Could New York's Pennsylvania Station actually get rebuilt the way it was?

Main waating room
© Jeff Stikeman/ National Civic Art Society

New York City’s Penn Station is….horrible. The only good thing one can say about the demolition of the McKim, Mead & White building that was knocked down is that it appalled so many people that it became the foundation of the preservation movement. But now there is a serious and credible campaign to rebuild it the way it was.

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

A few years ago we showed the work of Richard Cameron and James Grimes of Atelier & Co, who first proposed the rebuilding. I wrote about how it might be done in this very different time:

They project that it would be a whole lot cheaper and easier than doing a new modern building, because "architectural design development costs would be dramatically less than for a “blank slate” Modernist exercise in abstract geometry that is the current fashion." They note also that there is no fancy new engineering to be done, given that it's all been done before. And, the foundations are still there.

They don't say where you get the trades who still know how to do the stonework and the detail, but this is where it could get interesting; since all the original drawings still exist, they could be digitized and a lot of the detailed and complex traditional components could probably be 3D printed, using the newest of technologies to recreate the old.

Last year I reiterated the point when some new proposals were floated, in If New York is going to get a new Penn Station, make it the old one.

Nothing much happened until recently, when Governor Cuomo came into the picture; according to Gothamist,

On Tuesday, Cuomo announced his willingness to take over much-needed renovations of Penn Station from Amtrak, which has owned the transit hub for decades, and prioritize the long-overdue Gateway Tunnel project. Such a takeover would require federal funding, as well as money from the State and private partners, according to Cuomo. "We come in the spirit of cooperation and creativity," he said.

COncourse © Jeff Stikeman/ National Civic Art Society

One of the most creative responses is from the National Civic Art Society, which is working with Richard Cameron of Atelier and others to promote the idea of a rebuild. They explain:

Reconstructing Penn Station will not just dramatically improve the experience of travelers and visitors. Ranking with Grand Central Terminal and other great national landmarks, a rebuilt Penn Station will have a significant direct economic impact on the Midtown West/Hudson Yards/Upper Highline area. While the reconstruction we propose will rigorously respect our architectural heritage, we seek to improve upon the original station, providing not just a transportation facility but a civic focal point with amenities that will invite the public to visit and linger.

exterior seventh avenue© Jeff Stikeman/ National Civic Art Society

Reconstruction, Replication or Reproduction are all controversial terms in heritage preservation circles. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote twenty years ago:

My loathing of the term "authentic reproduction" goes deep; these are the con words of American culture. The use and influence of the phrase are universal, cutting across almost all cultural levels. I cannot think of a more mischievous, dangerous, anomalous, and shoddy perversion of language and meaning. A perfect contradiction in terms, it makes no sense at all; but what particularly offends is its smug falseness, its dissembling, genteel pretentiousness. Authentic is the real thing, and a reproduction, by definition, is not; a copy is still a copy, no matter how skilled or earnest its intentions. To equate a replica with the genuine artifact is the height of sophistry; it cheapens and renders meaningless its true age and provenance. To imply equal value is to deny the act of creation within its own time frame, to cancel out the generative forces of its cultural context. What is missing is the original mind, hand, material, and eye. The kindest thing you can say is that an authentic reproduction is a genuine oxymoron.

But she also wrote, in her Farewell to Penn Station:

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.

I usually dislike reproductions and reconstructions, and believe that one can mix new and old. But Penn Station is a different case; it is righting a wrong, giving us back something that should never have been taken away. I wonder what Ada Louise Huxtable would have thought. What do you think?


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

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