A Landmark Decision: Penn Station, Grand Central, and the architectural heritage of NYC

Dr. Matthew A. Postal and Dr. Steven Zucker discuss landmarks preservation in New York City while visiting: Charles Luckman Associates’s Madison Square Garden and Pennsylvania Station, the former site of Charles McKim for McKim Mead, & White, Pennsylvania Station (New York City), 1910 and then visiting Reed & Stem, Warren & Wetmore’s Grand Central Terminal, 1912

Additional resources:

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

Grand by Design: A History of Grand Central Terminal

Before Penn Station, Bellows & old NYC

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”GCTPenn”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’re standing in Pennsylvania Station in the heart of Manhattan, underneath Madison Square Garden.

Dr. Matthew A. Postal: [0:13] Penn Station takes up an entire city block from 31st to 33rd Street, from Seventh Avenue to Eighth Avenue.

[0:21] So when it opened in 1910, you could enter the building from each of the streets, but the majority of people would have entered from Seventh Avenue, and they would have proceeded down a grand hallway, which would have [been] intersected mid-block by a towering hall that looked quite close to the Baths of Caracalla from ancient Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [0:43] This is a moment at the tail end of the Beaux-Arts style. That is, the style that is informed by classicism by way of the Renaissance and the Baroque.

[0:52] When you walked past the towering waiting room and moved towards the train tracks, you would enter into this large glass and iron atrium, this train shed very much in the style of the great 19th century European train stations.

Dr. Postal: [1:07] The key issue for most people was the grandeur, the scale of these spaces. You have to keep in mind that before the Second World War, this was the primary way that Americans traveled from one place to another.

[1:21] But beginning in the 1950s, Americans began to travel by air. They began to benefit from the interstate highway system, and consequently, the railroads were selling less seats.

Dr. Zucker: [1:34] Pennsylvania Railroad realized that one of its great assets was real estate in the center of Manhattan.

Dr. Postal: [1:39] The space above the tracks.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] And so the railroad decided to demolish Penn Station, maintaining the tracks belowground, building a new Penn Station underneath office towers and Madison Square Garden.

Dr. Postal: [1:50] Most people felt that this would keep the railroads alive, but what was overlooked is that there would be the loss of an unforgettable building.

Dr. Zucker: [1:58] There were protests. Architects, preservation-minded citizens, asked that the railroad reconsider and preserve the building.

Dr. Postal: [2:05] It was too late. So many steps had been taken and the debt was so great that it was impossible to reverse it.

Dr. Zucker: [2:12] The building was demolished.

Dr. Postal: [2:14] Took two years to demolish the building.

Dr. Zucker: [2:16] It was replaced with a building that New Yorkers now love to hate.

Dr. Postal: [2:20] It is a building that is underground. It is dark. It is windowless. It still does the job. It is still the busiest train station in the United States, but it is not a building that you would bring anyone to see.

Dr. Zucker: [2:34] The idea that a city had the right to landmark privately owned buildings is a radical one. That it could impose regulations on private real estate development is something that doesn’t exist in the United States in the 19th century.

Dr. Postal: [2:47] New York City had always put growth ahead of anything else. It seemed whatever was new was better.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] The result is, we’ve lost some really important landmarks. Federal Hall, the first seat of government, the place that George Washington was inaugurated, is gone.

[3:03] Slowly, through the 19th century and into the 20th century, this began to change. In 1965, New York City put a law on its books that said that the city had the right to protect its architectural heritage.

Dr. Postal: [3:15] New York looked to New Orleans, which had taken steps to protect the French Quarter in the 1930s.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] Penn Station was gone. The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission had been created, but it was as yet untested.

Dr. Postal: [3:29] You can have a law, but you have to interpret the law and you have to execute the law, and then you have to select which buildings should be protected by the law.

Dr. Zucker: [3:40] Let’s walk over to the other great train terminal in New York City, Grand Central Terminal.

Dr. Postal: [3:45] It’s where the law was tested.

Dr. Zucker: [3:48] We’ve walked over to Grand Central. It’s an enormous façade that, like Penn Station, is also borrowing from the history of architecture, but in this case, we’re calling a great ancient Roman triumphal arch. The scale of this building gives us a sense of what Penn Station would have looked like.

Dr. Postal: [4:05] Rather than having a train station spread out on a single block, this is a much smaller site and the tracks are on two levels.

Dr. Zucker: [4:14] That was possible because this train station was designed to accommodate electrified tracks, whereas the older technology, steam, had required huge open sheds that could accommodate the billowing steam and smoke.

[4:28] By the time we get to the mid-20th century, the New York Central Railroad, which controlled Grand Central Station, was falling victim to the same economic changes that had precipitated the demolition of Penn Station. The railroad decided to build a skyscraper, including a plan to place a skyscraper in front of the terminal and a plan to place a skyscraper on top of the terminal.

Dr. Postal: [4:48] These plans required the approval of the New York City Landmarks Commission, which had designated this building a landmark.

Dr. Zucker: [4:56] Ultimately, the Landmarks Commission rejected both of those plans.

Dr. Postal: [4:59] When Penn Station was lost, there was no legal means to protect the building. But at this time, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission could protect this building and had the power to determine what alterations were considered to be appropriate.

Dr. Zucker: [5:16] Needless to say, the landowner didn’t agree with the decision that the Landmarks Preservation Commission reached, and brought them to court. Ultimately the case ended up in front of the United States Supreme Court.

Dr. Postal: [5:27] It was difficult to say how it would turn out. Large groups of people traveled from New York to attend the decision.

Dr. Zucker: [5:37] The Supreme Court found that New York City did indeed have the right to establish laws that it determined were in the best interest of the city as a whole in order to protect what it believed were significant pieces of architecture.

Dr. Postal: [5:48] When the law was passed and the commission was created, most people felt that the main goal was to protect historic structures, to protect places where historic events had occurred. But if you read the law, it viewed there being many layers of benefits.

Dr. Zucker: [6:05] Chapter 3 of the New York City administrative code that deals with the landmarks preservation law states that this is to the benefit of the economy of the city. And to promote the historic districts, landmarks, interior landmarks, and scenic landmarks for the education, pleasure, and welfare of the people of the city.

[6:23] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Matthew A. Postal and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A Landmark Decision: Penn Station, Grand Central, and the architectural heritage of NYC," in Smarthistory, March 31, 2018, accessed June 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/landmark-penn/.