October 28 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the end for New York’s old Pennsylvania Station. It took three years and countless hours of manpower to tear down what was the fourth-largest building in the world. In remembrance of the station, last Wednesday the Center for Architecture held the event, Lights, Camera, Demolition: Penn Station Recalled on Stage & In Pictures. The highlight was a reading of a The Eternal Space, a new play about the unlikely relationship between two men – a construction worker photographing the station as he tears it down and an aging professor determined to save it. Photographs documenting the entire life of Penn Station–some famous, some never seen–are critical to the play, serving as a background for the actors, silently telling the story of a changing city and offering their own compelling provocations alongside a compelling debate about progress, preservation, and of course, Pennsylvania Station.
Following a reading of the play, a panel was convened to discuss the station, its legacy, and the photographs that continue to inspire. Panelists included playwright Justin Rivers, myself, noted biographer of Penn Station Lorraine Dhiel, and renown photographer Norman McGrath, whose vast archive of personal photos includes hundreds of never-before-seen images documenting the demolition of Penn Station, photos that feature prominently in the play (and in this post).
Pennsylvania Station was designed by McKim, Mead, and White in 1902. McKim, a Beaux-Arts educated architect and co-founder of the American Academy in Rome, was the lead designer on the project which was a grand display of his idiosyncratic Beaux-Arts Classicism. He draws inspiration from the great train stations of Europe, the Baths of Caracalla, John Soane’s Bank of England, and surely myriad other sources, all artfully combined into a monumental pink granite structure. It was a testament to the our technological prowess, craftsmanship, and artistry. It was a monument to our culture; a station scaled to the ambitions of a country at the peak of its power – a modern Rome. And indeed, at times it seemed that all tracks lead to New York – or, to be more specific, Penn Station. It was to be a gateway to the city.
But times change. And cities change. By 1963, New York was a very different place and Penn Station was no longer the gateway into the city. New highways and air travel gave travelers more, sometimes better, options. And while automotive infrastructure was being built by governments, privately owned railways were going bankrupt and bleeding passengers. In a time of high speed and efficiency, Pennsylvania Station was a decadent, inspiring and expensive masterpiece. As it fell into decay and disrepair, the owners of the railroad believed they had no choice but to sell the rights to build on their valuable property, making it possible for a new, modern, and incredibly ugly Madison Square Garden to rise where Penn Station stood, while the while the waiting rooms, ticketing areas, and train concourses were pushed underground. The opposition to the demolition was led by a small but local group, but at the time the city was powerless to stop it. And it seems that few New Yorkers held the station in high regard because although the Penn Station that exists in the popular imaginary looks like this:
The station was quite a bit worse for wear in 1963:
McGrath’s color photos of Penn Station’s demolition capture the vast spaces in all its Piranesian glory and communicate a sense of its scale in an almost morbid way. The demolition may have been an ignoble end to a truly beautiful building but it was undeniably sublime.
By the time of its demolition, Penn was full of unsightly newspaper kiosks, advertisements, and an jarring, modernist ticket counter that drastically changed the circulation through the building’s waiting room. But that is not the Penn Station we remember. There’s a line in The Eternal Space about a soldier who died in World War II: “how perfect he seems in death.” The same could be said about the station. Penn Station lives on through widely distributed photographs depicting the station at the peak of its monumental grandeur, such as those seen at the top of this post. The Penn Station we miss–even those of us who weren’t even a gleam in our father’s eye at the the time of its demolition–is one that hadn’t existed for a long time. And yet, these photos create a longing.
Wednesday night it occurred to me that contemporary architectural renderings serve a similar purpose. A good rendering of a beautiful design evokes a sort of reverse nostalgia; not a longing for something that’s gone, but a longing for something to exist. They can be incredibly convincing and they can reach a massive audience incredibly quickly. Renderings have become powerful tools for architects, planners, and developers. Are they informative? No doubt. Are they manipulative? Maybe a little.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
After all, the nostalgia-provoking photos of old Penn were/are manipulative in their own way. Images of a pristine Penn Station were used by advocacy groups to sway public sentiment and garner support for new policy, eventually leading to new legislation and the formation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission – the first organization in the city empowered to protect New York’s architectural heritage.
