Penn Station Sucks

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
New Yorkers are known to disagree about a lot of things. Who’s got the best pizza? What’s the fastest subway route? Yankees or Mets, but I would bet that if you pulled every New Yorker, all 8,500,000 of them, they would agree on one thing.

Ann Heppermann:
Penn Station sucks.

Roman Mars:
That’s Ann Heppermann, our friend and reporter in New York who also hates Penn Station.

Ann Heppermann:
There is nothing joyful about Penn Station. It’s windowless, airless, crowded. 650,000 people have to suffer through it on their daily commute. That’s more traffic than the regions three airports combined. Luckily though, I’m not one of them.

Jonathan Minhiva:
We’re in Penn Station now.

Roman Mars:
We tagged along with our unlucky friend Jonathan Minhiva. He’s a producer for this American life and commutes from his home in Jersey to Penn Station.

Ann Heppermann:
His experience of Penn Station is like being at a Black Friday sale at Walmart, every day, always.

Jonathan Minhiva:
The whole time people are pushing you.

Roman Mars:
Squeezing through a tiny stairway to get down to the tracks.

Jonathan Minhiva:
It’s the only place in which people are like actually touching your ass and you’re not supposed to say anything about it.

Ann Heppermann:
The air is often hot and stuffy.

Jonathan Minhiva:
It feels like whatever Wizard of Oz is behind, like, that they are just watching in their little tower and watching like, “Oh look at them, crush each other, look at them want to eat each other.” It’s awful. It’s awful and it’s my best way to get home every day.

Roman Mars:
Poor guy.

Ann Heppermann:
And you can also see some Penn Station hate in popular culture about New York, like in this episode of Broad City where one character Abby gets dumped because her boyfriend would rather end a relationship than take a train out of Penn Station.

Broad City Episode:
“Penn Station. I can’t. It’s disgusting. It’s kind of a deal breaker for me.”

Ann Heppermann:
But here’s the worst thing about Penn Station. This drab, low-ceilinged, uninspiring, unexceptional building was once the opposite of all of those things.

Jill Jonnes:
It was a vast space? I mean, the building itself was the fourth largest building in the world when it was finished.

Ann Heppermann:
That’s Jill Jones describing the original Penn Station. She wrote a great book about it called “Conquering Gotham”.

Roman Mars:
The original Penn Station in New York City opened in 1910. It was majestic. Imagine the Parthenon, but for trains, the facade was a line of massive doric columns. You’d walk through them, descend down a grand staircase and into a waiting room designed to remind you of a Roman temple.

Jill Jonnes:
With these very high ceilings and very spectacular light coming through. And that ushered you into all of these staircases that took you down into the train tracks.

Ann Heppermann:
And the guy behind all of this was Alexander Cassatt. The head of Pennsylvania railroad. With the original Penn Station, because that was fixing a problem that had plugged in New York for years.

Roman Mars:
Namely, it was a complete pain in the ass to get from New Jersey to Manhattan. People commuting from Jersey had to schlep across the Hudson River on a slow ferry.

Ann Heppermann:
So Cassatt built the first ever train tunnel to run under the Hudson River. It was considered one of the greatest engineering feats ever.

Roman Mars:
I know we say that all the time, but we really mean it this time,

Ann Heppermann:
And Cassatt built Penn Station terminal to crown his monumental achievement. The architecture celebrated both the past and the future.

Jill Jonnes:
It was a combination of this very ancient grandeur and this extremely industrialized form of transportation, these really powerful trains.

Ann Heppermann:
Newspapers called Penn Station, the eighth wonder of the world.

Roman Mars:
People call a lot of things the eighth wonder of the world, but we really mean it this time.

Ann Heppermann:
Everyone loved it. Everyone that is except for one other railroad family that owned a little station right across town.

Jill Jonnes:
This then made the existing Grand Central Station, which was owned by the Vanderbilt family, look really shabby.

