If New York is going to get a new Penn Station, make it the old one.

Penn Station
Public Domain New York Historical Society

Vince Scully once said of the old Penn Station, comparing it to the present one: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat” As I scuttle through it every time I come in to New York City from Newark Airport, I know it well and it is truly awful. The loss of the old Pennsylvania Station in the early sixties was really the start of the architectural preservation movement in North America, it was such an historic loss.

New Penn Station© Empire State Station

Now Governor Cuomo is proposing a rebuild of Penn Station with lots of modern glass boxes; perhaps it’s time to look again at the proposal by (and the beautiful drawings of) Richard Cameron and James Grimes of Atelier & Co. to actually rebuild the original, which we showed last year. This is totally doable; drawings and photographs exist, and so much of the complex detail can now be 3D printed.

Penn Plan© Chalk Pastel on Kraft paper by Richard Cameron, Atelier & Co.

That’s what Justin Shubow does in Forbes; he makes some good points about the nature of reconstruction of historic buildings that have been lost.

Some will say that rebuilding a demolished structure such as Penn Station is “inauthentic” and fails to respect the “Spirit of our time.” This is a recent architectural ideology unique to the West, one that started gaining purchase after WWII with the rise of Modernism. Demonstrating a different perspective on time and “authenticity,” Japan’s holiest shrine is a wooden temple that for over a millennium has been torn down and rebuilt every 20 years.

Consider: If Grand Central Terminal burned down tomorrow, would we rebuild it? Surely we would. Why should it make a difference that Penn Station was destroyed not yesterday but 53 years ago? Certain masterpieces cannot be improved upon. They are the opposite of dated; they are timeless.

It is also true that the historic cores of Dresden and Warsaw were rebuilt, and that even the Campanile in Venice is a replica built after it collapsed in 1912. And in Japan, Osaka Castle is a concrete reproduction (it, like most of Osaka, was bombed flat in World War II) and to save money they even built it at 7/8 full size.

Penn Station Lower LevelMcKim, Mead and White. Look at those glass floors over the platform./Public Domain

Shubow concludes:

The irony is that while opponents of classical architecture demand “innovation” and “novelty” at all costs, nothing would be more dramatic than rebuilding a magnificent civic temple. It would be an inspiring story of life after death, of urban resurrection.

I would normally be up there with the modernists; I am a heritage activist but believe in preserving originals, not building fakes. But perhaps Penn is a special case; it was such a special building.

interior of new penn station© Jason Grimes of Atelier & Co; these guys can draw.

Tags: Ban Demolition | New York City | Preservation

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