Many of us on the Port Jervis line end our commute in New York at Pennsylvania Station or, as we call it, Penn. Penn Station serves more than 600,000 commuters a day from a combination of Amtrak, Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit. This is the busiest transportation hub in America. Yes, there are the various news and magazine stores, pizza and coffee shops, but it is a utility-station without frills. Gone is the beauty that was once the original Penn Station. To catch a glimpse of yester year, one will need to stroll across town to Grand Central Station, which still retains its original architectural beauty.
Today’s Penn Station features a steady flow of commuters scurrying to and from their destinations like two flowing rivers running side by side in opposite directions. It is common to see crowds gathered by the departure board waiting for track assignments to be announced, passengers sitting on luggage looking at their cell phones killing time and the odd homeless person sleeping in a dark dank corner. I have been in this station at all hours of my life and it rarely ever sleeps. Many of the shops do close after midnight, but all comes alive again by six o’clock in the morning. One constant these days is a military or police presence. At first it is a bit unnerving to see machine-gun carrying police or military personnel and bomb-sniffing Shephard dogs. After a while, you come to realize they are looking to protect us from the bad guys, yet rarely do they respond to a well-intentioned greeting like “good morning.”
This is the station of today—but when it was originally designed, it was a totally different experience. During the first half of the 20th century, the original Penn Station was one of New York City’s grandest landmarks, a palatial palace in midtown Manhattan. Prior to 1910, if you were on the Pennsylvania Railroad from any major city such as Chicago or Boston, your trip ended in Hoboken, NJ. The only way into Manhattan was by ferry, which naturally added time and expense to the journey. Electric-powered trains came with the ability to travel through tunnels, like the one that would be built beneath the Hudson River. Hundreds were put to work as sandhogs to dig the tunnels while a grand construction began in midtown Manhattan at 33rd St. and 8th Ave. Stone masons and artisans carved majestic statues from pink granite. Creatures great and fantastical were designed and carved to adorn the new structure, huge glass windows allowed natural light to flood the concourse to the wonderment of arriving passengers. This was truly an architectural marvel of its time. When the Second World War ended, families flooded the station to greet returning veterans from both the European and Pacific campaigns.
Sadly, with new technology in transportation such as cars and planes, the transportation routes became the American highway system and airports. The Pennsylvania Railroad struggled to compete. By 1963, a decision was made to tear down this magnificent palace to make way for a new underground station with a sports arena above it that would become Madison Square Garden. A few of the statues were saved and found new homes in various museums. Most were jackhammered into pieces and now sit in the marshes of the Meadowlands—a tragic end to a sculptor’s hard work.
A similar fate was to befall New York’s Grand Central Station but, after a public outcry from the destruction of Penn Station, Grand Central was saved. Sometimes progress is necessary, but often it is sad for the monuments so many toiled on to build.