If you enjoyed our previous set of Farm Security Administration photos, no doubt you will enjoy the ones today, possibly even more so. Captured by Marjorie Collins, another one of the lesser-known FSA photographers, today’s set of photos features New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Taken about a year after the photos we saw last week (these date to August 1942), the war is in full swing, and the station is filled with soldiers. As was the FSA’s goal, these images artfully capture what life was like in the 1940’s.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of the Pennsy, and I don’t frequently post things about Penn Station, but I think this set of photos was too amazing to pass up. We may be celebrating the centennial of Grand Central Terminal, but I think it is also a perfect time to reflect about New York’s other great “temple of transportation,” and its greater significance in terms of historical preservation.

New York's Pennsylvania Station
New York’s Pennsylvania Station, built 1910, demolished 1963.

Grand Central Terminal was still in construction when the Pennsylvania Railroad opened their great station in 1910. Designed by the famous McKim, Mead, and White, the two stations shared a Beaux Arts aesthetic. Both were exquisite New York monuments, and they almost shared the same fate – the wrecking ball. With the decline in rail travel both the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads were strapped for cash and looking to make a buck anywhere they could. With the significant costs to maintain such large stations, the buildings were worth more to them as real estate. In 1963 the gorgeous Penn Station was demolished in order to build Madison Square Garden above.

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, the high-profile face of historic preservation in New York City.

I am firmly of the belief that New York could not have two great railroad stations – for it was the destruction of Pennsylvania Station that motivated people to protect the city’s historical landmarks. In 1965, two years after Penn Station’s destruction, New York’s Landmark Preservation Commission was established. Grand Central was declared a landmark, and the New York Central, and later the Penn Central, were not permitted to destroy it – a fight the railroad took all the way up to the Supreme Court. If not for the destruction of Penn Station, it is very possible that we would not be celebrating the centennial of Grand Central right now. So thanks, Penn Station, we shall not forget you.


12 Responses

  1. Otto Vondrak says:

    I agree that the destruction of Penn Station “woke up” the citizens to New York and motivated them to save not only Grand Central Terminal, but also to protect other landmarks in danger of destruction. You can’t save everything (nor should you), but preservation is most meaningful when the entire community fights to support the cause they believe in.

  2. Backshophoss says:

    Albuquerque NM had it’s wakeup call when the Alvarado Hotel, a major
    facilty in the Harvey House chain was torn down in the 60’s, then
    the ATSF/Amtrak depot was lost by fire in the early 90’s.
    The Hotel site was finally turned into a city transit Hub in
    the early 2000’s, Amtrak and Greyhound intercity bus
    share an ajoining building.
    Albuquerque did wise up enough to buy the nearby shop complex
    from the RR’s real estate division, cleaned up and secured the buildings
    and with a partnership with ABQ Studios,leases part of the complex
    for movie shoots. The Wheels Museum is finally setting up in
    the Storehouse building in the complex.(www.wheels.org)

  3. Bill Loutrel says:

    Emily: Thanks for going to the Penn side (dark side??) for these photos. WOW!

  4. Cindi says:

    This is a great blog! Thanks for all your hard work and for some fab posting! The photos are fantastic. DOUBLE WOW!

  5. Joe says:

    It’s always nice to look at later photos of Penn Station, because it’s interesting to note how the once open space down to the tracks (from the concourse) was covered over with the advent of overhead AC power being used by the PRR.

    Walking through the lower level the other day at Penn, I looked up through some open ceiling panels and noted the old glass cube floor of the concourse, seen in the photos above. Penn Station may be gone, but most of the below grade infrastructure remains.

  6. Al Brecken says:

    Excess , in the attempt to impress , lead to this mess ( the demolition )

    If the initial design of Penn Station was one-third the size of what was constucted , it may have survived. The irony is that the size -to- number of tracks proportion of Penn Station was inversly propotional to the size-to-the number of tracks proportion of GCT.

    The the waiting room may have inspired awe because of it’s colossal size , but it’s very size made it impractical in terms of it’s basis purpose and it’s durabilty. I do not consider it’s design to be aesthetic , in particular when compared to the superb architectural quality of GCT.

    • Mike G says:

      Wow, I can’t disagree more here in regards to the comparison to GCT. The aesthetic beauty of the main waiting hall of Penn station was breathtaking and would wow anyone walking into it. What made it more unique was that the concourse was a glass vaulted space separate from it. The amount of people that go into penn station now compared to back then, if this station survived, it would have been another gem like GCT. I’m sickened by its loss.

      • Emily says:

        I don’t completely agree with Al, but I think his point is that for railroading, it wasn’t the best station. From an architectural standpoint it certainly was amazing, and definitely on par with Grand Central. But GCT was built to accommodate more traffic than they were currently receiving, it was well planned, and just the separation of upper level long distance trains and lower level commuter trains was kind of innovative. The actual station proper of Penn was demolished, but the tracks and such are much the same. And if you’ve ever taken LIRR, compare that experience with MN. Penn is a nuthouse.

        I suppose one could argue that aesthetically Pennsylvania station was more beautiful than Grand Central, but in terms of usability, and the purpose for which it was built, GCT would win hands down every time.

    • Larry Cook says:

      That the colossal size of the waiting room was the reason the station awed is not a bad thing. Manhattan Island is large enough to accommodate some overly ;large structures without restricting other construction. I love that one photo of the waiting room in which it’s hard to tell if it’s inside or outside. Have you been inside Saint John the Divine? Certainly not elaborately designed, it inspires awe specifically for it’s massive indoor space. I was 10 years old when Penn Station was torn down and I don’t remember ever having been inside. I wish I could go back in time to walk through it and gaze for a while.

  7. jeff says:

    I arrived at Penn (some years ago ) & was so disapp. to emerge from…. a Rat Hole
    I didn’t know then how much NY was in the throes of the road interests…
    I hope things have changed

  8. Dwight says:

    These photos remind me of an old saying:

    “A good soldier never stands when he can sit, and never sits when he can lie down.”

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