Ann Heppermann:
At the time when the original Penn Station was built, Grand Central Station was not anywhere near as grand as it is now, but the Vanderbilts just couldn’t be out done by this other train station.

Roman Mars:
Clearly. How embarrassing.

Ann Heppermann:
So when Grand Central needed a little touch up, the Vanderbilts decided to tear it down and build a newer, shinier grand or grand central station. The one we know today.

Jill Jonnes:
So there was this very early connection between the two.

Ann Heppermann:
So Penn Station and Grand Central started out as enemies, but as the years passed, they were like the last two drunks at the party trying to keep the night from coming to an end.

Jill Jonnes:
The country was in a very different side of mindset – that new was good and flying with good and cars were good and trains were bad.

Roman Mars:
Penn Station was only 40 years old at this point, but already its days were numbered. After World War II, passenger trains just weren’t as popular anymore.

Ann Heppermann:
Pennsylvania Railroad was just bleeding money. The company couldn’t afford the upkeep of Penn Stations grandeur.

Jill Jonnes:
Everything that had been glorious about it really got sort of covered with grime and it was dirty and they didn’t fix the broken windows and there all these pigeons flying around.

Roman Mars:
It’s really hard to wash pigeon poop off a four story arch glass ceiling.

Jill Jonnes:
So people did not feel that this was this glorious place. They felt it was really crummy.

Roman Mars:
For a lot of people, Penn Station had become a money sucking albatross of a station.

Ann Heppermann:
That also sat on nine acres of precious midtown Manhattan real estate.

Roman Mars:
Remember, this is New York City. Real estate in New York is in the airspace. Pennsylvania railroad executives knew that they could make tons of money if they could rent out the space above the station to a big tall building.

Ann Heppermann:
There were proposals to build a parking garage, amphitheaters, a 40-story office tower, but the one that won out was the futuristic sports and entertainment palace known as Madison Square Garden.

Roman Mars:
The deal that Pennsylvania Railroad cut with the developer Irving felt was to keep the tracks below Penn Station and sell the rights to the airspace on top.

Ann Heppermann:
And blow up Penn Station in the process.

Roman Mars:
Here’s where I wish we could say that the whole city banded together to save the station, but actually no one really cared except for a small group of activists, architects.

Peter Samton:
AGBANY, the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York.

Roman Mars:
AGBANY, it’s a terrible acronym, but definitely a cause I can support.

Ann Heppermann:
Peter Samton was one of those architects. I went over to his house on the upper west side and we looked through old photographs from the only march to save Penn Station.

Peter Samton:
This is me. I think this was my sign right here that said, don’t sell our city short.

Ann Heppermann:
The date was August 2, 1962. There were 200 rowdy architects.

Peter Samton:
We would have to wear respectable clothing cause otherwise they wouldn’t take us seriously.

Roman Mars:
Just kidding about the rowdy part, these were architects. The men wore suits. The women wore white gloves and pearls.

Peter Samton:
We each sort of prided ourselves on doing better lettering than the next sign.

Roman Mars:
They marched up and down seventh avenue, shouting-

Peter Samton:
“Polish, don’t demolish. Save our heritage.” Things like that is what we would say. Keep in mind, none of us were ever on a picket line before.

Roman Mars:
You don’t say?

Ann Heppermann:
Still, the protest made the front page of the New York Times.

Announcer:
Architects fight Penn Station plan.

Ann Heppermann:
But it was too late on October 28, 1963 at 9:00am, jackhammers tore into Penn Station’s, granites labs.

Roman Mars:
The demolition took a long time, about three years.

Peter Samton:
You know, it was like a great animal because you had sort of black on“ the outside and then you saw the inside, which was all this beautiful pink. So it was like the flesh was opened up with a knife.

Ann Heppermann:
And after three years, most of the original Penn Stations remains. The dark column is the granite and travertine details, all of that had been dumped into a New Jersey swamp.

