50 Years Ago on this Day, The Architectural Preservation Movement Got It's Real Start in America With The Fight To Save Pennsylvania Station

New York Historical Society/Public Domain

We do go on about how the greenest building is the one that is already standing, and about how old buildings are not just relics from the past, but can be templates for the future. Perhaps the most shocking and egregious loss in America was the destruction of Pennsylvania Station in New York. The Times editorialized:

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 tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.

A few architects and urbanists protested, but nobody was interested. The AIA wanted to save a few columns. The Municipal Art Society wanted a better building. as Christopher Gray notes in a 2001 article in the New York Times,

They wrote letters and circulated petitions for signing, but they faced many obstacles. First, there was no precedent for saving a large commercial structure -- in the early 1960's historic preservation still meant house museums and ancient sites.

So they formed AGBANY, The Action Group for Better Architecture in New York

On August 2, 1962, they met in front of Pennsylvania Station to protest its impending destruction. They were on their own. One of the organizers, Architect Peter Samton tells Gray:

Mr. Samton said they never connected with the existing historic-preservation groups, which were nervous about social activism. ''They seemed interested in whether they had connections to the upper class that might be hurt,'' he said. ''They weren't interested in Penn Station -- it was old and dirty.''

McKim, Mead and White. Look at those glass floors over the platform./Public Domain

Samton's partner Jordan Gruzen reminisces.

Mr. Gruzen remembers the euphoria of raging against a corporate machine. ''It was like college,'' he said. ''We were painting protest signs, making fliers; it felt like an underground cell.'' At 5 p.m. on Aug. 2, 1962, at least 100 people joined a picket line with signs reading ''Shame'' and ''Don't Amputate -- Renovate.'' An advertisement in The New York Times boldly stated that the group was formed to ''serve notice on present and future would-be vandals, that we will fight them every step of the way.''

They did not succeed in saving Penn Station, but they did plant the seeds of a preservation movement that includes quite a few activists of all ages today, who are willing to show up at City Hall and protest. And while New York City has learned much since that day, other cities continue to let their history deteriorate, doing demolition by neglect. Our governments continue to starve cities; Ada Louise Huxtable wrote 50 years ago what remains true in America:

We are an impoverished society. It is a poor society indeed that can't pay for these amenities; that has no money for anything except expressways to rush people out of our dull and deteriorating cities.

Tags: Ban Demolition | New York City | Preservation | Trains

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