottcher who represents the district where MSG is located stated: “At this time, the Council cannot determine the long-term viability of an arena at this location”. 

As the MSG/Penn Station saga continues to be written, let’s look at what folks were saying sixty years ago, and what they have said during those six decades.

Beware the “residue from a Caligulaean invasion” and admire MSG President’s foresight as he, himself, predicted that MSG would be a tear-down building fifty years after its construction. But the award for most accurate assessment goes to architectural historian Carl Condit.


They Got it Wrong (Mostly): 

“The new station will not only be in the ‘most modern decor,’ but for convenience, comfort and efficiency in operation will be unsurpassed in the world”
 — James M. Symes, PaRR President

“…revitalize an area that hasn’t seen a new commercial building started in more than 35 years; pump $120,000,000 into the construction industry; provide the city with two new and modern sports arenas it needs, both easily convertible into convention halls that could attract major political conventions to this city again…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” 
— Irving M. Felt, MSG President, and Brother to James Felt, chair of the New York City Planning Commission (1962)
[It is impressive that Mr. Felt correctly predicted that fifty years later, it would be time to tear down MSG, but he was wrong that a new group of architects would protest such demolition]


“Watching Penn Station’s transformation will be like watching your youngsters growing up – the changes will be taking place day by day, little by little. They won’t appear very dramatic. But, just as there comes a sudden realization that the youngsters have grown into young men and women, there’ll be a day when it’ll dawn on you that a vast change has taken place in your station. When it’s all fixed up, and the contractors have moved out, there’ll be:
• Air Conditioning
• More escalators
• Taxis closer to the train gates
• More convenient station entrances
• New track-level ventilating systems
• Even brighter lighting on all levels
• More space on the LIRR concourse
• New, more attractive, more convenient stores
In short, you’ll have one of the most modern, spacious, cheerful and functional terminals in the nation. And it’ll be right in the middle of a sports complex that will include a new Madison Square Garden and related facilities that can be converted into the world’s largest and most up-to-date convention and exhibition hall – all reachable from your station without going outside. You’re going to like it.” 
— LIRR pamphlet. “Inside Penn Station”

“…The basic question is whether the Baths of Caracalla have ever been appropriate as a railroad ticketing center…a neoclassic behemoth…negates almost 1,500 years of architectural progress. As was the vogue of that era,
majesty could only be achieved by bastardizing a Greek or Roman temple;
ergo, a multitude of our banks, libraries and museums look like residue from a Caligulaean invasion…”
— Architect’s letter , September 1962 Progressive Architecture magazine
They got it right: 

 “Have the railroads so capitulated to the airlines that a series of low-ceilinged, concession-strewn rat mazzes is the best gateway to New York which they can now offer?”
— Harmon Goldstone, President of the Municipal Art Society 

“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.”
— Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis About the new subterranean Penn Station“…Prime candidate for the most poverty-stricken architecture in new York – indeed, it is questionable whether the structures and enclosures can be regarded as architecture at all…The interior space consists essentially of two parts, a large ticket lobby embracing a much greater area than is necessary for the moving of traffic, and a combined waiting room and concourse that is an insult to the user: it is too small, too low, contains too few seats, and provides access to all train gates in such a way as to guarantee conflict and confusion. The decor may be described as men’s room modern, and the food available in the restaurants ranges from unappetizing to unspeakable.”
— Carl W. Condit, Architectural Historian/Author“Like ancient Rome, New York seems bent on tearing down its finest buildings. In Rome, demolition was a piecemeal process which took over 1,000 years; in New York demolition is absolute and complete in a matter of months. The rise of modern archaeology put an end to this kind of vandalism in Rome, but in our city no such deterrent exists.” 
— New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), 1963
“Pennsylvania Station succumbed to progress this week at the age of 56, after a lingering decline. The building’s one remaining facade was shorn of eagles and ornament yesterday, preparatory to leveling the last wall. It went not with a bang, or a whimper, but to the rustle of real estate stock shares. The passing of Penn Station is more than the end of a landmark. It makes the priority of real estate values over preservation conclusively clear. It confirms the demise of an age of opulent elegance, of conspicuous, magnificent spaces, rich and enduring materials, the monumental civic gesture, and extravagant expenditure for esthetic ends.”
— Ada Louise Huxtable – NYT Architecture Critic, July 16th 1966
“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.”
— New York Times Editorial Board. “Farewell to Penn Station” – , Oct. 30th 1963
“The only buildings and monuments which can be expected to survive are those which, like the pyramids of Egypt and Central America, are too much trouble to take down… New Yorkers will lose one of their finest buildings, one of the few remaining from the ‘golden age’ at the turn of the century, for one reason and one reason only: that a comparatively small group of men wants to make money.”
— Assorted Opinions from the Architectural Community