Roman Mars:
And of course they gave us a new Penn Station, one that was summarily hated by everyone. In 1968 architectural historian Vincent Scully famously remarked that whereas before one entered the city like a god, one scuttles in now, like a rat. After the destruction of Penn Station, Mayor Robert Wagner created the first landmarks preservation commission.

Ann Heppermann:
And in 1965, the group helped pass the city’s first ever landmarks law, so that something as drastic as the destruction of Penn Station could never happen again.

Roman Mars:
But the landmark laws were flawed.

Roberta Gratz:
It was a joke.

Roman Mars:
New Yorkers are so blunt.

Ann Heppermann:
That’s Roberta Gratz. She wrote award winning stories about the problems with the city’s landmark laws for the New York Post in the 1970s.

Roberta Gratz:
For those of you who are too young to know, the New York Post used to be a really good newspaper.

Ann Heppermann:
There were a number of problems with the landmark laws. The biggest one though was that the landmarks commission didn’t meet all that much. They met for six months every three years.

Roman Mars:
So if you missed your window to get your favorite New York City building landmarked, tough luck.

Ann Heppermann:
And in the meantime…

Roberta Gratz:
The bulldozer operated at will.

Roman Mars:
Gratz says a lot of buildings were lost even after the landmark laws were passed, like the Singer building, which was once the tallest building in the world and the old Metropolitan Opera House and the Astor Hotel.

Ann Heppermann:
And then in 1968 Penn Station’s, old rival Grand Central Station was poised to be yet another pile of rubble.

Ann Heppermann:
I love Grand Central Station. Hands down. It is my favorite place in the city.

Kent Barwick:
Welcome to the Grand Central Terminal.

Ann Heppermann:
Kent Barwick is just as excited as I am to be here. He’s been involved in saving New York City’s historic buildings for decades. We’re standing under Grand Central’s beautiful vaulted green ceiling, which is decorated with constellations. I just love looking up at it.

Roman Mars:
You and every other person.

Kent Barwick:
Let’s see if we can find anybody doing it. It’s rare to come in here without finding somebody taking a picture or … Oh, there’s one. She is just about to take a picture. (laughs)

Ann Heppermann:
Grand Central feels like a throwback to what I feel like the old Penn Station must have been like.

Roman Mars:
Just like the original Penn Station, Grand Central was a hard building to keep clean.

Ann Heppermann:
Kent Barwick points to a small patch of black in the far corner of the ceiling.

Kent Barwick:
Just to the left of there, there seems to be a piece of dirty limestone and a piece of dirty ceiling. I think that shows how the ceiling was like, which is essentially nicotine-coated.

Ann Heppermann:
That’s what it was?

Kent Barwick:
Everybody smoked all the time.

Ann Heppermann:
That black ceiling square was left on purpose to remind people what Grand Central was like back in the day.

Roman Mars:
In the 1960s, Grand Central’s history was almost a carbon copy of Penn Station’s. They were losing money because the building was so expensive to maintain and fewer people were taking trains.

Ann Heppermann:
Just like Penn Station.

Roman Mars:
Railroad executives decided they needed to sell the airspace on top of the station and invite developers to build.

Ann Heppermann:
Saying, “Hey, wouldn’t have 55-story office tower being nice on top of this baby?”

Roman Mars:
Which would demolish Grand Central’s facade and most of its interior.

Ann Heppermann:
But here’s where the story of Grand Central and Penn Station diverge. Remember those landmark laws that happened in the years after the original Penn Station was demolished. Well, as weak as they were, they did manage to get Grand Central designated as a landmark. So the city denies the railroad executives plans.

Roman Mars:
The owners of Grand Central were not pleased. They wanted the money they were going to get from selling their air rights, the space above Grand Central, so they sued the city.

Ann Heppermann:
The case was a long one, it went on for nearly a decade.

Roman Mars:
And it was a bit of a nail biter. Grand Central nearly lost in 1975 when a state judge ruled against the city’s designation of it as a landmark. The new mayor, Abe Beame almost appealed the ruling saying that the city was poised to lose millions in court costs.

