Fifty years ago today, John F. Kennedy was President, the Beatles had not released an album in the U.S., and in New York City, a group of architects, historians and planners gathered under the banner of the “Action Group for Better Architecture in New York” to protest the demolition of Pennsylvania Station. Built in 1910 by the firm of McKim, Mead and White, the classically-inspired train station was widely regarded to be “one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age, “consisting of "nine acres of travertine and granite, 84 Doric columns, a vaulted concourse of extravagant, weighty grandeur, classical splendor modeled after royal Roman baths, rich detail in solid stone, and an architectural quality in precious materials that set the stamp of excellence on a city” (“Farewell To Penn Station” NYT, 10/30/63). Unfortunately, its railroad owners allowed it to deteriorate and by the time its demolition was announced in 1961, the years of deferred maintenance had taken their toll, rendering the glorious public spaces somewhat shabby and dilapidated. AGBANY strove to prevent its destruction but the forces of politics and money doomed the 52-year-old building, despite even the damning words of The New York Times. As Jane Jacobs, present at the protest, later recalled, “There was no exhilaration to this kind of thing. It was more like a wake. The city was making everyone's life absurd with its goofy decisions.''
The myth goes that from the rubble of Pennsylvania Station, the Landmarks Preservation Commission sprang fully formed. The reality is more complicated – preservationists had been hard at work for years formulating strategies to defend and preserve New York City’s historic buildings from thoughtless destruction – but the myth serves its purpose. The demolition of Penn Station became a rallying cry and a graspable moment, one where the effects of slow-moving public policy became blindingly obvious. AGBANY gathered as a wake – but as a hopeful one, praying that Penn Station would be the last masterpiece to fall before the bulldozers of short-sightedness.
The half-century that followed has been good for the appreciation of urban history. Jane Jacobs’ vision of “small plans and big ideas” has found traction with new generations of planners who try to engage affected communities in planning projects. The adaptive reuse of buildings and neighborhoods have become, at least, accepted options to redevelopment plans. Dozens of cities across America have seen that preservation and urban husbandry can bring old growth neighborhoods back to life and breathe new economic, social and cultural vitality into abandoned city districts. In New York City, we have seen the designation of 108 historic districts and the triumph of preservation projects like the High Line and revitalization projects such as Prospect and Central Parks transform the City in exciting and successful ways. But the work of saving our city is far from over.
Neighborhoods throughout New York still suffer the blows of sledgehammers to their historic streets and ungainly towers still sprout like pernicious weeds in otherwise well-tended gardens. Worst of all, Jane Jacob’s words still apply – the city is making everyone’s life absurd with its goofy decisions. For every successful revitalization of a neighborhood, there are plans seeking approval to bury the area in mammoth towers. The historic Chelsea Market building, reinvented as a destination for food lovers and neighborhood shoppers, is being asked to shoulder the burden of over 100 feet of towers. New York University, previously a well-respected commuter school and now the largest private university in the country, has unfortunately developed a voracious appetite for development – development which threatens the scant open space of Greenwich Village. Facing the lower Manhattan waterfront, DUMBO has become a national model of how to redevelop a formerly industrial area by capitalizing on its architecture, but its character is threatened by an over-scaled slab which will block the Brooklyn Bridge. The naturally-developing regeneration of Prospect Heights has been body-shocked by the behemoth Atlantic Yards plan.
Fifty years ago, professionals in ties and white gloves took to the streets to call attention to “an act of civic vandalism”. They hoped for a time when such actions would not be necessary, when the appreciation of the ideals of our past would guide development and build a better future. Their actions helped move us closer to that worthy goal but we are not there yet. We must remember the lessons of Penn Station, all of them, and strive to not allow them to be repeated.
Thanks to the HDC for posting this to its members.