On Preservation, Progress, and Penn Station.

The Waiting Room at old Pennsylvania Station, designed by Charles McKim and William Richardson
The Waiting Room at old Pennsylvania Station, designed by Charles McKim and William Richardson

Tonight at the Center for Architecture in New York City, I’ll be on a panel discussing the once and future Pennsylvania Station. The event follows the 50th anniversary of the demolition of Penn Station and was prompted by a forthcoming two-man play about the subject, The Eternal Space, written by Justin Rivers. I was lucky enough to see a preview of play a while back and it is absolutely terrific. It’s the story of two men: one employed to demolish the station and one determined to save it.

On October 28th, 1963 the demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station began. The wrecking crews worked outside in the morning drizzle to dismantle a fifty-three-year-old architectural marvel. Inside, a construction worker turned photographer was running away from his past while an aging English teacher couldn’t let his go. Their coincidental meeting on that day began a three-year conversation over the value of old and new, as one man fought to keep the station standing while the other was taking it down. This is the premise for The Eternal Space, a two-man play that charts an unlikely friendship during the social and cultural upheavals of the mid-1960s.

What’s particularly impressive is how the play manages to address both sides of the issue. Preservation is critical to connecting us to our own history but what if it impedes progress? How do we define progress? How do we determine the value of a work of art? The play asks many questions but doesn’t offer any easy answers. It does however, leave you with a lot to consider.

A crucial aspect of The Eternal Space, and of tonight’s event, is photography. Photographs documenting the entire life of Penn Station –some famous, some never seen– serve as a background for the actors, silently telling their own story and offering their own compelling provocations. They seem particularly relevant today, as we consider a new Penn Station at a time when images and renderings have become  powerful tools for architects, planners, and developers. The Eternal Space has amassed a catalog of over 500 never-published/exhibited photos from New York based-photographers. Contributors to the collection include:

• Norman McGrath, a renowned, professional architectural photographer whose work has appeared in every notable architectural publication.
• Peter Moore, a professional photographer known for his documentation of the Fluxus movement in New York City. His Penn Station photographs are a small portion of his commercially successful body of work.
• Alexander Hatos, a career employee of the Pennsylvania railroad whose photographic catalog offers the unique perspective of employee access.
• Ron Ziel, an internationally acclaimed railroad historian and Long Island native. His collection documents the station’s entire lifespan and includes images from his perspective as a LIRR commuter in the 1960s.
• Aaron Rose, an accomplished photographer whose images, the New York Times declares, “seem to caress the world”. He was virtually unknown to the photography world until 1997, when four images were exhibited at the Whitney Biennial.

After a reading of selections from The Eternal Space,  a panel discussion will consider what we saw and heard, and look to the past and future of Pennsylvania Station. Panelists include photographer Norman McGrath, Lorraine Dheil, author of The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station, playwright Justin Rivers, and myself. It should be a fun night and hopefully a productive discussion.

I think seats are still available, so register here.