Penn Station: How Nostalgia Plays Into Our Love of Buildings Old and New


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:

penn station

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.

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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.


Batman Demolishes Penn Station in Chip Kidd’s Death by Design

Batman: Death by Design

[The cover to Batman: Death by Design

What if Bruce Wayne wanted to demolish Penn Station in order to surreptitiously construct an auxiliary Batcave beneath the new building? That, in essence, is the plot of Chip Kidd’s new graphic novel Batman: Death by Design. Though a few familiar faces –and grins– make an appearance, Death by Design is, for better and worse, a comic book about architectural preservation and the construction industry.

Wayne Central Station - exterior
[left: Boston Avenue Methodist Church; center & right: sketches of Wayne Central]

Of course, there is no Penn Station in Gotham City. Instead, a thinly-veiled proxy is presented in the form of Wayne Central Station. Every action, every conflict, and every single character in this story is motivated by the desire to either preserve or demolish this building, which is part high rise, part train station, and part Tower of Babel. Because it plays such a central role in Death by Design, artist Dave Taylor did a lot of research before finalizing its design. His choices are inspired. The exterior of Wayne Central is drawn from the Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tusla, Oklahoma, designed by Adah Robinson and Bruce Goff. With a little chiaroscuro, the Art Deco building fits perfectly into the Gothic-deco skyline of Gotham. The interior, however, is pure Penn Station. Designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1910, New York’s Pennsylvania Station was one of the greatest examples of Beaux-Arts Architecture in the United States. Its destruction in 1963, and the subsequent construction of Madison Square Garden, sparked an re-evaluation of New York’s self-proclaimed “master builder” Robert Moses and acted as the catalyst for preservation movements across the United States, most notably New York’s own Landmarks Preservation Committee.

Wayne Central and Penn Stations
[left: Wayne Central Station, Gotham; right: Pennsylvania Station, New York]

In a recent interview, Kidd described his experience with Penn Stations current subterranean incarnation:

“…as somebody who takes Amtrak a lot, I’m always in and out of Penn Station and it’s an absolute travesty. Basically — for one of the most active travel hubs on the east coast of the United States – it’s more or less a fluorescent-lit airless basement below Madison Square Garden, and it’s just horrible. And almost as a cruel joke, when you’re down there, they have these pictures up on the grimy tiled walls of the old Penn Station – this big, glorious space. They’re hanging around on the walls practically mocking you with how beautiful it used to be, as opposed to how shitty it is now”

Kidd’s observation, shared by every single person who has ever been forced to set foot in that rhizomatic dungeon, brings to mind a remark by architecture historian Vincent Scully. In describing the transformation of Penn Station, Scully wrote something to the effect of, “we used to enter the city like gods, now we scurry in like rats.” In Death by Design, Bruce Wayne hopes to replace his proxy Penn Station with a radical new design by noted European architect Ken Roomhaus –a proxy even even more thinly veiled than Penn Station– so he can flutter in like a bat, or as the architect says, be “spat out onto the sidewalk.”

Koolhaas Wayne Station
[Ken Roomhaus and his design for the new Wayne Central Station]

In lieu of his usual bevy of supervillains, Death by Design presents Batman –and Bruce Wayne– with an unusual rogues gallery made up of a beautiful preservationist and an investigative architecture critic (of all the fantasies in Death by Design, “investigative architecture critic” is perhaps the most unbelievable). The cast is rounded out by devious contractors, reclusive architects, and a mysterious new costumed vigilante named Exacto – as in knife. Kidd has described Exacto as “Batman villain as architecture critic,” though that’s not quite right. He’s more of a proactive agent of the building department. Exacto makes his debut with a warning to dancers on a glass-floored nightclub high above the streets of Gotham: “The stresses on this structure were improperly calculated!” Along with incorporeality and teleportation, Exacto’s superpowers seem to include unlimited access to classified construction documents and forged union contracts. As more and more construction accidents befall Gotham, its citizens are left to wonder: who is the mysterious Exacto? Is he causing these accidents or are his intentions purely to combat faulty construction? Those questions are only two of the many mysteries that drive the plot of Death by Death.