Ann Heppermann:
So Kent Barwick and others created the committee to save Grand Central.

Roman Mars:
With one member who was a bit of a game changer.

Jacqueline.O:
I think if there is a great effort, even if it’s at the 11th hour, you can succeed and I think, and I know that that’s what we’ll do.

Roman Mars:
Entered Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis.

Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis:
Thank you.

Ann Heppermann:
Kennedy Onassis fronted the “Save Grand Central” press conference held in 1975 by the Municipal Arts Society.

Roman Mars:
Kent Barwick was at that press conference. He says that with Jackie O. so prominently involved, the fight went from a New York battle to a national one.

Kent Barwick:
People began to write in from Iowa with a $5 bill enclosed.

Ann Heppermann:
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. And on June 26, 1978, the highest court in the land ruled in favor of New York City’s landmark laws.

Roman Mars:
Justice William Brennan wrote of Grand Central’s architecture, “Such examples are not so plentiful in New York City that we can afford to lose any of the few we have. And we must preserve them in a meaningful way.” In other words, Grand Central would not suffer the same fate as its old friend and foe Penn Station.

Ann Heppermann:
So the landmark laws with a lot of help from Jackie Onassis squeaked out a win. And all of these years later, one of the ways people comfort themselves about the loss of the original Penn Station is with this idea that the laws that came out of the destruction of Penn Station saved Grand Central. So you know it’s okay because it died for a cause.

Peter Samton:
I don’t think Grand Central would have been saved without Penn Station. Penn Station sacrificed itself so that Grand Central could live.

Roman Mars:
That was Peter Samson. You heard from him earlier. He was one of the architects that fought and fail to save Penn Station.

Ann Heppermann:
But the tie between the destruction of Penn Station and the saving of Grand Central is actually kind of tenuous for Roberta Gratz. It was Jackie O., not the landmark laws that saved Grand Central.

Roberta Gratz:
It’s all very romantic to assume that the demolition of something so historic as Penn Station would have precipitated a strong landmarks law. It just isn’t true.

Roman Mars:
A sacrificial lamb like Penn Station can only do so much. People have to actually fight and win like they did with Grand Central for laws to have teeth.

Ann Heppermann:
Roberta Gratz was actually one of those people. The reporting she did on the Landmarks Commission is just one of the things that led to the Landmark Laws ultimately being strengthened and, of course, the Supreme Court upholding those laws in the Grand Central case set an important precedent for saving future landmarks.

Roman Mars:
These days it’s still a fight to save a building, but the laws are there and they’re stronger now than they once were. So if you’re a beautiful old building in New York, you don’t have to rely on a celebrity endorsement or a ragtag group of architect activists chanting, “Polish, don’t demolish,” to save you.

Credits

Production

Reporter Ann Heppermann spoke with Jill Jonnes, author of Conquering Gotham; Peter Samton, one-time architecture activist with AGBANY; reporter Roberta Gratz; and preservationist Kent Barwick.

Editorial assistance on this story was provided by Julia Barton.

Music

“Permutation” — Amon Tobin
“First Self Portrait Series” — The Rachels
“the forest” — Chemical Brothers
“Em Essey” — Casino Vs. Japan
“Ho Renomo” — Eno & Cluster
“Harsh The Herald Angels Sing” — Casiotone For The Painfully Alone
“Outside” — OK Ikumi
“You Can’t Help Me” — Melodium

Comments (20)

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  1. John Tomko

    It’s annoying to hear Grand Central Terminal, repeatedly and incorrectly referred to in the episode as Grand Central Station.

  2. Jon Hood

    As a tourist arriving from the UK via Newark, entering Manhattan for the first time by train through Penn Station is actually quite amazing as NYC is hidden from view until you emerge into a full size film set, eyes wide open like a child falling out the back of a dark Narnian Wardrobe, its amazing! You should see some of our ageing stations in the UK …then you will know what depressing is!

