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The Rise and Fall of Penn Station | Article

Penn Station Today

The year 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the start of demolition of the original Penn Station. It was also the 50th anniversary of the special operating permit granted to Madison Square Garden to operate over the existing train tracks and platforms of the underground station. On July 24, 2013 the New York City Council passed a vote limiting the extension of those air rights to only 10 years, thereby sparking a debate over the future of Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

By 1900, the Pennsylvania Railroad, led by President Alexander Cassatt, was the largest corporation in the world, operating more than 10,000 miles of track between New York and the Mississippi River. The original Penn Station that opened in 1910 was built as part of a vast expansion project orchestrated by Cassatt. Officially called the New York Terminal and Tunnel Extension Project, it was a part of Cassatt’s plan to get his trains into Manhattan, the most economically important city in America. 

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The main concourse of Penn Station, 1910, Courtesy: Library of Congress

The monumental Beaux Arts structure that was the original Penn Station, designed by architect Charles McKim, celebrated both the power of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the tremendous engineering feat of transporting electric traction passenger trains inside tunnels underneath the Hudson River and East River into Manhattan. Entering Penn Station from Seventh Avenue, visitors experienced the classic architecture and grandeur of Ancient Rome in the General Waiting Room, while the future-leaning look of the steel-lined skylight windows decorated the concourse. Penn Station was heralded as a celebration of transportation and a gift to New York City.

Designing for the future needs of the train station, McKim and Cassatt built an enormous structure able to withstand 200,000 passengers per day for the next 100 years. The number of people passing through Penn Station rose steadily from 10 million in 1911 to a peak of 109 million in 1945 -- representing 65% of intercity traffic. By 1960, however, with the rise of the automobile and air travel, train travel had declined to 27% of intercity traffic. With the railroad industry in decline it was increasingly difficult for the Pennsylvania Railroad to justify maintaining a cavernous terminal in the country’s most expensive real estate market. Pennsylvania Railroad executives searched for alternate means of income, and in 1961 they decided to dismantle their magnificent terminal and rent its air space. The three-year demolition of Penn Station began on October 28, 1963. At the same time, Madison Square Garden, a high-rise office and sports complex that still stands today, was built in its place.

Though the Penn Station terminal was demolished, the original 1900s tunnels, tracks, platforms and electric traction continue to be used today. But the limits of that original infrastructure are tested daily. In 2013, Penn Station handled over 500,000 passengers per day making it North America's busiest transportation hub, with more daily traffic share than the three New York regional airports combined.

In 2013, in the wake of the New York City Council vote limiting the air rights of Madison Square Garden to 10 years, the Municipal Art Society of New York challenged four well-known New York architecture firms to present their ideas of what a new Penn Station should look like. Each of the new plans introduced a dramatic redesign of Penn Station that echoed the past by building a

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The exterior of Penn Station, 2014

 terminal that is a proper gateway to Manhattan and by providing for a more spacious passenger experience. They also called for a transformation of the surrounding neighborhood with a new Penn Station serving as the center of a vibrant Midtown West.

The linchpin in all of these plans is the relocation of Madison Square Garden, which is seen as the limiting factor in allowing Penn Station to adapt to increased ridership in the future. When Madison Square Garden was constructed 1,100 support columns were installed throughout the Penn Station platform system. With increased passenger traffic in the station, these columns have raised concerns about congestion and safety. Moving Madison Square Garden would be beneficial in two ways: it would allow for modernization of the existing tracks, platforms, and concourses of Penn Station; and it would provide an opportunity to build a new Madison Square Garden in a different location that would be able to compete with modern sports arenas such as the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Despite the excitement surrounding the futuristic renderings, an enormous amount of financing and political will is necessary and the task of building a new Penn Station remains monumental in scale.

Originally published in 2014.

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