But that’s all in the past. There’s a lot of talk these days about the future of Penn Station thanks to the recent decision by New York City Planning Commission to renew Madison Square Garden’s permit for only 10 years and a design competition recently organized by the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), who invited four prominent local architects to submit a vision of Penn Station’s future. These projects are described in length on the MAS site but I just wanted to focus on one project –one image, really– that I think really starts to get at this idea of inverse nostalgia:
This rendering from Shop feels so well thought-out. It seems to have been carefully designed to imitate the iconic photos of New York’s two great train stations. To speculate a bit, I think architectural renderings in general will become more influential as they evolve to either become 1) more realistic, and/or 2) more artistic – that is to say, able to be considered a work of art, or at the very least to be able to evoke an emotional response. I think the above rendering is more a case of the latter. The soft lighting, the sunbeams, the massive space and sense of scale. It’s beautiful. And it evokes some halcyon past. This photo of Grand Central came immediately to mind:
Images have power. Even before this recent discussion about moving Madison Square Garden, Penn Station has had a hold on New Yorkers’ imagination thank largely to its photographs. As for its future – what should a modern Penn Station be like? Should there even be a new Penn Station? Those are questions people will be asking a lot over the next 10 years. Architects will talk about sustainability and new technologies and radical formal possibilities, and civic space –all important considerations to be sure– but at the end of the day, if there is going to be a new Penn Station it should be beautiful. It needs to satiate that longing and mitigate that sense of loss felt every time we see a picture of what was or an image of what could be.
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.
There’s been so much scaffolding recently in Washington D.C. that it looks like the capital is recovering from an incredibly ruthless alien invasion, a knock-down drag-out superhero brawl, or some other action film-level disaster. In a city as widely visited as Washington D.C., a city where it seems that even structures of the smallest import are national landmarks, it’s not exactly desirable to have the monuments, memorials and buildings concealed behind wood and metal cages. In cities such as New York or Chicago, where change is the norm, scaffolding is a part the city fabric, but in a city where history is the major draw, where there are certain structures that visitors feel they have the inalienable right to see, scaffolding poses something of a problem. As a result, D.C. architects have gotten creative.
At the end of September, scaffolding was removed from the western facade of the Supreme Court Building after a complete restoration. But during the year that the building was covered, visitors were still able to enjoy Cass Gilbert’s design thanks to a scrim printed with a full-size image of the marble facade. It’s a common practice in Europe that’s starting to be seen more frequently in the U.S., as also illustrated by the recent scrims on Independence Hall in Philadelphia and on the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The Supreme Court scrim was so well done that from a distance I didn’t even notice it at first. While the image lacks the depth and complexity of the original, for tourists hoping to snap a picture, fake can be just as good – and just as functional. It’s fascinating to me that what is essentially a big billboard can act as a proxy for a building (or, as in Hong Kong, an entire city skyline). After all, dating back to at least Ancient Greece, building facades have acted as signs denoting the function or purpose of the structure.
A different approach was taken with the scaffolding now surrounding the Washington monument, which has been closed to visitors since the structure was damaged by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in 2011. The $15 million repair should finish up next spring, and until then the iconic monument will be enclosed in an impressive feat of architecture and engineering that beautifully illuminates the obelisk every night. This isn’t the first time the Washington Monument has been covered with illuminated scaffolding. In fact, the current scaffolding is nearly identical to the system designed by architect Michael Graves & Associates that was used for two years during the monument’s 1998-2000 restoration. MGA’s scaffolding mimics not only the shape of the monument, but is enclosed in a translucent mesh patterned with an exaggerated image of its stone and mortar joints.
