The other day I was stumbling around Wikipedia when I found pictures of what was apparently the first iteration of New York’s Grand Central train station, called Grand Central Depot. The “depot” opened in 1871 and was built in the neo-Renaissance style that was popular back then (as opposed to the final, neoclassical incarnation), and stood for less than 30 years. It was partly torn down and reconstructed in 1899, and then totally demolished “in phases” between 1903 and 1913 to make way for today’s Grand Central Terminal.
This got me thinking about the old Pennsylvania Station whose demolition was a catalyst for the modern preservationist movement. Like nearly every big old building in New York, it was of course not the first building to stand there – development in cities during the prewar era was as much about redevelopment as it was about building in greenfield sites. It was a given that building would come down and new ones would be built – a city that’s been disrupted in most American downtowns. (Midtown Manhattan is of course one of the few places in the U.S. where this still happens – the Drake Hotel was of course torn down a few years ago by Harry Macklowe, on the site of what is now 432 Park Ave., and the Hotel Pennsylvania across from Penn Station will likely be replaced with an office tower once the market comes back.)
Anyway, I put out a call on Twitter for pre-Penn Station history, and lo and behond @enf alerted me to a panel at an exhibit at the Transit History Museum in Brooklyn, which I managed to find some pictures from on Flickr. Here’s a wide shot of the panel (though you can zoom in pretty close), and here’s some of the text that I could make out:
After extensive investigation, a site for Pennsylvania Station was chosen on the West Side, spanning Seventh to Tenth Avenues and 31st to 33rd Streets. The are was known as the Tenderloin, an infamous neighborhood with brothels, sloons, casinos and dancehalls. Social reformers referred to the are as Satan’s Circus and hoped for a new, affluent neighborhood. The excavation from the station and yards began in 1903, following years of negotiating burdensome New York City bureaucracy. Six city blocks were razed, and an enormous 58′ deep hope was excavated to lay tracks. A small gauge railroad carted away tons of fill. Scaffolding propped up the Ninth Avenue elevated railway, and a viaduct was created to bridge Eighth Avenue across the “cut.” Observers likened the project to the creation of the Panama Canal. Construction on the great station began in 1906.
Funny how “social reformers” nowadays generally do the exact opposite – try to keep poor people in central areas, no matter who owns the property!
Here’s a piece of newspaper propaganda in favor of slum clearance for Penn Station:
This also reminds me of Curbed’s feature on the old, Gilded Age mansions around Central Park that were demolished, some after only twenty years of use (man, do I wish today’s zoning code allowed redevelopment of buildings from the ’90s!), to make way for much bigger luxury apartment houses. Surely each one of those mansions would have been designated a historical landmark by now if it were still around, but then again most preservationists probably also feel that way about the buildings that replaced them.
There’s a general sense among preservationists and the public that redevelopment (which implies demolition) was okay before WWII, since the new buildings were also “beautiful,” but things built these days just don’t live up. But I wonder, how many thousands of landmark-worthy buildings are we missing because of the fear that glass and steel can never live up to brick and limestone?