“Few buildings are vast enough to hold the sound of time, and now it seemed to George that there was a superb fitness in the fact that the one which held it better than all others should be a railroad station. For here, as nowhere else on earth, men were brought together for a moment at the beginning or end of their innumerable journeys, here one saw their greetings and farewells, here, in a single instant, one got the entire picture of the human destiny. Men came and went, they passed and vanished, and all were moving through the moments of their lives to death, all made small tickings in the sound of time — but the voice of time remained aloof and unperturbed, a drowsy and eternal murmur below the immense and distant roof.”
— You Can’t Go Home Again
Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the opening of the original Pennsylvania Station. Designed by Charles McKim, Though its function was intrinsically quotidian, it also was designed to inspire awe on a daily basis, for the tens-of-thousands of people who passed through its 84 pink-granite columns, a carriage-way that harkened to the Brandenburg Gate, and a waiting-room, a block-and-a-half long and 15-stories high.
She commented that either ten years earlier or later, the station almost certainly would not have been destroyed. Ten years before, airplanes and cars hadn’t yet finished their heavily-subsidized gutting of rail traffic, and ten years after, the preservation movement would have been powerful enough to stop any attempt to raze this monument to Beaux-Arts architecture, American industrial might, and the vastness of human endeavor.
The Times, in an editorial, said,
“Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”
— “Farewell to Penn Station,”, Oct. 30, 1963
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Act, the nation’s first, passed in the wake of the station’s destruction and was almost immediately put to the test. The Penn Central Corporation, in its death throes, and not sated by the destruction of Penn Station, sought to put a skyscraper through the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, before the law was upheld.
So Grand Central stands, but in place of an edifice modeled after (though larger than), the Baths of Caracalla, came the tin-horn Madison Square Garden, with Penn Station shoved underneath. The station that Thomas Wolfe said was “vast enough to hold the sound of time”, lasted less than one person’s lifetime, falling in 1964 to the wrecking ball and the fading fortunes of America’s railroads.
“One entered the city like a god. Now one scuttles in like a rat.”