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The old Pennsylvania Station in New York City

The Law That Saved Grand Central Terminal

The main concourse of Pennsylvania Station, ca. 1915. (Photo courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York)

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the creation of legislation that has preserved historic neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs — the New York City Landmarks Law.

After World War II, Midtown Manhattan experienced an unprecedented building boom, with glass and steel office towers rising throughout the neighborhood. As construction projects began, parts of the old city were destroyed to make way for progress. The destruction of a well-known landmark became a rallying point for preservations who were demanding a law that would protect historically-significant buildings around the city.

That lost landmark? Pennsylvania Station.

The view of Penn Station from Macy's

Pennsylvania Station and 7th Avenue, as seen from Macy’s Department Store on 34th Street. (Photo courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York)

Opened in 1910 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the old Pennsylvania Station covered eight acres, stretching from Seventh to Eighth Avenue, and 31st to 33rd Streets. It was designed in the Beaux Arts style by McKim, Mead and White, the architectural firm responsible for other civic structures throughout the city, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Washington Arch and several buildings on the campus of Columbia University.

With large granite columns, soaring arches in its main waiting room and a skylight made of glass and steel hovering over its concourse and platforms, Pennsylvania Station was a magnificent gateway to the City of New York.

The station was so successful — both as an architecture feat and as a transit hub — that the United States government commissioned McKim, Mead and White to design what is now the James A. Farley Post Office Building on 8th Avenue, across the street from Penn. (The building, also built in the Beaux Arts style, still stands today.)

The demolition of Penn Station

Pennsylvania Station during demolition, 1964-65. (Photo courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York)

Profit vs. Preservation
As rail ridership began to decline due to the automotive and airplane industries, in 1961, the financially troubled Pennsylvania Railroad announced plans to demolish Penn Station, which had become dilapidated due to poor maintenance. The Beaux Arts building was to be replaced by Madison Square Garden, a sports complex, and the station would continue to exist underground. In exchange for the site’s development rights, Pennsylvania Railroad was to receive one-quarter ownership for MSG and would collect roughly $2.1 million a year in rent.

The proposed demolition generated outrage around the country from architects, artists and civilians alike. But there were no preservation laws — city, state or federal — that could intervene. The city’s Committee for the Preservation of Historic and Esthetic Structures had been established in June of that year and the Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed in February 1962, but it was too late to draft a law that would save Pennsylvania Station.

Demolition began in 1963 and took three years. The station itself did not close, however, and roughly 200,000 passengers continued to pass through the terminal each day.

The New York Times lamented the loss of Pennsylvania Station in an editorial published Oct. 30, 1963:

Monumental problems almost as big as the building itself stood in the way of preservation; but it is the shame of New York, of its financial and cultural communities, its politicians, philanthropists and planners, and of the public as well, that no serious effort was made. A rich and powerful city, noted for its resources of brains, imagination and money, could not rise to the occasion. The final indictment is of the values of our society.

Though Pennsylvania Station could not be saved, the outcry generated by its demolition helped put pressure on City Hall and led to the creation of New York City’s Landmarks Law, signed by Mayor Robert Wagner on April 19, 1965.

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal as it appeared in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Kah-Wai Lin/Flickr)

Another Grand Dilemma
As the law was being created, another magnificent rail terminal was at risk. The New York Central, like the Pennsylvania Railroad, was struggling financially. In 1968, facing bankruptcy, the two companies merged to form the Penn Central Railroad. Later that year, Penn Central announced plans to build a 53-story tower on top of Grand Central Terminal. Some of the blueprints required the demolition of the current facade and the main waiting room.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was one of those who objected to the plans to alter the building, and she wrote to Mayor Abraham Beame, saying:

Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.

The building was saved thanks in part to the preservation commission, which had designated Grand Central Terminal as a landmark six months prior to the unveiling of the plans that threatened its existence. The commission rejected Penn Central’s plans and though Penn Central filed suit against the city, it never received permission to build on top of the terminal.

According to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s website, there are 33,000 landmark properties throughout all five boroughs. Most of them are located in the 114 historic districts and 20 historic district extensions throughout the city. Today, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is the largest municipal preservation agency in the country.

In this time where developers are scrambling to build massive skyscrapers that are redefining the city’s neighborhoods and skyline, the Landmarks Preservation Law is playing an important role in helping to maintain the New York we love as the city becomes the New York of the future.

