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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Reclaim old Pennsylvania Station

I recently picked up a small-town Arizona newspaper that happened to discuss the fate of the historic Grand Canyon Railway. The article reflected upon the disappearance of a railway line that, upon opening in 1901, unveiled the Grand Canyon to the American public and cemented its position in the national imagination.

However, the rise of the automobile gradually displaced the age of trains. “As America fell in love with the automobile,” the Territorial Times pronounced in memorable terms, “the locomotive’s romantic wail faded like an Arizona sunset.” At the end of a nondescript day on June 30, after years of decline, the train carried its last passengers; there were only three. Early in the summer of ’68, a long link to the past had failed. 

The 1960s let all varieties of memory lapse. The prevailing instinct of the decade, after all, was to relinquish memory in anticipation of the future; to forsake history to write anew; to shake loose an unglamorous past in the pursuit of the “new man,” and a new world, in the pursuit of which every admirable endeavor was accompanied by one less admirable. The resources of a two-decade economic boom fueled hopes to spend today demolishing yesterday and designing tomorrow. There was little inclination to conserve.

All categories of things suffered in the absence of conservation: a wave of extinction and habitat destruction engulfed the world’s natural environments; neighborhoods and families transferred their bonds of dependency from one another to remote providers; the pace of technological innovation accompanied little concern for the fate of those things it displaced. The rise of automobiles mercilessly presided over the outright extinction of spectacular trains such as the Grand Canyon Railway. The historic, the natural, the ecological—the value of all such things depreciates when their worth is based upon its continuity with the past. In 1963, the past carried little currency.

That year bore witness to possibly the greatest architectural crime in national history. In that year, Pennsylvania Station faced destruction. The station stood as a great neoclassical monument, a grand nine-acre testament to Greco-Roman civilization in particular and Western civilization more broadly. The building was designed as a colossal quadrilateral, framed by immense walls and refined by meticulous decoration. It was a columned enormity of white stone and soaring windows, which leapt up to encase a spacious concourse that beautifully rhymed with the iconic interior of Grand Central Station. The great 20th century writer Thomas Wolfe remarked in striking terms that within the building “[t]he voice of time remained aloof and unperturbed; a drowsy and eternal murmur below the immense and distant roof.” A glimpse of old photographs indeed reveals the Hellenic beauty and legendary scale of one of the most impressive structures in the United States. The effect of its presence alone carries an objective awe, transcending subjectivities in architectural style by the attractive force of its grandeur. Of course, an asset to one is a liability to another: A longstanding critical vein, however marginal, found the building’s grand dimensions unwieldy, its foot traffic congestive and its concourse a palatial venue for shameless corporate promotion.

Yet since its completion in 1910, the railway station had stood for half a century and observed two world wars. In 1963, it had the profound misfortune of blocking the path of progress in the age of the automobile. However, the ambitious structure perhaps had the last laugh: it proved a stubborn foe for its destroyers to uproot. The demolition occurred over three years, until, in 1966, its last stones crumbled two years before another symbol of the railway age passed into memory. The structure required a similar amount of time to destroy as the Golden Gate Bridge required to be built. The Empire State Building rose in two fewer years than Pennsylvania Station took to fall. The trajectory of the 1960s unfolded in lockstep with the destruction of Penn Station; its fading might provide a firmer characterization of the decade than nearly anything else.

However, even in the 1960s, the building was mourned. The feat of destruction, which had claimed so iconic a structure, not least one intended not for industrial use but public visitation (and admiration), carried with it a profound gravity from which future hope would spring. Just as the decade’s disregard for ecological heritage matched its disregard for cultural heritage, and accordingly birthed the modern-day environmentalist movement, the loss of Pennsylvania Station sparked popular outrage and energized new alliances to promote the preservation of historical buildings, which eventually facilitated the passage of the New York City Landmarks Act in 1965 and the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. In fact, the ’60s are redeemed to some extent by their incentivization of these long-term movements, whether to conserve the environment, preserve the heritage of diverse cultures, or restore timeless values.

Neither should the love affair between Americans and their cars inspire any bitterness. In the late 21st century the country managed to reconcile its preference for cars with the romantic allure of trains. Amid a resurgence of interest in conservation, some private investors helped to reignite the whistle of the Grand Railway. In 1988, one of the cornerstones of American heritage reawakened and today has expanded into a well-attended fixture of the 21st century west. I knew this firsthand, having walked through 15 of its passenger cars, all of which trundled along through the barren plains at full capacity. 

Recent decades have reintroduced an awareness and respect for conservation. This has accordingly affirmed the possibility for coexistence between preservation and innovation, removing the mutual exclusivity of such categories as heritage and progress. Yet the damage of a terrible illusion still scars the landscape, its ruins haunting the foundation of Madison Square Garden, where the replacement Penn Station still lurks underneath. The issue cannot be airbrushed: the loss of old Pennsylvania Station is an unmitigated tragedy. 

I propose a bold endeavor to confirm its importance in our world: let the old Penn Station rise again. Let a historic injustice find redress. The younger generations have no instinct to oppose its restoration; they readily find beauty in Greco-Roman architecture, ever rarer in the postmodernist age. No matter the ideological connections misguided earlier generations drew between historical architecture and “the sins of history,” the present generation, being of unprecedented open-mindedness, is unburdened by such associations. They are fully prepared to promote the conservation of those things of which they are unafraid to call beautiful. The long simplification of architecture since World War One, having already reached its nadir in the mid-20th century, might even finally embrace an exciting new direction, unseen for a lifetime.

The brief postwar popularity of cultural revolutions the world over toppled many columns and walls, often through violence. Its conceits destroyed valuable heritage in the pursuit of utopia and revealed the fragility of Western cultural tradition, including architectural creations intended for time immemorial. The restoration of old Pennsylvania Station would symbolize not only the repudiation of antiquated precepts, but the ratification of a 21st century respect for the immortal heritage of our world.



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