I never saw the late great Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York City.
I have heard stories from people who used to travel through the old station. It was a memorable experience we are told. I have seen pictures in books. I have heard how the efforts to save the old station failed. This effort to save Penn Station was the stimulus for the creation of a New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee that was instrumental in the saving of Grand Central Terminal from the wrecking ball shortly after the old Penn Station’s demise in 1963.
Perhaps the old Pennsylvania Station is more in myth now than it ever was in reality. I think not. I will describe some aspects shortly.
Old Penn Station was opened in 1910. It was designed by the legendary architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. General design of the great building was Beaux Arts which was a specialty of these architects. This style evolved around a distinctive Parisian style, which was a mix of many classical forms, and was more popular in the United States than it was in the rest of Europe.
Two existing New York City examples of the Beaux Arts style, can be seen in Grand Central Terminal and the New York Public Library building.
Having arrived in New York City by train some thirty years ago, I arrived in the present Pennsylvania Station that is little more than a subterranean maze of corridors, shops and stairs leading to tracks. All in all the function of that train station is a good thing if you factor in the street level office tower above along with the sports arena Madison Square Garden.
Madison Square Garden (MSG), "The Garden", is the fourth incarnation of a sports arena, the first two of which were located just off Madison Square starting one hundred and thirty years ago from 1879 through 1924 and thus the reason for the name tag.
The east face of the original Penn Station was classical. Its tall Doric columns met Seventh Avenue with a dull thud from all the photos I see at street level. The long roll of columns in a straight line reminds me of many European cities of the nineteenth century with similar grand but dull exterior architecture. The street architecture may be grand but they did not understand classical architecture then from a desired perspective. The lack of steps leading up to Penn Station in front is I think the only negative I have to say here in this posthumous critique.
The front was divided into three portals of entrance. The central main entrance at 32nd Street was flanked on 31st Street and 33rd Street by grand carriage ways running the length of the building. These carriage ways were built as a first class entrance and waiting area for horse drawn Brougham carriages already obsolete in 1910. Servicing the aristocracy and their needs seems to have used a great deal of ground space potential of the building which began preliminary excavations and construction starting in 1902.
Photos I’ve seen of these carriage ways show 1920’s taxi cabs. There is a stone arched walkway above the individual carriage way and leads into the main waiting room from the side street entrances. On a grand scale and in term of today’s architecture, this whole tangent of architectural endeavor is both impressive and space wasteful.
Into the main entrance, the walking pedestrian trying to catch a train has to pass through a long Arcade Hallway. On scale it would look to be fifty feet in height and capable of handling thirty to forty people abreast rushing back and forth at rush hours in the morning and evening. The Arcade is lined on both sides by at least a dozen store fronts to serve the public’s needs the same then as now in terms of any transportation hub. This Arcade hallway is bathed in natural light by semicircular arched windows from above. I begin to think of this hallway as an early form of crowd control leading into the staging and production areas beyond.
At the end of the arcade hallway is the arched entrance leading into the Waiting Room. In all photos I see this as the ticket buying area. I see no benches in the traditional setting of a waiting area being used to sit in the waiting process.
Also as we enter this great, grand and spacious vaulted area of the waiting area we are descending steps going down and enlarging the grand space. This is the opposite of the classical definition of Beaux Arts with steps leading up into all dramatic architectural settings. From all photographs and hand painted postcards this Waiting Room was in its time the most grand and behemoth interior public space in America. Two huge Corinthian columns stand guard on either side of the grand arch and main entrance from Seventh Avenue. Above is a vaulted ceiling and semicircular arched windows bathing the space in natural light.
The scale of these Corinthian columns is I think matching those outside the 30th Street Station building in Philadelphia, the then headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Thirtieth Street Station is a still standing Art Deco marvel from the grand age of train travel. The austere exterior FDR era Fed Reserve (fascist) style architecture of the time is accented by classical behemoth Corinthian columns. No doubt the architects of 30th Street Station had the original columns of Penn Station’s interior in mind as models and something on the wish list from the board of directors in the building of this new, in 1933, Philly station.
Before further describing this space of the Old Penn Station, let us back up a little and say that elements of one of the Grandest Baths in ancient Rome, the Baths of Caracalla, are the inspiration for this Old Penn Station architectural model. To get a sense of an idealized visual in its day, of the Victorian Era's spin on the past, we can turn to an artistic rendering of the Baths of Caracalla. There is one 1845 watercolor I favor in the Royal Academy of Arts in London collection by C.R. Cockerell which says it all in terms of a visual standard.
This Cockerell Victorian watercolor would seem to be what was available and could be compared with a modern day equivalent of a computer composite rendering of those once Roman baths. The watercolor as the recreated interior of those ancient roman baths served as a probable direct inspiration to the McKim Mead White team in their Penn Stations design project. The 1845 watercolor Baths of Caracalla Rome, shows the interior of the Tepidarium. The Tepidarium was the central grand hall of the baths and hub of all other bathing facilities within that building complex.
