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McKim, Mead and White’s “Post-Modern Historical Society”

penn station service building historic photo

McKim, Mead, and White’s Penn Station Service Building (1910), at 242 W. 31st Street, was the heart and soul of the Penn RR’s operations. Today, with plans to reuse it for back operations, we can be cautiously optimistic about its future.

The Service Building provided virtually all of the critical powering services to the original Penn Station, including electricity, heat, light, elevator hydraulics, compressed air, and refrigeration. Currently it is largely vacant (aside from an operations control room) and a bit dirty, but, with its pink granite façade and plain pilasters, one can see elements of its former neighbor. Christopher Gray of The New York Times said, “if cleaned, it could be a post-modern historical society or a crematorium.”

According to Conquering Gotham, a history of the building of Penn Station by Jill Jonnes, Charles McKim was “aghast to learn about the siting of the station’s planned powerhouse. He protested to the PRR, ‘There can be no question that the construction of two steel chimneys of a height of 180 feet, in such close proximity to the terminal would strike a fatal blow at the new station.’” Little did he know that two steel chimneys were far from the greatest threat to Penn Station, McKim’s final major building. He never could have imagined that his service station would be the only survivor.

penn station service building historic photo interior

The Service Building is still unprotected, but the good news is that the Draft Scope for the Moynihan Station project indicates the Service Building “would be renovated and used for some portion of Amtrak and possibly New Jersey Transit (NJT) back-of-house operations to be facilitated via an underground pedestrian connection to the Penn Station Block.”

The building has been determined eligible for New York City landmark designation and National Register listing. Despite the plans to reuse the structure we urge the LPC to act so that its survival is guaranteed.