A Landmark Tragedy

The original Penn Station, which opened in 1910 and was torn down for the current Madison Square Garden in 1963, is popularly remembered as one of the greatest buildings in New York City’s history—thoughtlessly destroyed to make room for an ugly modern high-rise and a hideous train station. Its architecture, inspired by Rome’s Baths of Caracalla, has been praised by architects and critics like Ada Louise Huxtable, Lewis Mumford, Norval White, Elliot Willensky, Paul Goldberger, and Michael Kimmelman. As the current station continues to be overwhelmed by daily crowds of commuters on New Jersey Transit and Long Island Railroad trains (at least until the COVID-19 pandemic), its status as an aging, dismal environment has provided a stark contrast to the glorious and wonderful light-filled station that once served as New York’s propylaea.

The original station continues to loom large in popular culture. The PBS documentary series American Experience dedicated a show to it and at least a half-dozen non-fiction books have been published on it in the twenty-first century. It has also been featured prominently in books about lost landmarks or train stations and has served as a setting for novels and plays. Perhaps the most striking example of its enduring legacy is that, as the current station and the buildings now atop it continue to age and grow inadequate to their uses, several individuals and groups, including the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the National Civic Art Society, have called for rebuilding it.

This idea, which backers estimate would cost up to $3.5 billion (not including the cost of relocating Madison Square Garden or demolishing or cladding Two Penn Plaza), has not attracted much attention from New York’s movers and shakers to date, but perhaps they should reconsider in light of the planned total rebuild and restoration of Notre Dame de Paris. According to the advocacy site Rebuild Penn Station, the project would “Right a historic wrong,” while Marlo Safi writes in National Review that “Perhaps it’s time for New York City to prove that within its concrete jungle is a second chance, a rectified mistake, a sign of forgiveness and opportunity in a dog-eat-dog world that can be callous and harsh.”

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