Friday’s from the historical archive: old Penn Station, Jackie Kennedy and the Grand Central we almost lost

A few weeks ago when I posted some photos of New Haven’s Union Station a reader commented about how nice the station was, compared to some of MTA’s other stations. The example given was Penn Station. Not only did the comment remind me of some old photos I saw of Penn Station, but a post that I had started writing back in March and had never posted. And that post was about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

In comparison with other stations, Penn Station today isn’t too noteworthy in an architectural sense. Of course when I talk about Pennsylvania station, I am referring to the station in New York City. The name had been used by the Pennsylvania Railroad at several of their other stations, including one in Newark, which occasionally causes confusion. But considering that the station is the most used in the country, you’d think it would look nicer. And of course it would have, had the original not been demolished to make room for the new Madison Square Garden.

The original station was completed in 1910 and was designed by McKim, Mead and White. By the 1950’s the railroad industry was hurting, and in a move to attempt to make some money, they proposed the demolition of the station in order to use the “air rights” and build something over it. The station would be located under street level, and Madison Square Garden and some office buildings would be above it. Despite some protests, the glorious station was demolished in 1963. What exactly does all of this have to do with Jackie Kennedy? The loss of Penn Station eventually led to the formation of a Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the New York City Landmarks Law. It was the Commission that protested when the New York Central decided that they too wanted to demolish Grand Central and build above it. And one of the most prominent members fighting for Grand Central was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The fight to save Grand Central went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1968 two designs submitted to replace the station were rejected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in 1978. Grand Central would not be demolished. In 1998 after an overhaul Grand Central was rededicated, and for her endeavors to save the station a plaque honoring Jackie Kennedy was placed in Vanderbilt Hall. The last time I was in Grand Central I found the plaque and took a picture. It reads:

In an age when few people sought to preserve the architectural wonders that are a daily reminder of our rich and glorious past, a brave woman rose in protest to save this terminal from demolition. Because of her tireless and valiant efforts, it stands today as a monument to those who came before us and built the greatest city known to mankind. Preserving this great landmark is one of her many enduring legacies. The people of New York are forever grateful.

I’m going to leave off with a few quotes, a rededication newspaper article, and a random thought. If as a child I had never felt the awe of stepping into the gorgeous Grand Central, a particularly fond memory, would this site even be here? The station utterly captivated my thoughts, and despite all these years, I can’t help but smile every time I step into that main concourse. So thanks, Jackie, thank you very much.

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.

If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for our future.

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