Last but certainly not least, is the Capitol dome. The symbol of the city and of American democracy. While a lot of people would probably love to see the inner workings of the Capitol cleaned up, the dome, last restored in 1960, is overdue for a little paint, spackle, and some serious repairs to its rusted cast iron structure. That process begins later this month and will continue for about two years while the dome’s 1,000 cracks and imperfections are repaired. The scaffolding that will surround the dome from its base up to the Statue of Freedom isn’t quite as “designed” as the previous examples, but it seems like the Architect of the Capitol is making it as minimal and unobtrusive as possible and, like the Washington Monument, it will be also illuminated at night while workers are making repairs. this might not be the Capitol cleaning
The architecture of Washington D.C. tells the story of America. Scaffolding is an inevitable part of maintaining our history and ensuring that story is told for centuries to come. It can be unsightly and inconvenient, but in the right hands, with the right motivation, the scaffolding-covered monumental architecture of D.C. continues to communicate the ideals that inspired the nation’s founders.
Walter Hunt (1785-1859), a 19th century engineer and machinist, was only a bit player in the history of the sewing machine but he was a prolific “Yankee mechanical genius” who had a penchant for invention and innovation. Unfortunately for him, he was also a Yankee business dunce. Well, that’s not entirely fair. He was reportedly a benevolent man who believed in helping others over making a profit. But his business acumen was lacking and he rarely had the capability to do more than sell the rights to his designs for much less than they were worth. Hunt’s hundreds of inventions include a saw, a steamer, ink stands, a nail-making machine, a rifle, a revolver, bullets, bicycles, a shirt collar, a boot heel, and a ceiling-walking circus device. Some of these items are still in use today and though Hunt’s name is not well known, his creations are.
Hunt designed the safety pin (top image) in three hours to settle a $15 debt to one of the many draftsman he tasked with drawing up his patents. Similar pins had existed for ages but nothing so efficient, made from just a single piece of wire. The draftsman, J.R. Chapin, later paid Hunt $400 for all the rights to every variation of twisted wire than Hunt could think up.
Hunt also played an early but critical role in the successful development of the American Arms industry. His 1849 design for a “Volitional Repeater” rifle made clever use of several other recent discoveries in repeating mechanisms, breech loading and bullets. While it was a brilliant display of innovation, it was also prone to failure. In characteristic fashion, Hunt sold his design to entrepreneur George Arrowsmith. Soon after, the design went into production by the Robins and Lawrence Arms Company, where three men worked on improvements to the firing mechanism: Benjamin Tyler Henry, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. Thanks to Hunt’s faulty design, the partnership of Smith & Wesson was born. In 1855, an arms conglomerate directed by Oliver F. Winchester bought out Smith & Wesson’s company among other purchases, eventually forming the New Haven Arms Company, which produced one of the most fearsome weapons of the Civil War: the Henry repeating rifle. None of it would have happened without Walter Hunt’s volitional repeater.
Hunt is sometimes called the man who gave away a fortune — an appellation that could apply for a number of reasons. The images included in this post are only a very few of Hunt’s many designs. There’s little doubt that he was not a particularly gifted businessman who was constantly in debt, spending all his money on patents and other costs related to his almost compulsive inventiveness. Nonetheless, he seems to have truly been a man who enjoyed the process of creation over reward and riches, though he ultimately did okay for himself thanks to his various designs for bullets and casings. Hunt could’ve been another Edison, but he didn’t have the discipline. Instead, he spent his life in the shadow of men like Oliver Winchester and Elias Howe. And sadly, that is how he spends his death as well. I haven’t been out to pay a visit to Hunt’s grave yet, but according to the comprehensive sewing history website Sewalot, Hunt’s grave, which is not entirely immodest, can be found in the shadow of the much larger burial monument of Elias Howe.
via Design Decoded http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/design/2013/10/walter-hunt-yankee-mechanical-genius/
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Recent Life Without Buildings Posts
- Design Decoded: Traveling in Style and Comfort: The Pullman Sleeping Car
- Design Decoded: The Puppeteer Who Brought Balloons to the Thanksgiving Day Parade
- Design Decoded: The Architecture of Assassination
- Design Decoded: The Daring Escape From the Eastern State Penitentiary
- Penn Station: How Nostalgia Plays Into Our Love of Buildings Old and New
- On Preservation, Progress, and Penn Station.
- Design Decoded: Scaffolding is All Over D.C. Here’s Why the Monuments Still Look Majestic