Learn more about Pennsylvania Station and the Landmarks Preservation Law through these upcoming events:

"Trude and I Masked" by Alice Austen

Links: Slave Markets in Manhattan, the Victorians of New York and More

“Trude and I Masked” (Alice Austen)

  • You’ll never guess where this memorial to Abraham Lincoln is located. [The Bowery Boys]
  • Speaking of Lincoln, check out what happened to two brothers who witnessed his funeral procession. [Ephemeral New York]
  • Before Humans of New York, there was Alice Austen, who snapped these photos of New Yorkers during the Victorian era. [Mashable]
  • If you’ve already filed your taxes, read this story about the history of Tax Day in the West Village. If you haven’t filed your taxes… get on that. [Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation]
  • The site of a former slave market that operated for more than 50 years in Lower Manhattan will be identified with a historical marker this summer. [WNYC]
  • Now that the weather is (finally) nice again, why not explore the oldest cemetery in Queens? [Brownstoner]
  • Follow Historic NYC on Facebook and Twitter.
Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn

Things to Do in New York City: April 14 to 19

Historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. (TheTVMovie/Flickr)

From candlelight ghost tours to panels on preservation, here are 11 things to do this week in New York City.

Tuesday, April 14

Seek out the lost spirits of the Titanic on a ghost walk with Boroughs of the Dead. This nearly two-hour tour points out where survivors of the Titanic arrived in New York City in April 1912… and where their ghosts still linger today. This unique tour is only available once a year. The walk begins at 7:30 p.m. at Astor Place. Tickets are $20.

Wednesday, April 15

Learn more about the effort to take Brooklyn from gritty to green as the Brooklyn Historical Society and Green-Wood Cemetery present “The Greening of Brooklyn: Exploring New Parks and Unexpected Spaces.” The panel of speakers includes the landscape architects responsible for Brooklyn Bridge Park, the founder of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, and others. The event starts at 6:30 p.m. at the BHS at 128 Pierrepont St. in Brooklyn. Tickets are $5 or free if you’re a member of BHS or G-W.

Take yourself back to high school English class when the Greater Astoria Historical Society presents “The Making of the Great Gatsby” at 7 p.m. at Q.E.D. in Astoria. The GAHS served as a historical adviser for the remake of film staring Leonardo DiCaprio in 2013. The lecture features a short history of what Northern Boulevard would have looked like in Gatsby’s time, as well as a preview of the film’s interpretation of those locations, based on actual images. Tickets are $10 or free if you’re a member of GAHS.

Catch a glimpse of forgotten New York as photographer Will Ellis shares stories from his favorite destinations, as well as the histories of places like Dead Horse Bay, Creedmoor State Hospital and the Gowanus Batcave. Ellis will sign copies of his book, “Abandoned NYC,” after the event, which begins at 8:30 p.m. at Brooklyn Brainery, 190 Underhill Ave. Tickets are sold out, but there is a wait list.

Thursday, April 16

Hear about the movement to preserve the interiors of New York’s landmarks in a panel discussion led by civic leader Kent Barwick, journalist and urban critic Roberta Brandes Gratz, and architectural historian Francis Morrone. The conversation will take place at 6 p.m. at The New York School of Interior Design, 170 E. 70th St. Tickets are $12.

Discover a unique chapter in the history of The City College of New York as professor Carol Smith shares the story of “The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY, 1931-42.” As student and faculty activism increased at CCNY, a state legislative investigation resulted in the dismissal of 50 faculty and staff members, the largest academic purge in U.S. history. The talk starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Martin E. Segal Theater, 365 5th Ave., and is free and open to the public, thanks to the Gotham Center for New York History.

Listen to a myriad of stories about growing up in one of New York’s most influential boroughs at “Just Kids from the Bronx: Telling It the Way it Was,” an author talk by Arlene Alda. Arlene will be joined by her husband, Alan, for the discussion. Arlene’s memories form the starting point for other oral histories provided by Al Pacino, Carl Reiner, Maira Kalman and others, creating “a film-like portrait of the Bronx from the early 20th century until today.” This event takes place at 7 p.m. at the Barnes and Noble on 82nd and Broadway.

