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A Landmark Decision: Penn Station, Grand Central, and the architectural heritage of NYC

Penn Station, a grand Beaux-Arts style building in Manhattan, was demolished due to declining railroad usage and real estate value. The loss sparked protests and led to New York City's Landmarks Preservation Law, protecting architectural heritage. This law was tested and upheld at Grand Central Terminal, another historic train station. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(bright piano music) - [Narrator] We're standing in Pennsylvania station, in the heart of Manhattan, underneath Madison Square Garden. - [Narrator] Penn Station takes up an entire city block, from 31st to 33rd street, from seventh avenue to eighth avenue. So when it opened in 1910, you could enter the building from each of the streets but the majority of people would have entered from seventh avenue and they would have preceded down a grand hallway which would have intersected, mid block, by a towering hall that looked quite close to the Baths of Caracalla from ancient Rome. - [Narrator] This is a moment at the tail end of the Beaux-Arts style that is the style that is informed by classism by way of the renaissance and the baroque. - [Narrator] When you walked passed the towering waiting room and moved towards the train tracks, you would enter into this large glass and iron atrium. This train shed very much in the style of the great 19th century European train stations. - [Narrator] The key issue for most people was the grander, the scale of these spaces. You have to keep in mind that before the second world war, this was the primary way that Americans traveled from one place to another but beginning of the 1950s Americans begin to travel by air, they began to benefit from the interstate highway system and consequently the railroads were selling less seats. - [Narrator] Because of their new railroad, realized that one of it's great assets was real estate, in the center of Manhattan. - [Narrator] The space above the tracks. - [Narrator] And so the railroad decided to demolish Penn station, maintaining the tracks below ground, building a new Penn station underneath office towers, at Madison Square Garden. - [Narrator] Most people felt that this would keep the railroads alive but what was overlooked is that there would be the loss of an unforgettable building. - [Narrator] And there were protests, architects, preservation-minded citizens asked that the railroad reconsider and preserve the building. - [Narrator] But it was too late, so many steps had been taken and the debt was so great that it was impossible to reverse it. - [Narrator] And so the building was demolished. - [Narrator] It took two years to demolish the building. - [Narrator] And it was replaced with a building that New Yorkers now love to hate. - [Narrator] It is a building that is underground, it is dark, it is windowless, it still does the job, it is still the busiest train station in the United States but it is not a building that you would bring anyone to see. - [Narrator] The idea that a city had the right to landmark privately owned buildings, is a radical one that it could impose regulations on private real estate development is something that doesn't exist in the United States in the 19th century. - [Narrator] New York City had always put growth ahead of anything else, it seemed whatever was new was better. - [Narrator] And the result is, we've lost some really important landmarks. Federal Hall, the first seat of government, the place that George Washington was inaugurated is gone but slowly through the 19th century and into the 20th century this began to change. In 1965, New york City put a law on it's books, that said that the city had the right to protect it's architectural heritage. - [Narrator] New York looked to New Orleans which had taken steps to protect the french quarter in the 1930s. - [Narrator] So Penn station was gone, the New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission had been created but it was as yet, untested. - [Narrator] You can have a law but you you have to interpreter the law and you have to execute the law and then you have to select which building should be protected by the law. - [Narrator] Let's walk over to the other great train terminal in New York City, Grand Central Terminal. - [Narrator] It's where the law was tested. - [Narrator] We've walked over to Grand Central, it's an enormous facade that like Penn station, is also borrowing from the history of architecture but in this case we're calling a great ancient Roman triumphal arch and the scale of this building gives us a sense of what Penn station would have looked like. - [Narrator] Rather than having a train station spread out on a single block, this is a much smaller site and the tracks are on two levels. - [Narrator] And that was possible because this train station was designed to accommodate electrified tracks, whereas the older technology, steam had required huge open sheds that could accommodate the billowing steam and smoke. By the time we get to the mid 20th century, the New York Central Railroad which controlled Grand Central Station was falling victim to the same economic changes that had precipitated the demolition of Penn station. The railroad decided to build a skyscraper, including a plan to place the skyscraper in front of the terminal and a plan to place the skyscraper on top of the terminal. - [Narrator] But these plans required the approval of the New York City Landmarks Commission which had designated this building a landmark. - [Narrator] And ultimately the landmarks commission rejected both of those plans. - [Narrator] When Penn Station was lost, there was no legal means to protect the building but at this time, the New York City Landmark's Preservation Commission, could protect this building and have the power to determine what alterations were considered to be appropriate. - [Narrator] And needless to say, the landowner didn't agree with the decision that the Landmarks Preservation Commission reached and brought them to court and ultimately, the case ended up in front of the United States Supreme Court. - [Narrator] And it was difficult to say how it would turn out, large groups of people traveled from New York to attend the decision. - [Narrator] Ultimately the supreme court found that New York City did indeed have the right to establish laws that if determined were in the best interest of the city as a whole in order to protect what it believed were significant pieces of architecture. - [Narrator] So when the law was passed and the commission was created, most people felt that the main goal was to protect historic structures, to protect places where historic events had occurred but if you read the law, it viewed there being many layers of benefits. - [Narrator] Chapter three of the New York City Administrative Code that deals with the landmarks preservation law, states that this is to the benefit of the economy of the city and to promote the use of historic districts, landmarks, interior landmarks and scenic landmarks for the education, pleasure and welfare of the people of the city. (bright piano music)