It was only a train station, but it was perhaps the most beautiful building in New York City. Pennsylvania Station. The architects who designed it wanted to recreate “a jewel of a building from ancient Rome.” In fact, they wanted to improve upon the masterpiece of Roman architecture—the Baths of Caracalla. And those who saw Penn Station declared that they had succeeded.
In 2003, Alistair Cooke, the British-born American journalist and broadcaster, wrote about Penn Station. When it was done in 1910, Cooke said, “It was opened to the public who came in awestruck droves to gaze at the block long line of stately Doric columns, which led to the vast waiting room,…with its splendid vaulted ceiling…and from there you passed into the great concourse,” where the architects “had produced a creation of glass arches, domes and fan vaulting with the new steel.”
Americans who weren’t even taking any train came to marvel at the station. It was an international tourist destination, and there was every reason to believe Penn Station would be dazzling people for generations to come.
But then the 20th century happened. As Cooke pointed out, “fashion in architecture, as in everything else, changes and can sometimes change drastically. By the mid 20th century the European intelligentsia came and looked at Pennsylvania Station and remained to chuckle and to sneer.”
What changed people’s perception about Penn Station? It was mostly a rebellion in architecture—led by German architect Walter Gropius—that rejected frills and all forms of classical romantic building design. Gropius invented the “international style:” buildings that looked like a monolithic, large upright plank of concrete. He sought to create structures “free of untruths or ornamentation,” and because of his influence, the style gained popularity.
But not with everyone. Frank Lloyd Wright called Gropius-style buildings “faceless, characterless, god-awful rectangles of concrete and steel.” Nevertheless, by the 1950s, the style was so pervasive that it “became almost compulsory for any city contemplating a new airport, a city hall, a big business about to bloom” to build a Gropius-type of structure.
This wave of construction led author Tom Wolfe to write in the 1960s, “There had never been a place on earth where so many people of wealth and power paid for, put up and moved into glass box office buildings they detested.”
In such an atmosphere, Cooke wrote, “there was only one thing more ridiculous than designing a Victorian or Georgian house and that was retaining the huge absurdity of a recreated Roman classical building.”
And so the unthinkable happened. In 1963, a mere 53 years after its awe-inspiring opening, the wrecking ball demolished Penn Station. Gone “was the last reminder in New York of the grandeur that was Rome.”
There had been virtually no advance notice. As the building was falling, a New York Times editorial called the demolition “a monumental act of vandalism.” But it was too late.
There was, however, a silver lining. In 1965, prompted by a popular outcry over Penn Station’s destruction, Mayor Robert Wagner signed into effect the New York City Landmarks Law to protect the city’s significant structures, and still retain their ability to be properly used. The law created The Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The commission had already saved several iconic buildings when Penn Station’s eastside counterpart, Grand Central Station, was threatened with demolition. Opened in 1913, Grand Central was a majestic building in its own right. By the 1960s, however, Penn Central—the building’s owner—was facing declining revenues and the grand old station was deteriorating badly.
But this time concerned citizens, led by the Municipal Art Society, joined forces to save the building. And they had help from one very important woman—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Jackie sent a letter to the mayor urging him to help preserve the station. “Is it not cruel,” she wrote, “to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is 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.” Her involvement helped make the cause even more popular.
Nevertheless, the railroad wanted to tear down Grand Central, or build a Gropius-style 55-story skyscraper on top of it. Several such proposals were advanced. The Landmarks Commission rejected them all.
Penn Central then filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing that under the New York Historical Preservation Law, it was entitled to a reasonable return on the value of its property, which it wasn’t getting with the current building.
The case eventually went to the United States Supreme Court. Penn Central asserted that the city regulation had taken its “air rights” above Grand Central, which had been designed to accommodate a building on top of it.
The Court disagreed. It concluded that the Preservation Law did “not interfere in any way with the present uses of the Terminal. Its designation as a landmark not only permits but contemplates that appellants may continue to use the property precisely as it has been used for the past 65 years: as a railroad terminal containing office space and concessions.”
The court held that, because the regulation didn’t interfere with Penn Central’s reasonable investment-backed expectations, the city’s restrictions did not amount to a taking.
Summing up the case, Alistair Cooke wrote: “In 1978 the Supreme Court decreed that Grand Central was to be immortal and never to be subject to the jackhammer and the wrecking ball.” Years later, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority assumed responsibility of the building and, with public funds, restored the grand old station to its original splendor.
Today, the main entrance to Grand Central Station on Park Avenue is named after Jackie Kennedy, the former First Lady who helped lead the fight to preserve a resplendent landmark when the wrecking ball was poised for destruction.
Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.