Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

PBS ran a documentary last week on the American Experience called “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.” Here’s the video if you missed it. I suggest watching it on your TV since it’s long (it’s available through the PBS Roku channel if you don’t have a computer hookup). If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

This covers much more of the rise than the decline, and leaves many questions unanswered. But the look at the personalities, the technical challenges, and the daring that went into this was very good. On the whole I really liked it except for one of the talking heads who kept going on about how rare it was to have a private investment like this that actually benefits the public. He was the walking embodiment of why conservatives want to defund PBS, and his claims were both unsupported and dubious.

I also think they could have done a better job of explaining the financial decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Yes, the rise of autos and planes played a role. But the feds continued to regulate railroads as if they were still the only game in town. And if you wanted to make the case for government intervention, this was a great one. Long before the demolition of Penn Station, governments had acquired most urban transit systems if not commuter railroads. So there was already a precedent in place for the government buying out Penn Station, which is what should have happened. Merely landmarking a structure and leaving it in the hands of a bankrupt railroad might have equally have led to its destruction through neglect. Grand Central Terminal shows that this facility could have been reborn under government stewardship.

Yet it’s clear that a shift in the values not just of railroad barons, but also of society had occurred from 1910 to 1963. Much of this was for the worse, but let us also not forget much of it was for the better. We don’t just accept dozens of workers dying on job sites anymore, for example. Yet it’s undeniable that the type of American ambition which built Penn Station, that of a rising power wanting to send a message that this would be the American century, no longer exists. Today the very idea of an “American Century” is outright hateful even to many Americans.

A friend of mine watching this wrote me to say, “My Deep Thought was ‘where have the great minds who produced this kind of magnificence’ gone? Answer: Weapons design… military industrial complex. There’s a reason huge swaths of the country look like crap but drones look so cool.”

There’s clearly a lot that goes into this question. Some of it is as my friend said; this creative daring has been channeled into other fields than the civic. We’ve suffered no decline in our ability to blow stuff up, that’s for sure. And as I’ve said before, in the Great War and the Great Depression, something in the human spirit was grievously wounded. I’m sure there’s more.

But in part it’s simply a deficiency of love, or at least the right kind of love, for our cities. If Penn Station was inspired by the greatness of Rome, then as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

4 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

4 Responses to “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station”

  1. david vartanoff says:

    First, claims of public good notwithstanding, the PRR built Penn in order to plant a flag in New York because their arch rival in the business was the New York Central. In that vein, they deliberately scheduled their flagship Btroaway Limited to compete directly against the NYC’s 20th Century Ltd. Second, although there is no question that ICC regulation was onerous by the time they decided to demolish Penn, the PRR had also fallen way behind the curve in freight service and marketing. “Hustle” was not in their vocabulary.
    As to government takeover, while that would have been wonderful, most commuter RR services were still fully private when Penn came down. There were rumblings of government subsidies, but services such as the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee were allowed to expire as the bulldozers began their work. In some cases, the RRs were sufficiently anti government and anti passenger as to publicly refuse government funding while demanding abandonment authority.

  2. bettybarcode says:

    Indeed, a second documentary could be made about the battle to save Penn Station and the preservation movement that resulted.

    This is a good question from david vartanoff: “My Deep Thought was ‘where have the great minds who produced this kind of magnificence’ gone?”

    My answer is that the great minds who go into architecture have all been taught that historicism, classicism, and ornament are ideologically indefensible, novelty is surpassingly important, and beauty is embarrassing. Too many of them read Ayn Rand instead of Christopher Alexander.

    The result is a preservation movement whose most committed members are often recruited by the ongoing assaults of modern architecture.

  3. david vartanoff says:

    @ bettybarcode I can take no credit for “My Deep…” That said, I have long thought that much of architecture over the last half century is unspeakably ugly. In a musical analogy it is third rate muzak.
    You are fully correct that another hour or more could be well spent on the preservation movement that evolved in the wake of the Penn Station travesty. In railfan discussions of the “Moynihan Station” plan I have often said they should just get the plans out of the buildingdepatrtment and rebuild the original–heck it wouldn’t cost more than a few un needed F35s and would be a magical aesthetic response. Kind of like when SF replaced the intensely lame Embarcadero Freeway (thank you Loma Prieta) with a boulevard including the vintage trolley line.

  4. John Morris says:

    Penn Station might have alluded to historical styles but it could not have been built in another age.

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