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The Law That Saved Grand Central Terminal

The old Pennsylvania Station in New York City

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:

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