Seventh Avenue & 31st Street

13 Jul

For every building standing in New York, there’s been a dozen that have been torn down. Is that exactly right? It’s tough to get a hard number on “extinct” buildings in this city. But between 1625 and 2010 let’s just say a lot of them have gone the way of old age, progress or development. The city isn’t too shy about building over and on top of its past, especially when there’s money to be made. And there’s always money to be made. This is America! Don’t let anyone stand in your way. Isn’t that why Republicans are for less governmental regulation and taxes? Because they’re greedy, selfish bastards? If you want to make an obscene amount of money, that’s a choice – and I think the very reason that it is a choice is why you should have to pay for it. I mean, you intentionally tried to make an obscene amount of money? What a dick!

It can get a bit paradoxical, I know. Let’s look at the old Pennsylvania Station, on the site of the current Pennsylvania Station (and the current Madison Square Garden), which is generally considered one of the most beautiful and most missed of New York City’s lost buildings. By the time it was torn down in 1963 the Pennsylvania Railroad was struggling financially, feeling the effects of the new interstate system (as well as the Holland and Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge) and America’s continuing love affair with the automobile. In 1962 they sold the air rights above the station for a new Madison Square Garden, which would lie on top of a smaller Penn Station underground. The demolition of the original terminal was considered a monumental travesty, and actually led to the creation of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. But couldn’t you argue that the Pennsylvania Railroad paid for the original terminal to begin with; that it wouldn’t have existed at all if they hadn’t put up the cash? But couldn’t you also argue that they owed it to the public, out of all the money they’d made (off of them), to create something beautiful? I don’t know

When Pennsylvania Station was finished in 1910 it was considered the masterpiece of McKim, Mead & White’s storied architectural firm. Its facade and General Waiting Room were modeled on the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, while the glass and steel arches and domes covering the concourse came out of the more recent tradition of crystal palaces and glass exhibition galleries. Most of the station was opened to the daylight and as Vincent Scully put it, “one entered the city like a god,” as opposed to now when, “one scuttles in like a rat.” Thomas Wolfe said it was “vast enough to hold the sound of time.”

Despite the sale of their air space, and attempts to cut down costs, the Pennsylvania Railroad filed for bankruptcy in 1970. A year later the government owned Amtrak was organized, in an attempt to insure that intercity railway lines didn’t disappear completely. Amtrak is the current owner of Penn Station, although they share the space with the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit. It’s ironic that today Penn Station is probably the busiest passenger transportation facility in the United States, including all airports, with about 600,000 passengers passing through it every weekday. That’s a lot of people, and it feels just about that crazy down there. And ugly as all hell. You can compare the old concourse with the new one, below, and tell me which you like better.

There’s been talk for over a decade of moving the station across Eight Avenue to lie underneath New York’s General Post Office – built between 1912-1914, also by McKim, Mead & White, and intentionally designed to match the strength of Pennsylvania Station next door. It’s now a landmarked building, so there’s no concern about it being torn down. It’s preserved because of what is essential governmental regulation. I’m all for it. Look, what choice does “unfettered choice” really give us except between a few giant corporations? It’s a joke! They’re the ones who don’t want regulation in the first place. And I’m sure they will take absolutely anything and everything that they can get.

(Originally posted Jan. 22nd, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)

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