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Happy Birthday to You, Penn Station

small old penn station black white

In September 1910, the inaugural Long Island Rail Road train departed from Pennsylvania Station, powering through freshly-built East River tunnels and on into Queens. This fall marks the 100th anniversary of the construction of McKim, Mead, and White’s original Beaux-Arts style structure, with its staggering, cavernous concourse crisscrossed daily by travelers until its demolition, in 1963.

The destruction of the original station was for many a deplorable act. A despondent New York Times editorial at the time noted that, “Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.” The demolition is considered to have been the catalyst for the enactment of the Landmarks Preservation Law, the city’s first architectural preservation statute, which was championed by MAS and adopted by cities everywhere.

The vastly different Penn Station we know today is a subterranean train hall, often likened to a catacomb. As architectural historian Vincent Scully once famously noted, “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.” But with the passing centenary, Penn Station sits on the brink of substantial redevelopment.

Plans for the new Penn Station – to be named Moynihan Station for the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan – include an aboveground transit hall housed in the Farley Post Office building, restoring some of the majesty of the original station. Phase 1 of the construction, consisting largely of below ground improvements, is slated to begin this fall. As we surpass 100 years of service at Pennsylvania Station, it seems that change has again descended on the historic site.

The future of this great civic project will be discussed at the MAS Summit for New York City on October 21 and 22. The panel, Moynihan Station and the Far West Side, will be held on Day 2 of the Summit. Participants include Tim Gilchrist, president of the Moynihan Station Development Corporation; Tom Wright, executive director of the Regional Planning Association; and Kent Barwick, president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society.