Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson
shkarlson
50bookchallenge

5. A GIANT STAGE SET.

New York's Pennsylvania Stations comprises three stories although I'll treat it as a single Book Review No. 5. The first story, about the construction and "redevelopment" of the 1910 station, surveys much of the same material as Conquering Gotham, reviewed here, albeit from the perspective of an art historian. Thus there's less of the political machinations or lifestyles of the rich and famous than in Conquering Gotham, and more on the architectural influences (Roman ruins, Frankfurt (M), the colonnade at St. Peter's in Rome, the Gare d'Orsay.) The reader who wants train pictures and track plans will find none: those are in Manhattan Gateway and the sources referenced therein. The first chapter will help someone not conversant with architectural forms or engineering understand some of the odd features of the station. From the outside, the trainshed looked a bit clunky, but that was required in order to make the arches imitate Roman vaulting when viewed from the inside. The simpler solution would have been additional horizontal bracing inside. The floor plan had in my view a lot of wasted space (some of which lasted into the modern era where New Jersey Transit was able to add a new set of gates east of the diminished waiting room and south of the old entrance arcade) that principal architect Charles McKim envisioned to provide the well-to-do with a suitably grand passage to a de luxe train that did not involve descending fifty feet all in one go. Mr McKim would probably be disappointed that the bulk of the station's clientele has always been middle-class commuters (Westchester and western Connecticut are the east coast version of Lake Forest and Winnetka, reached from Grand Central) and the de luxe trade quickly decamped to the airliners. He might have been more favorably disposed to the Acela Express, which offers only "businessclass" and "first." That wasted space was for baggage rooms.

The chapter gets into some of the difficulties of adapting classical forms to a railroad station. Thus passengers get a waiting room with more interior space than the nave of a major cathedral and fewer pews than a Russian Orthodox village church, and carriage drives that one might expect the Prussian Guard to goose-step under. But, as David P. Morgan (of Trains) once noted, Philadelphia's Thirtieth Street Station (a Pennsylvania design) was newer than Cincinnati's Union Station (a New York Central design) but it looked older and it aged better. The attempts to make New York's Pennsylvania Station look newer only made the public less interested in preserving it. And so the upper works went. Perhaps the absence of an office tower in the upper works made it more likely to go, although the pattern of big-city station redevelopments strikes me as a barometer of Rust Belt economics. Call the roll: New York Penn: office tower and (now obsolete) sports center above. New York Grand Central: Pan Am (or whatever it now is) above, great room saved with the intervention of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and other worthies. (The World Trade Center replaced an earlier office tower over the Tube terminal near Battery Park.) Philadelphia Broad: replaced with office tower and suburban station. Philadelphia 30th: too far from city center to redevelop. Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and P&LE: both with office towers, office towers now put to other uses. Buffalo Central: despite having an office tower, empty? Detroit Michigan Central: despite having an office tower, empty. Cleveland: office tower above rapid-transit station, the one or two passenger trains call at a lakefront station. Cincinnati: a profligate waste of space with little alternate use. Chicago: existing office block above the Roman bath waiting room at Union Station being coveted for other use; concourse building replaced by office towers, as is also the case at North Western, LaSalle Street, Central, and Randolph Street. (The Dearborn headhouse is listed, and the Grand Central site is cut off from the Loop by Congress Street, which is effectively an expressway almost to State Street.)

The middle chapter is a photo essay on the removal of the upper works. It makes a useful companion to The Destruction of Penn Station. The middle chapter of Stations describes what we're seeing, but not the dates the pictures are taken. Destruction has dates, but not descriptions of what we're seeing. Taken together, a reader can piece together the civil-engineering puzzle that taking down a building while it is still in use is. That's also why we have pictures: when the demolition crews marked off at evenings or weekends, the station remained open to traffic, and several photographers explored the notionally closed parts of the station, sometimes at risks that no contractor's insurer would want trespassers to take these days. The chapter also suggests that some of the offices in the wings that surrounded the public areas of the station remained in use in early stages of demolition. The photographic record revealed something that surprised many people: that Roman Bath waiting room was plaster castings on a steel frame: apart from some column bases, there was no marble or granite or load-bearing stone at all. (I wonder if that's true in Chicago?)

The third chapter is an anticipation of the new New York station, to be built in areas of the Post Office that aren't well suited to current postal operations. I hold off on reviewing that chapter too closely as there's some doubt about that project being completed. (It's probably too much to ask that when the current Madison Square Garden goes, the surviving structural members of the Roman Bath and the trainshed be used to put back a Roman Bath with benches and a proper trainshed). Some of the details of the project are incomplete: there already is a Long Island concourse west of Eighth Avenue, and the current Amtrak loading gates are the 1910 infrastructure, and there are those New Jersey Transit gates in the site of the old southeast baggage court and it's not clear if those will be retained or not.

(Cross-posted at Cold Spring Shops.) 

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