Unfortunately, there are too many mysteries: collapsing cranes, demolished buildings, the disappearance of a famous architect, and, for good measure, an old-fashioned kidnapping. The story’s ambitions are too great, and it fails to fulfill the promises it makes. Chip Kidd is famed as a graphic designer but this is his first foray into writing comics. Though he’s crafted a heroic, convoluted narrative that could have come out of The Fountainhead or Robert Moses era New York, at times his inexperience with the medium shows. The story is beautiful but flawed with a rushed ending and plot threads that get snipped too short. And while his enthusiasm for architecture is appreciated, Kidd creates an apocryphal architectural jargon that is completely awkward and unnecessary. Roomhaus’s work is alternately described as “Maxi-minimalism” and “Mini-maximalism,” while the clearly Art Deco Wayne Central Station is described as “the single best example of Patri-monumental Modernism in America.” These terms not only takes the story out of a fictional golden age and into a full-on alternate dimension but also undermine the extensive research done by the book’s writer and artist, whose stunning drawings make up for any shortcomings. Taylor took his stylistic cues from Kidd, who as the story’s “art director” gave his artist a mandate that can be summed up on one very specific question: “What if Fritz Lang had a huge budget to make a Batman feature film in the 1930?” Indeed, many set pieces and entire scenes seem in Death by Design seem to be drawn straight from Lang’s Metropolis.

Chip Kidd's Death by Design and Fritz Lang's Metropolis
[left: Batman fights through a crowd in Death by Design; right: a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis]

A massive debt is also owed to the work of 1920s-1930s architectural renderer Hugh Ferriss. Ferriss’s renderings were the inspiration for Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City and subsequently shaped the image of the city in the comics as well. Taylor’s pencils evoke Ferriss’s renderings without being derivative. The black and white monolithic Art Deco buildings of Gotham place the story firmly in the era of Ferriss’s iconic and much sought-after renderings. It also reveals, in surprisingly detail, the difficulties of getting such massive skyscraper built in a city like Gotham or New York. To make sure this process was described realistically –as realistically as possible in a story involving teleporting masked vigilantes– Kidd consulted with friend and architect Bart Voorsanger. Artist Dave Taylor notes:

“The book contains some of the truth behind how a city is built, literally. The corruption, and misplacement of power rings true to the point of making this book a timely record. But what this book does above all is show how easy it can be to bring that corruption and power down, all you need is one hero!”

Death by Design Gotham Skyline
[Batman soars above Gotham City in Batman: Death by Design]

Even with its overwrought plot, Death by Design is an entertaining paean to Batman and to architecture that wears its heart firmly on its cape. It really is exciting to see architecture presented as the driving force of a comic book plot instead of just background scenery. The Architecture of Gotham has always been integral to the Batman myth (As I’ve previously noted), and Kidd and Taylor articulate that connection in an exciting and innovative way. Buildings are represented heroically and heroes are revealed to be mere men, struggling against the very city they created.

Death by Design also alludes to larger questions about architecture, important questions. What makes a monument? How can we preserve tradition while still embracing innovation? What is the value of an architect’s legacy? To some, it may seem silly to look toward comics for these answers, but Batman has been around since 1939 and his history has been not only preserved, but enriched and updated for a modern audience – even when it takes the form of a retro-pulp story. If Batman has taught us anything, it’s that the past invariably shapes who we are. It cannot and should not be forgotten or ignored, for by looking to the past we can certainly find timeless lessons that shape the people we are and the cities in which we live. But we cannot dwell on the past completely; we cannot let it consume us. In order to truly resonate with a contemporary audience, an expression of tradition must reflect current social and technological realities. It’s like I’ve always said: as goes Batman, so goes architecture.

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