Friday, April 17

Don’t miss the last weekend of the “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion” exhibit at the New-York Historical Society at 170 Central Park West. This stunning exhibition uses a rich display of media and artifacts to share the centuries-long history of immigration between China and the United States and little-known stories, including the Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Chinese American activists who used the American justice system to try to overturn it. The exhibition closes on April 19. Check the museum’s website for hours and cost of admission.

Take a candlelight ghost tour of the Merchant’s House Museum, “Manhattan’s Most Haunted House.” Explore the rooms where eight family members died and hear stories from people who have experienced unexplainable things while visiting the museum. This event starts at 6:30 p.m. at 29 E. 4th Street. Tickets are $20.

Saturday, April 18

Soak in the architecture and landscape of Wave Hill during a history walk in this Bronx neighborhood. Famous former residents include Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Bashford Dean and Arturo Toscanini. This free event starts at 11 a.m. at 675 W. 249th Street.

Sunday, April 19

Conjure up memories of the forgotten disasters of New York City while taking a tour of Green-Wood cemetery with the NY Obscura Society. Visit memorials to the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876, the 1840 burning of the Lexington steamship and the 1960 Park Slope Plane Crash, among other tragic moments in the city’s history. The tour takes place from 1 to 3 p.m. at 500 25th St. in Brooklyn. Tickets are $20.

Want to publicize an upcoming event about the history of New York City? Email the details to

Links: Eerie Marshes, Abandoned Power Plants and More!

Check out stories from around the city in this week’s links roundup:

  • Follow Historic NYC on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
  • Things get creepy when Abandoned NYC explores the history of the eerie Mariner’s Marsh on Staten Island. [Abandoned NYC]
  • An 1850s-era oyster barge turned speakeasy/restaurant is getting a new life as… an oyster bar? (Maybe.) [The New York Times]
  • Take a peek inside the half-demolished Roseland Ballroom in Brooklyn before the building is destroyed. [Gothamist]
  • Hear about the shady dealings that took place in Bryant Park’s shady paths in the Bowery Boys’ latest podcast. [Bowery Boys]
  • New York City’s only fire watchtower — located in Marcus Garvey Park, Harlem — is being dismantled for rehabilitation. [NY Curbed]
  • Explore the skeletal remains of the abandoned Glenwood Power Plant in Yonkers. [Scouting NY]
  • A street on the Upper West Side might be named after Norman Rockwell, who was born there in 1894. [West Side Rag]
  • Meet the real Peggy Olsons who paved the way for women in advertising. [Historic NYC]

Photo of the week:

Peggy Olson from Mad Men

The Real Peggy Olsons: Three Ladies Who Paved the Way for Ad Women

(Photo courtesy of AMC)

As AMC’s period drama “Mad Men” comes to a close next month, viewers’ eyes will be on Peggy Olson. Since season one, Peggy has worked her way up in the office, from under-appreciated secretary to talented copy chief. She’s finally starting to earn a little respect in her male-dominated profession, but will she ever get the recognition she deserves?

Though Peggy struggles to assert herself as the only woman in the creative department, in real life, women have been involved in America’s advertising industry since its beginning. They played huge roles in its development, though they were hampered by unequal pay and limited leadership opportunities.

The advertising industry has had a presence in the U.S. since the first newspapers were published during the colonial era, but the industry quickly changed and grew after Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), requiring all food and drugs to label their ingredients, and the Federal Trade Commission Act (1914), forbidding false or dishonest advertising. Companies needed clever creative to be in compliance with these new rules and in New York City, advertising agencies began to set up shop on Madison Avenue, an ideal location that positioned them near their clientele. In time, the ad men in these jobs became known as “Mad Men.”

In honor of the real Peggy Olsons who kept pace — and, sometimes, outworked — the Don Drapers of Madison Ave., here are three of the many women who shattered glass ceilings in the advertising industry:

Mathidle C. Weil: the First American Ad Woman

Nearly 40 years before women earned the right to vote in the United States, Mathilde C. Weil became the first woman to open her own advertising agency in New York City.

