Pennsylvania Station is finally getting much-needed renovation, but no amount of construction will bring back the bygone Beaux-Arts architectural magnum opus of the 20th century. Designed by McKim, Mead, & White, the original terminal opened in 1910. It boasted 84 granite Doric columns and its monumental architecture echoed the great spaces of Ancient Rome. The central waiting room (which measured a block and a half long) held the title as the largest indoor space in the city.
As Americans became increasingly dependent on trains during the decades following Penn Station’s opening, the terminal grew in popularity. In 1945, train ridership peaked—that year 100 million passengers passed through Penn Station. However, after World War II everything changed. By 1960, affordable air travel and the growing supremacy of automobiles spelled the decline of the railroad. Penn Station witnessed its ridership plummet. With time, there was a growing fear among the terminal’s leadership that this decline wasn’t a temporary trend; it reflected the locomotive’s doomed future. So, they cut a deal. In 1962, plans were made public to demolish the station to make room for a new entertainment arena: Madison Square Garden. The terminal was to be rebuilt entirely underground.
Despite vociferous dissent, its granite columns and steel-vaulted ceilings met their end starting on October 28, 1963. Though Penn Station was not saved, its controversial demolition spurred the passage of the watershed 1965 New York Landmarks Law. Since its creation, the law has helped saved Penn Station’s sister terminal, Grand Central, along with 30,000 other historic buildings around the city from destruction.
Among New-York Historical Society’s rich collection is treasured photographs of the original Pennsylvania Station and its subsequent demolition. Below are highlights from the series. If you’re interested in seeing a miniature recreation of the terminal and learning more about New York City’s transportation history, check out Holiday Express, now on view through February 28.
The last holdout. Demolition to make way for Penn Station, view west from Seventh Avenue, ca. 1905. Photograph by George P. Hall & Son, PR 024, NYHS Image #65011.
View in 1910 of construction on the original Penn Station. Construction of Pennsylvania Station, New York. Photograph by August Patzig, ca. 1910. McKim, Mead and White Architectural Record Collection. NYHS Image #69863.
Penn Station in all its glory. William J. Roege, Pennsylvania Station on Seventh Avenue, New York City, 1923. New-York Historical Society, Photographs from New York City and Beyond.
Before smartphones, travelers relied on large maps to reach their destination. Workers hanging a map in Pennsylvania Station, photograph by Louis H. Dreyer, ca. 1910. McKim Mead and White Architectural Records Collection, PR 042, NYHS Image #88312d.
A view of the central waiting room that boasted 150-foot ceilings. Pennsylvania Station Waiting Room, looking north. Photograph, 1911, by George P. Hall & Son, PR 024. NYHS Image #77522d.
The station’s sun-soaked concourse featured a magnificent arched glass and steel roof. Penn Station, Train Concourse, ca. 1910, photograph, MMW Architectural Record Collection, NYHS Image #50718.
If only Duane Reade looked like this…Penn Station arcade drugstore, photograph by George P. Hall & Son, PR 024, NYHS Image #77524d.
A side entrance to Penn Station on a tranquil day. Side entrance of Pennsylvania Station. Photograph, undated; McKim, Mead and White Architectural Record Collection, PR 042. NYHS Image #75311.
Penn Station was expertly designed down to its most minute detail. “Night” sculpture by Adolph A. Weinman, for the right of the Penn Station clock. Photograph by De W.C. Ward. McKim, Mead & White Architectural Record Collection, PR 042. NYHS Image #61175.
The beginning of the end. Pennsylvania Station waiting room during demolition, September 17, 1965. Photograph by Alexander Hatos, PR 048. NYHS Image #83919d.
A metal structure was built over the train tracks amidst the demolition. Aerial view of Penn Station demolition, November 10, 1965. Photograph by Alexander Hatos, PR 048. NYHS Image #82047d.
(Penn Station Demolition, December 8, 1965, photograph by Alexander Hatos, PR 048, NYHS Image #83916d.)
The station in ruins. Penn Station Demolition, December 8, 1965, photograph by Alexander Hatos, PR 048, NYHS Image #83916d.