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The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station by Lorraine B. Diehl (Stephen Greene: $12.95, paperback; 168 pp., illustrated)

June 21, 1987|Ross Miller | Miller is writing a book on the cultural and architectural effects of the Chicago fire

New York City's Pennsylvania Station stood for little more than 50 years. Built to last from steel, fine quarried stone and travertine, it was reduced to rubble in 1963 and removed by the ton to the Jersey Meadowlands. The architect, Charles McKim, inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, built a monumental space that enclosed six city blocks. While the Baths still stand in Rome as ruins, the Pennsylvania Station was vandalized so completely by the company that commissioned it that nothing remains but a fast-receding memory. Lorraine Diehl, a free-lance writer and admirer of the station's architecture and social role, has written a histo1920540788loss. In vivid pictures that include scenes from construction to demolition, Diehl chronicles the station's past from its inspired origins as a vision of the Pennsylvania Railroad's president, Alexander Cassatt, through its dedication in 1910 and eventual destruction.

To her credit, Diehl has written more than an architectural profile. This is less a story of things than one about people who aspire to great accomplishments. Cassatt's plans for Pennsylvania Station began as annoyance over the problem of the Hudson River crossing. Until land was purchased on Manhattan's West Side and tunnels were begun under the river, Cassatt's railroad was forced to stop at the water's edge in Jersey City.

Passengers had to leave the train and board ferries for the passage to West Street on the opposite shore. This occasioned much inconvenience and made the railroad journey unpredictable. These problems were made even more dramatic because of the railroad's direct competition with Commodore Vanderbilt's New York Central, which already had direct access to the city and a gateway at the top of Park Avenue.

Cassatt's plan for a station carried much of the late 19th-Century bravado that had created fortunes for the robber barons. The completed station's neoclassical architecture, grand public rooms and romantic sculptures were not the exclusive property of the rich but belonged to the entire city.

Diehl tries to capture the spirit of a place lost forever.

"Marble pedestals with iron candelabra stood in double rows along the floor, providing the main source of artificial light. Ticket and telegraph offices, also made from marble, appeared to be carved from a single piece of stone. There was a serenity in this room, enhanced by the warm elegance of the travertine. As in the great cathedrals of Europe, the separate elements of Pennsylvania Station coalesced into a unified form that embraced the human spirit."

Built by a private corporation, the place was not simply a self-aggrandizing monument to wealth and power. Generous in program and form, Penn Station commemorated the workers called "sandhogs" who risked their lives to build the station's complex system of underwater tunnels as much as it satisfied the vanity of the audacious businessmen who envisioned the project and implied to every visitor to New York that they were worthy of great architecture.

Pennsylvania Station was a private venture with a powerful public vision. It returned something valuable to the country that afforded it such extraordinary profit and gain.

This is precisely the kind of public spiritedness missing today in architecture and planning. Zoning variances and tax abatements are provided to corporations in all major cities to encourage the building of decent public spaces. The results of this sort of action have been less than successful. Madison Square Garden, the building that rose from the ruins of Penn Station, a banal drum-shaped structure with no functional public spaces, is typical of such modern urban policy. Ironically740319590imminent demolition, a victim of the same economic arguments that doomed its predecessor.

Diehl's work is the most recent example in a genre that attempts through text and illustrations to recover a vandalized past. Pennsylvania Station was doomed before an active City Landmarks Preservation Commission was in place to argue to save structures of essential historical importance. But even with Commission support, many old buildings are still doomed.

Witness the recent destruction of many of New York's great movie and legitimate theaters in Times Square. Nathan Silver's "Lost New York," David Lowe's "Lost Chicago," and Robert M. Adams' comprehensive "The Lost Museum" all recount the same story of man's greed, callousness and transient political enthusiasms. In this light, violence done to a painting, sculpture or building can be considered an attack on an entire culture.

"The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station" allows the reader to see and feel the loss. Great buildings are part of a country's accumulated history, a physical link with the past. Diehl often overwrites and tends to be repetitive, but there is much of value in this monograph. The photographs of sculptor Adolph Weinman's huge stone maidens, broken on the Jersey flats, the main waiting room filled with rubble and waiting only for its end, are images enough for us to begin to comprehend the unprovoked violence we do daily to our own communal memory.

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