A native of Germany, she came to the U.S. with her husband in the 1870s. After his sudden death, she began working as a translator — she spoke four languages — and earned additional income through newspaper and magazine writing. Through this work, she was introduced to the advertising business:

When Weil volunteered to secure advertising for a Germany society paper owned by the brother of her friend Meta Volkman, one of the accounts she first solicited was Sozodont toothpaste. Although the advertising manager could not offer any advertising for her publication, he could favor an order for another New York newspaper. Knowing nothing of the business, she offered the Sozodont order to the New York paper with the question “How will you recompense me for the same?” (source)

Weil quickly learned there was more money to be made in buying and selling media space than in writing for publications. Through her work, she made connections with other firms and gathered clients, and in 1880, she founded the M.C. Weil Agency and became the first ad woman in America. She worked at the agency until her death in 1903.

Helen Lansdowne Resor

(Photo courtesy of compkarma)

Helen Lansdowne Resor: The Suffragist Who Used Sex Appeal to Sell Ads

Some might decry the blatant objectification of women in advertising today, but in the early 1900s, it was a suffragist who created the first ad to use sex appeal to sell products.

In 1911, Helen Lansdowne Resor, of J. Walter Thompson Co., launched the famous Woodbury Soap campaign (“A Skin You Love To Touch”). This sensational ad didn’t focus directly on the product. Instead, it hinted at the promise of what might happen if the consumer were to buy and use the soap. The ad created a woman that other women aspired to be, and many similar ads followed in its wake.

An ad for Woodbury Facial Soap

The Ladies’ Home Journal, March 1916

This idea wasn’t Resor’s only contribution to the world of advertising. She was one of the first women to successfully write and plan national ads. She recognized that women had buying power as the managers of their households, and she increased the number of ads targeted to their needs. These included products such as Crisco, cleaning supplies, and clothing. She also harnessed the power of endorsement advertising when she persuaded well-known women — including socialites and European royalty — to back products.

During the 1920s, JWT had a reputation of being the “women’s agency” because it was where “bright, young women would have the chance to succeed,” according to Denise Sutton, author of “Globalizing Ideal Beauty.” As Helen moved rose in prominence at the agency — she started as their first female copywriter and ended her career as vice-president — she created the Women’s Editorial Department. These female copywriters wrote ads targeted at women, based on the idea that women had a better idea of what women wanted than men did. That department accounted for more than half the agency’s billings.

Resor was a staunch supporter of the suffragist movement, and she and her employees marched in a celebration parade after women were given the right to vote. She died on Jan. 2, 1964 and was posthumously inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1916.

Mary Wells Lawrence

(Photo courtesy of The Daily Mail)

Mary Wells Lawrence: Breaker of Glass Ceilings

In 1966, a promising executive vice-president at Jack Tinker and Partners was told she could have the authority of a president, but not the title. She was a woman, and if a woman was president of the agency, “no [clients] would come,” according to her boss.

Mary Wells Lawrence already had a reputation as a force to be reckoned with on Madison Avenue. She had begun her career as a copywriter for a department store and at age 23, she joined the advertising department at Macy’s. She had climbed the corporate ladder at several agencies and being denied the presidency at one company wasn’t going to stop her from leading another.

Lawrence left JTP to create her own agency, and two years later, she was CEO of Wells Rich Greene, a company with a staff of 100 and billings approaching $31 million. The agency quickly built a reputation for innovative creative work and had a client list that included American Motors, IBM, Pan American World Airways, Proctor & Gamble and Sheraton Hotels and Resorts — none of whom seemed to care that the president of the agency was a woman.

Perhaps one of the biggest ideas generated by WRG was the “I  New York” campaign that revived tourism in the city after a series of troubling events in the 1970s. Today that campaign continues to generate millions in revenue through the sale of official merchandise. WRG is also responsible for several well-known Alka-Seltzer campaigns, including “Try it, you’ll like it!” and “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

At the company’s peak, Lawrence was reported to be the highest-paid female executive in America and in 1968, she would be the first woman to take a company public and on to the New York Stock Exchange. (The company returned to private ownership in 1977.)

In 1990, Lawrence announced her intention to step down as CEO. Her autobiography, “A Big Life (in Advertising),” was published in 2002, and she continues to give talks to women in business.

“There were and are so many talented women in the advertising business, and the real wonder is why they aren’t all running worldwide agencies of their own,” she told The New York Times in 2012. “I’m looking into that.”

