This article was originally published on February 11, 2014. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
New York City’s original Pennsylvania Station was a monument to movement and an expression of American economic power. In 1902, the noted firm McKim, Mead and White was selected by the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad to design its Manhattan terminal. Completed in 1910, the gigantic steel and stone building covered four city blocks until its demolition in 1963, when it ceded to economic strains hardly fifty years after opening.
Prior to the station’s completion, the final leg of rail travel to New York City consisted of a ferry from New Jersey to Manhattan. Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and the brother of painter Mary Cassatt, resolved to bring trains directly into Manhattan. With substantial backing from J. P. Morgan, he purchased many of the region's railroads and transformed the PRR into a dominating force.
Cassatt commissioned McKim, Mead and White to design the terminus for a system of tunnels leading to the island from the east and west. The tunnels proved a substantial engineering feat and required several years to construct. Massive columns supporting the train tracks were embedded 15 feet into bedrock, and each tunnel was lined with two feet of concrete. Train technology posed another challenge, as steam locomotives, the preferred technology at the time, were likely to asphyxiate passengers in the tunnels. Cassatt invested in a relatively new alternative, employing electric trains instead.
Several hundred buildings were leveled to make way for the new station, which stretched 780 feet between 7th and 8th Avenues and 430 feet from 31st Street to 33rd Street. Excavation began in 1906 and tore through eight acres of Manhattan's existing urban fabric. Both architects and owner envisioned the station as the preeminent gateway to the city, surpassing even the grandeur of the 42nd Street Grand Central Terminus. Cassatt intended to construct a hotel above the station, but McKim argued this detracted from the station’s central purpose. Following much debate, the hotel was eliminated from the scheme and the station met the street at a height of just three stories. This was notably lower than the surrounding buildings, even at the time.
As horizontal area was limited, McKim developed an innovative vertical layout in which inbound and outbound trains were stacked to prevent congestion. Hundreds of steel columns extended from the tracks, which were located 45’ below street level, to support the main concourse overhead. Slendor steel stairways rose upward from the platforms, seemingly frail appendages in the expansive atrium. The ceiling was comprised of three barrel vaults, which were devoid of any ornament except the intricate steel patterns that allowed the arches to intersect. In a move that greatly influenced future practive, the platforms, which were originally designed to be the traditional 9” above the tracks, were raised to the level of the car doors to facilitate the movement of passengers.
According to McKim’s successor, William Symmes Richardson, the architects aimed to create an efficient system of movement into and out of the station. Pedestrians entered through each facade, directly accessing the tracks via 31st and 33rd Streets. 32nd Street was preserved in the form of an arcade of shops extending from 7th Avenue to the main waiting room. To streamline traffic, carriages entered from the south end of the east facade and exited at the north end. McKim also considered future connections to a then-nonexistent subway system. He instructed the engineers to build the tracks at such a distance beneath the street to allow a subway tunnel to pass above.
The four exterior elevations were clad in pink Milford granite, which was transported to the site in the PRR’s own cars. The facades were austere and featured little embellishment, and critics found the colonnades dull and repetitive. The monumental form of the exterior did little to express the presence of the rail cars constantly passing below, though the architects sought to create a building of ‘monumental character’ and ‘an outward appearance expressive of its use’.
Pennsylvania Station was formally composed of two principal areas: the modern steel concourse and tracks and the neoclassical waiting room and service areas. The contrast was deliberate and intended to express the function of each space. While the tracks were a utilitarian means of entering the city, the main waiting room and adjacent areas provided a grand and symbolic reception. The waiting room was modeled after the Baths of Caracella in Rome and featured coffered groin vaults and lunette clerestory windows. The room was a direct replica of the baths in proportion, except that it was enlarged by twenty percent to rise to a height of 148 feet. Richardson described the reference to Rome as functional, citing the ancient buildings as “the greatest examples in architectural history of large roofed-in areas adapted to assemblages of people.”
Clad in travertine marble with all exposed steel painted black, the station’s interior was almost entirely monochrome. According to Richardson, the architects selected “permanent and durable materials of simple character...capable of easiest maintenance.” Travertine’s warm color takes on a luster when rubbed, arguably enhancing its finish over time.
In spite of the vertical separation of program and the meticulously planned systems of movement, critic Ada Louise Huxtable found the functionality “considerably less than noble. The complexity and ambiguity of its train levels and entrances and exits were a constant frustration...it was a better expression of ancient Rome than 20th-century America.”
In addition to the monumental character of the spaces, the station offered an incredible range of amenities. Through the loggia at the end of the arcade, passengers could enter the main waiting room, a formal dining room accommodating 500 people, or a lunch room and coffee shop. From the main waiting room, passengers could proceed to the ticket office, parcel rooms, lavatories, baggage check, and separate gentlemen’s and ladies’ waiting rooms. An emergency hospital was located on site, as well as facilites for funeral parties and a system for transporting the departed. The fourth floor was reserved predominately for railroad employees. It housed the PRR’s own YMCA, assembly hall, lecture rooms, library, billiards room, bowling alley, and gymnasium.
After receiving the commission to design Penn Station, McKim entered a competition to rebuild Grand Central Terminal (1913) at 42nd Street the following year, which he lost to Reed and Stem. However, McKim, Mead and White were commissioned to design the New York City Post Office (1912). The massive structure was built over the west approaches to Penn Station, directly across 8th Avenue. A complex system of gravity chutes and conveyor belts facilitated the transfer of mail between the station and post office without the use of trucks. Instant messages were sent within Pennsylvania Station itself through a network of pneumatic tubes.
In 1955, the PRR secretly agreed to sell the station's air rights and later revealed the station was operating at a $1.5 million annual loss. The sale required confining the station entirely below ground and demolishing McKim, Mead and White's colossal gateway to New York City. A legal means of preventing the destruction of historic buildings did not exist at the time and, despite ardent protest from leading architects, demolition was complete by 1966. The granite and marble were dumped, Doric columns and all, into the marshes of Secaucus, New Jersey. The protest efforts were not in vain, however. The event led to the formation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which prevented the destruction of Grand Central Terminal just three years after Penn Station's demise.
The fourth incarnation of Madison Square Garden and its adjacent office blocks were constructed over the subterranean station in 1968. As a result, the PRR fell further into debt and declared bankruptcy in 1970. Penn Station has since become one of the most highly-trafficked transportation hubs in the United States, serving more than 430,000 riders daily. Aesthetic concerns aside, the station is operating above capacity and does not meet all safety regulations. With the expansion of the Highline nearby and the development of the Hudson Yards, the station's strain is likely to increase. The solution seems to demand upward expansion. For the first time in decades, this seems a feasible option. In 2013, Madison Square Garden was limited to a ten year lease and four leading architectural firms presented visions of a future Penn Station.
Diehl, Lorraine B. The Late, Great Pennylvania Station. Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996.
Huxtable, Ada Louise. "A Vision of Rome Dies." The New York Times 14 July 1966. Print.
Parissien, Steven. Pennsylvania Station: McKim, Mead and White. Phaidon Press, 1996. Print.