  3. Roman and team, great episode! I am a biking tour guide of Central park and a student of architecture history (so a dream job, on a bike). I share the tragic story of Penn Station every time we stop at the Onassis Reservoir, renamed in her honor as another great victory in Manhattan for the landmarks commission (she helped saved the reservoir right around the same time as Grand Central) However, ever since about a year and a half ago. the story got a little brighter. Madison Square Garden’s lease is up as of 2022. And, plans were submitted to rebuild it, in fact it was a competition! You can find the schemes here:

    http://www.mas.org/urbanplanning/new-penn-station-2/

  4. Melvin

    Ditto on the aggravation of the Terminal/Station mixup. Grand Central Station is the subway station under Grand Central Terminal. (Kent Barwick got it right, though!) More generally, I was surprised to see how little the episode added to the conventional narrative–not usually the case. And, c’mon, can’t we find anyone less predictable than Roberta Brandes Gratz on this subject? Sorry to carp, but this episode seemed way under par to me.

  5. What the heck

    Right now Moynihan Station could be a showcase of how we advance a major transportation hub in NYC. But, Gov Cuomo has his incompetent cronies at Empire State Development on the project. See how well the Atlantic Yards is working out…

  6. Bill

    “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” I like that. But then I’d always thought of New York City as something of a giant rat’s nest. Especially the Wall Street area.

  7. I was surprised to hear in the podcast Grand Central referred to as Grand Central Station (which is the subway station), especially from a supposed lover of Grand Central Terminal.

    1. Ann

      Yup! Big apologies. It was my mistake. I blame it on too many oysters at the Oyster Bar. Grand Central Terminal for life!

  8. Maria Torres

    The episode also didn’t do much in terms of analysis or the inevitable ambiguity with this story. I agree, Penn Station today is unbearable however it’s painting with some massive brushstrokes on Grand Central terminal. This includes the construction of the terminal. Many factors led to the decision to get rid of the station and replace it with the current structure. Moreover, it’s incredibly important to consider as well the impact Grand Central had on the city and the entire east side whereas Penn Station, even during the years of glamorous railroad travel, doesn’t even justify a comparison there.

    Well just some rather pointless griping and at least it could get non-nyc listeners who aren’t quite as pedantic about the terminal/station error (ie people who aren’t me) thinking about preservation in general.

  9. The demolition of the original Penn Station was a tragic loss for New York City architecture. The Penn Station we in use today is dingy and depressing.

    However the surrounding neighborhoods contain noteworthy buildings. Some of the loft buildings offer cool former manufacturing space with brick walls, high ceilings and over sized windows. The area has become a mecca for tenants seek architecturally interesting spaces, with tech firms, media companies, architects and other creative tenants attracted to the Penn Station/Garment District neighborhoods. http://bit.ly/11clUF4

  10. I am very sad that this story presented preservation as an unambiguous good. Sometimes tearing something down and building something new is the best thing to do. The preservation laws you say are not strong enough are being used to prevent new construction in huge swaths of NYC.

    Maybe one day you can do a story on totally unremarkable buildings that are categorized as landmarks, or what it does to a city to have housing supply so constrained.

    http://www.city-journal.org/2010/20_2_preservation-follies.html

  11. Cheney

    What really sucks is how many typos and errors there are in this. I can’t even see it as a credible article. If I was Julia Barton, I wouldn’t have wanted credit for this.

    1. Julia Barton

      Sorry, Cheney, I only edited the audio not the copy. However, other than a few extraneous spaces and a misplaced modifier, I don’t see much that’s offensive. Can you enlighten us?

  12. Grano

    The North River Tunnels to Penn Station were not the first train tunnels under the Hudson River. The Uptown and Downtown Hudson Tubes – both now the PATH train – were opened to revenue service in 1908 and 1909, respectively. The North River Tunnels did not open to service until 1910.

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