Friday, January 15, 2010

Balancing Progress and History

I had some time at Penn Station yesterday before my train was announced, so I hung around on the concourse level for a change instead of descending immediately to the track. I really wanted to get a good look at a bas-relief that I walk past every day. You see, it features a bare breasted woman—and it's rather well detailed. Do I have your attention yet?

[Above: Bas-relief artwork at Penn Station.]

Penn Station in its original form was a grand testament to New York City's architectural enterprises. Completed in 1910, the original station was a spectacular example of the Beaux-Arts style of architecture. It featured a soaring 150-ft ceiling that allowed sunlight to illuminate the concourse from which you could watch the trains entering and leaving the station, as well as a 277-ft waiting room fashioned after the Roman Baths of Caracalla. It occupied eight acres of real estate, spanning 7th and 8th Avenues from 31st to 33rd Streets. Its completion marked a golden age in terms of development and architecture for the city, but it was not meant to be.

[This photo of Penn Station c. 1911 gives a sense of it's sprawling majesty.]

In the late 1950s, plans were quietly made to demolish this colossal building. It came down to money and development, as most things do in this city. The growth of the automobile industry and the building of highways greatly reduced the popularity of passenger rails, and Pennsylvania Railroad, the owner of Penn Station, was nearly broke. The land that Penn Station was sitting on was far too valuable to the growing city for Penn RR not to sell. So they entered into quiet talks with the owners of Madison Square Garden, which was then located on 26th Street near Madison Square. The owners of the Garden felt that given the popularity of the sporting complex, if they had the right opportunity to provide for larger crowds in a central location, they could not only boost their own commercial success, but that of the city as well. At this stage in NYC history, the midtown area was suffering. With the building of the Brooklyn and Queensboro Bridges earlier in the century, the outer boroughs were experiencing a residential boom, which drew construction and commercial enterprises out of the city. The Madison Square Garden Corporation felt that the Penn Station site was perfect for their plan: the railroad would be moved underneath the facility so that it would continue to bring people into and out of the city, with the new Madison Square Garden serving as an an epicenter for commercial development. They negotiated a deal that left the resident railroads with 25% ownership, and retained the remaining percentage for themselves, effectively seizing control of any future development of the site. [Left: Penn Station concourse, c. 1962.]

All of this happened without public knowledge until the NY Times got wind of the development plans and ran an article in 1961 revealing the plans for demolition and causing a public outcry. Architects, artists, writers, and private citizens quickly rallied to save the building, but it was to no avail. Beauty and history were no match for economics in this instance, and the case for demolition for the growing city was just too strong. So in 1963, the building came down and by 1966, the midtown landscape had changed considerably. A Time editorial stated:
"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."
-- "Farewell to Penn Station," New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963
What does our naked friend have to do with tale of destruction? In the 1990s, to address the complaints that Penn Station was nothing more than a glorified basement, the facility underwent renovations under the Penn Station Improvement Project, which included the installment of a collection of bas-relief artwork throughout the station titled the Ghost Series. Done by Andrew Leicester, the artwork was meant to invoke the grandeur of the Roman design of the original building. The woman and her clothed friend, as well as the other Roman images, remind those who pass through the station that the remnants of the past are still with us. [Right: All that remains today of the original Penn Station are a few artifacts, such as this overlooked stairwell which still contains the original brass hand rails from the building Photo Credit: NYT.]

New York City is a place where progress and development are primary concerns. Most buildings in this city have short life spans. From the very beginning, this city has defined itself by constantly (and sometimes ruthlessly) reconstructing itself. In discussing the story of Penn Station recently, I found myself involved in a severe disagreement with someone. When I told the story of how the building had been torn down to install the new Madison Square Garden, he expressed approval at demolition for the sake of progress, citing the real estate value of land in NYC where space is at a premium and the economic and commercial benefits of redevelopment. I countered somewhat hotly that perhaps he would like to raze Ellis Island and construct a row of skyscrapers. At this point, he reminded me that even my beloved Federal Hall would one day be gone—the site where George Washington was sworn in reduced to a plaque!—as even the facade would be beyond saving. He pointed out that New York City does not capitalize on its history—it is a city far more concerned with capital itself. He asked: "If all the historic sites, the cultural sites, were removed from the city, would tourists still visit?" And I was forced to admit reluctantly that I thought the answer was yes. People travel here to see Times Square, to see the Stock Exchange, and to take pictures in front of Tiffany's. There are very few people clustered around the site of the Stadt Huys or Bowling Green.

[Above: Will a plaque like this be all that remains of Federal Hall one day?]

In any case, we volleyed a few more well-placed shots at each other before reaching a truce of sorts. I had to ultimately agree to a certain point with his argument: things must change for us to move forward. (And truthfully, I'm glad we now have building codes!)  My debate partner does have a deep respect and appreciation for history, but is perhaps less emotionally vested in the past than I am. While I agree with redevelopment for revitalization, I believe we can't lose all of our history for the sake of progress. We need a sense of who were were. We simply cannot have progress for the sake of progress. I think the Ghost Series reminds us that we build on the efforts of others—buildings may physically disappear, but their spirit lingers in unusual ways if we care to look. As recent construction in Times Square has proven, in this city nothing is ever truly gone. We build on our past, incorporating it into our present even without realizing it.

The demolition of Penn Station has been credited with mobilizing preservation efforts in New York City. Fairly recently, I discussed efforts to save the building facade of 211 Pearl Street, which was slated to become the site of a condominium. This story had a fairly happy ending, but I have to acknowledge that despite genuine efforts at preservation in other places, sometimes the price of history will be too high. The key in these circumstances will be finding ways to remind our present that we have a past.

[Above: Information under statue of George Washington at Federal Hall.]

What are your thoughts on the price of history?

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