This Week in New York City:

Missing “Mad Men”? Check out these events before the final episodes premiere in April:

St. Patrick's Day bagpipers in the New York City parade

Five Things to Know About New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade

(Diana Robinson/Flickr)

Outside of Ireland, there’s no better place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day than New York City. The traditional St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been held in Manhattan since before the American Revolution. Here are five things to know about the parade’s history:

1. The first celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in New York was held 14 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

On March 17, 1762, a group of Irishmen serving in the British army occupying the Province of New York marched to a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at Hull’s Tavern on lower Broadway to mark the feast of their homeland’s patron saint. This was the first known reference to a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in New York City, though some speculate observances were held while Irish-born Thomas Dongan was governor. No written record of this survives, however.

The first mention of a parade appears on March 17, 1766, when a military procession, complete with fife and drums, took place as Catholic and Protestant Irishmen marched alongside each other to show their pride for their heritage. Back home, tensions were rising between the Irish and the British before the Irish Rebellion of 1798, during which the “wearing of the green” was seen as a sign of support for Ireland’s independence.

2. The parade used to travel through Greenwich Village, not Midtown Manhattan.

In its early days, Irish societies and parishioners would march from their respective meeting places to St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street. There, the Bishop of New York would observe the marchers from the steps of the historic church in Greenwich Village. In the early 1860s, the Ancient Order of Hibernians began organizing the various groups into one large parade.

The parade route that is used today was adopted in 1891. Marchers begin on 44th Street and proceed up Fifth Avenue, passing St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 50th Street and ending at 79th Street, outside of the American Irish Historical Society.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City in 1895

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade of 1895. This photo was taken on 57th Street looking east toward 5th Avenue. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York)

3. The “Fighting 69th” regiment has led the parade for 164 years.

As New York City’s Irish Catholic population grew rapidly in the mid-1800s, so did animosity toward the Irish. Nativists, or those who opposed immigration, would sometimes resort to violence to disperse Irish events. In 1851, a New York State Militia regiment composed mainly of Irishmen volunteered to march at the front of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to protect the marchers. The New York National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th infantry, has led the parade ever since.

Before the parade begins each year, a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernian’s Parade Committee asks the 69th’s battalion commander “Is the 69th ready?” The commander and his soldiers reply that “The 69th is always ready!” and as they step off, the parade begins.

The 69th regiment has served in World Wars I and II, and during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The regiment’s bravery and ferocity at the Battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil War supposedly led Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to give the regiment its nickname, “the Fighting 69th.”

4. Women weren’t allowed to serve as grand marshal until 1986.

In 1982, parade organizers decided the grand marshal would be chosen through an election instead of being appointed by a committee. Three years later, Dorothy Hayden Cudahy, a radio broadcaster from Queens, N.Y., began her campaign to become elected Grand Marshal of New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Cudahy’s campaign was met with opposition. The new rules stated the marshal had to be a member of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians — in other words, a man. Cudahy’s status as a member of the Ladies’ Auxiliary didn’t count.

In 1986, the rules were amended to allow women to lead the parade and Cudahy was nominated for the position. She lost the elections in 1987 and 1988, but won in 1989, defeating Mary Moore, a special education teacher from the Bronx, N.Y.

The grand marshal for this year’s parade is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York.

5. New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is 234 years older than the St. Patrick Festival in Dublin.

St. Patrick’s Day was traditionally a solemn event in Ireland, where the feast has been marked since the ninth and tenth centuries. During the 1920s to 1950s, a military parade was held to mark the feast in the nation’s capital, and the bars remained closed for the holiday until the mid-1960s. During the ‘60s, floats and other forms of entertainment were gradually added to the parade and in 1996, the flamboyant St. Patrick’s Festival that we know and love today was held for the first time.

Today in New York City:

The 2015 St. Patrick’s Day Parade will begin at 11 a.m. at 44th Street and march upward to 79th Street. But the parade isn’t the only way to celebrate your Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. Celebrate  with one of the following:

  • Grab a free book about Irish history from the Irish Arts Center. Distributors will be at various locations throughout the five boroughs.
  • Let rural Irish improvisers take you back to Old St. Patty’s Day at “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo: Improvised Irish Blarney,” hosted by Peoples Improv Theater. The event begins at 7 p.m. on the Striker Stage, 123 E 24th St.
  • Take the “Irish Outsiders” tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and learn more about  Irish-Catholic immigrants, their music and the obstacles they encountered as they adjusted to life in a predominantly German neighborhood.
  • Have a drink at some of the oldest Irish pubs in the city.