Reconstructing a Monument

by Don Friedman on June 7, 2017

In among the plans for converting the General Post Office to be a new Penn Station, and converting Madison Square Garden to be a new Penn Station, is a plan to rebuild the old demolished Penn Station. Given the old station’s status as a local martyr for the historic preservation cause, this idea is worth, at the very least, a blog post’s length of discussion.

In short, reconstruction doesn’t work. The original Penn Station was a beautiful building – in particular the glass-roofed track access area – but it was a product of its era. There is no logical reason for a train station to be designed in a neoclassical style, but that made sense in the context of 1910. It would make sense to save that structure if it still existed, as a representative artifact of its time and as a piece of our local culture, but of course it’s long gone.

It does not make sense to build a slavish reproduction for many reasons: the old building would not meet current standards for accessibility and energy use, the ratio of commuter to long-distance trains has changed a great deal so the layout of the long-distance and commuter concourses would be badly unbalanced, most people arrive at the station using subways that did not exist when the old station was built, and the cultural meaning of classical facades and interiors has changed over the last hundred years. We could build an exact replica, but why should we?

That’s where things get philosophically difficult. There’s nothing left of the existing building above grade (the tracks and platforms are original, as are some of the stairs) so there’s literally nothing to “preserve.” If we alter the original design – to get rid of the stairs that would make access difficult for people with impaired mobility, or to increase the size of the commuter-train concourse – then we’re not replicating the original design. If we’re not replicating the design, then why shouldn’t we design a new, and possibly better, building? The new building could be worse, of course, but that risk exists every time we build anything.

A few months ago, I said that preservation has to be more than simply saving pretty exteriors as museum pieces. The flip side is that preservation of cultural values (or perhaps “perceived cultural values”) does not justify over-riding everything we know about building planning and design. If we want to restore Penn Station, the best way to do it is not to rebuild that huge granite facade, it’s to create a new building on the site that is an architectural icon for the twenty-first century in the same way that the old station was for the twentieth. It’s worth noting that the old station was in existence for 53 years and has been completely gone for 50 years. The idea of a symbolic gateway is worth preserving though reconstruction; there is no “preservation” in worrying about the specific architectural form of the old building.

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