From a window in my office, the oculus, the centerpiece of the new Fulton Street Transit Center, is clearly coming into shape. The MTA says it’s still on the (revised) schedule for a 2014 opening. The project has multiple components, big and small. They range from renaming the entire multi-station complex to “Fulton Street”, constructing a passageway connecting to the WTC site, to providing new entrances.
One of those, is an ADA-accessible access to the 2/3 platform, at the corner of William and Fulton, in a storefront last occupied by a vitamin store. You can see one of the Marine Grill mosaics, already installed. The mosaics, originally from a restaurant in the old Hotel McAlpin, and nearly 100 years old, were literally in pieces inside of dumpsters and about to be carted to the trash, before being rescued and installed in the old concourse of the station back in 2000. Now, they’re being installed in the station once again.
“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.
Only a few traces of the old remain, the handrails on the stairs that lead to the platforms for one. But as architectural historian Vincent Scully, comparing the old station with the new, said,
“One entered the city like a god. Now one scuttles in like a rat.”
Hat-tip to Thin Slices, for alerting me to this cool list. These things are always going to be subjective — not making the cut are the NYPL’s reading and map rooms, as well as the Morgan Library, while the insides of the Swedish and Belarusian libraries leave me cold. Still, some amazing places here. I’m sorry to say I haven’t visited any of of them — yet.
I’ve been to the British Museum, but didn’t stop in at the library. Next time!
I was curious about Jay Walker, the only private citizen whose library is featured — turns out he founded Priceline. Lastly, not on this list, but on mine... the NYPL. When I was in high school, I’d go there to do research for papers — yes kids. This was in the day of typewrites and Liquid Paper.
It was a near-ruin — dim, smelling of mildew, the ceiling murals water-stained. Think of the Chambers Street BMT station. It makes me happy to see it restored — and they kept those little lamps.