Stepping down two grand sets of thirteen stone steps with a brief landing in the middle of the staircase, you find yourself at the bottom of those steps on the main grand floor or waiting room of Old Penn Station. Ahead of you is another grand archway leading into the glass covered vaulted Concourse area with stairs leading down to platforms next to tracks.
Staying here in the Waiting Room you do a 360 degree clockwise turn. The archway ahead is also flanked by giant Corinthian columns with full columns in all four corners of the room. Above is a vaulted ceiling. Three large semicircular sets of windows bath the room in light from that side of the room. Turning right a similar semicircular window is under the arch formed by the vauted ceiling above a doorway entrance and downward set of steps leading from 33rd street. The lower lever of the waiting room has ticket windows on all four sides of the room.
Turning back to the entrance archway from Seventh Avenue there are niches on the walls within the archway, added I think in later years, for the modern equivalent of demi-gods with statues of Railroad Presidents and the like.
Without any specific measurement to present to you I give you my impression of scale from photos alone and hope you have been in the presently standing Grand Central Terminal ten blocks north and three avenues over east on the New York City street grid. I would say that the Old Penn Station is about two thirds of the present floor space of Grand Central is you define floor space as immediately below the blue constellation covered vault above. Height of the Old Penn would appear to be one third higher than Grand Central’s main hall.
The final turn in the old “Tepidarium” Penn waiting room sees another side entrance on 31st street and round back to the entrance to the Concourse of legendary fame.
I believe there are snippets of the old Penn Station Concourse in movies. It was often imitated and reconstructed on movie lot sound stages with the Penn Concourse as the departing and reunion point of many loves during WWII. There is a short video on the Internet by filmmaker Stephen Kellam showing the Concourse in computer animation and as part of that previously mentioned Penn Station as the center of many loves and heart breaks. I invite you to search it out and no doubt there are countless other photos and reproductions out there.
From the main waiting room we exit through small scale glass doors into the Concourse which is where there is seating for people waiting for trains. I suspect that the ticket buying waiting area was heated in winter. Off camera from the main waiting room are two smaller designated waiting rooms, one specifically for Women and one for Men. These two rooms are entered through doorways opposite each other within the archway leading to the track platforms. Waiting there in the warmth was I suspect better than waiting in the what I suspect was an unheated area in winter and depending on body heat only to warm you in the Concourse beyond.
Through the glass doors and into the Concourse is like Alice slipping through the looking glass. In a sense and from the street on Seventh Avenue and the main entrance, we have come through the twentieth century Arcade or shopping mall into a magnificent interpretation of a third century Roman bath’s main hall. From here we are transported to a glory of modern man, an amalgam of the industrial age reaching its zenith into the age of mass produced steel and glass.
From the direct or muted tones of natural light in the Waiting Room we reach into the total light of a vaulted cast iron and steel framework with a roof totally sheathed in glass panels. Standing at the entrance way into the Concourse one sees the grand clock and its roman numerals and we get to see, imagine, the Crystal Palace of 1851 and Kew Gardens' conservatory combined in a magnificent space to accomodate and perfectly accent the power of the age of the steam train engine.
With my limited travel experience, I can only say that in terms of the nineteeth century’s grand tribute to the train travel, Victoria Station and Gard du Nord are good tries but the Old Penn Station got it right in many categories of magnificent effort and effect on the emotional and sensual level of the every day traveler, the commuter. Compared to Old Penn’s Concourse, Victoria and Gard Du Nord's train areas are merely train sheds with some glass panels in the train shed roof.
In, under, this lighted space of the Penn Concourse are people coming and going in all directions and through four entrances. There are people waiting on benches. There are newspaper stands and snack stands. There are the stair entrance ways to several tracks below. In an imitation of modern energy flows, the Concourse area is Grand Central, Broadway, and JFK airport all in one ball of architectural wax.
The Old Penn Station was truly the Versailles of Train Stations with its interior spaces. It’s loss made, makes, many of us keenly aware what was ultimately lost. The so called space demands of New York City was a poor excuse for tearing down this Wonder of the Modern World.
These days, a MSG could be built as a Sports Arena on the Hudson River next to the convention center. There is such a thing as too dense a population of people even by Manhattan standards. The calming effect of an oasis of grand public space in the middle of all the chaotic energy of everyday NYC would be greatly welcome these days.
I don’t know if the Waiting Room of the old Penn Station will ever be recreated. I can however see the grand Concourse area being resurrected in some great airport, spaceport or other transportation hub of the future. The Old Penn Station is a classical standard of the gilded age and worthy of a classic revival in the future.
Philadelphia 30th Street Station - 1933/Present - Interior and Exterior