The 100th birthday of Grad Central (and the 14-hour NYC documentary I’m watching while Nathan is in India) got me thinking and Googling about the squat expanse of exceptionally poor signage that is today’s Penn Station, especially since I traverse it every weekday on my way to and from work.
Anybody who has Amtrak’d to the city surely knows its shabby drop ceilings, confusing corridors and pox of mall food court-style dining options. (Aunty Anne’s pretzel, anyone?) Yelpers corroborate, awarding Penn a 2-star rating, while Grand Central gets a rosy 4.5.
The original Penn, opened in 1910 and inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, was heralded by the New York Times as the ”largest and handsomest railroad station in the world.”
With train ridership dwindling in the 1960s, the old station was demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden and a smaller underground station.
At the eve of its demolition in 1963, The Times wrote:
Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.
The demise of the old Penn Station did lead to the formation of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect similar treasures from being supplanted by sports arenas playing host to Justin Bieber.
Meanwhile, today’s train ridership across the country continues to climb. Amtrak announced its ninth ridership record in 10 years in 2012, with the Northeast Corridor leading the pack.
Like the removal of public transit from the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1950s to make room for more auto lanes, Penn Station is a good reminder that we should structure our cities and institutions to support what we admire and ultimately want to be in the future.