Architecture is important

I just read an article in the New York Times suggesting how to resurrect the grandness of the old Penn Station (A Proposal for Penn Station and Madison Square Garden). If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be in the current Penn Station, you know that any change could only be an improvement.

The first time I took a train into New York, I was probably 12 or 13. It was the week after Christmas, and the last Christmas that I can remember that my dad’s entire side of the family was all together–all the aunts and uncles and cousins. The aunts and uncles and cousins decided to take a day trip into New York, so we drove down to Connecticut, where some other relatives lived (a great-aunt and uncle, I think), and we took the Metro-North train into the city. I was disappointed that the approach to the terminal was made through tunnels and that there were no grand vistas of the New York skyline to be seen. My disappointment was paid back many times over, however, when we disembarked at Grand Central Terminal. The platform was nothing special, but walking up to the main concourse of the station was incredible. It was probably the first time that I’d ever been in such a large interior open space. And there were stars painted on the ceiling! Thinking back, it occurs to me that many of those stars were probably no longer visible at night in New York even when the station was constructed in the early 20th century. Now, I wonder how many people stop to enjoy the view that they never get anywhere else in the city.

My memories of the rest of that day in the city are a haze of department store holiday windows, snow, enormous buildings, laughing with family, and the want to spend more than just a day in New York. But coming and going via Grand Central is firmly fixed in my mind. It lived up to the mystique I had already associated with it and with the rest of the city from books and movies and television. What an amazing gift to be able to come and go daily through such a wonderful space as that!

Eight or ten years later, I took the train again into New York. I was in college now and was going to spend some time with a friend in Brooklyn before we took the train back together to Montréal. I knew that my Amtrak train would leave me at Penn Station and not Grand Central, but can you imagine my crushing disbelief at being confronted with the reality of Penn Station? I distinctly remember coming up from the platform into the claustrophobic crush of those bland, low ceilings and thinking, “Huh. There must be another level up before the main concourse.” Sadly, no. That was the main concourse. I was so very confused. Why would anyone ever want to be in this building? It was so bland and enclosed and so decidedly NOT Grand Central Terminal. I couldn’t understand how such a city as New York could ever have such a rail station as Penn. It seemed a cruel joke. As one architectural historian lamented, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

And so it’s nice to read that there are still people who realize the horror of the current Penn Station when compared to what came before, and who hope that we might end that reign of horror in the near future.

If anyone ever tells you that architecture doesn’t matter, please bring them to the concourse of Penn Station, which today looks like this:

Penn Station, Main Concourse

And show them a picture of what this replaced:

Old Penn Station

And ask them which one they’d rather be standing in today.

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