The Demolition of Penn Station
Exploring the Ruins
I had a number of good friends who were professional photographers, including Aaron Rose, Francis Keavney (fellow Irishman), and Will Forbes, who ran a darkroom service. Pennsylvania Station became something of an obsession for the four of us. We explored the enormous building in groups, cameras in hand.
Because a condition of the demolition was the continued operation of the station, the building could not be closed. This, of course, greatly added to the already complex task of dismantling so large an edifice. The resulting security of what was simultaneously a construction and demolition site was somewhat haphazard.
On our many forays into the disappearing building I do not recall a single instance of being challenged. (In retrospect I suppose I could have tried to obtain official permission for my documentation, but my credentials were thin.)
In any event, we frequently photographed on weekends, which did not compromise construction or demolition work and gave us almost complete freedom of movement. Our ability to move about, through, into, around, and all over the building was invaluable, though not without hazard.
In the early stages of demolition, much of the terminal was unknown to me. Every visit became an adventure into the past, to spaces that had served some forgotten function, mundane or grand. The parts of Penn Station occupying the eastern and western side, fronting Seventh and Eighth Avenues, housed various offices, some relating to the railroad, others not. Over 2000 railroad employees worked in the building. In all, almost 3000 people made their living there.
Working on a daily basis just across the street meant that I could keep a watchful eye on the progress of work and have a reasonable chance of being able to record particularly dramatic events, like the removal of the guardian eagles.
I focused on the regular users of the station and recorded their sometime tortuous paths through the compromised facility. The group photographs of people, mostly men, watching the workers dismantle the station piece by piece, reflect the fascination of pedestrians in both the demolition and construction processes being carried out simultaneously.
I tried to relate my photographs of the station to its surroundings, sometimes including the familiar profile of the Empire State Building or the neighboring post office, so later viewers could relate photographs to still-standing structures.
The roof of the Hotel Pennsylvania afforded an all-encompassing view of the site. I also climbed into the roof structures of the station and stood above the vaults to gain a high vantage point. Often the route was tortuous, and retracing my tracks to a particular location difficult because the station was constantly changing.
The demolition work began slowly, with just a few warning signs here and there and the odd barricade. Some of the contractors' signs suggested ambivalence about what they were doing: "Sorry, but!" The contractors seemed to be probing their target for weak spots to attack, like wolves circling their prey awaiting the right opportunity.
Once they decided where to start, the going was rough. The building was solid — at least the exterior walls were. The massive granite columns were designed to last indefinitely. Chipping away at their bases seemed an exercise in futility, but little by little, the persistent gnawing began to make an impact.
Despite the noise from jack hammers and acetylene burners and great clouds of dust pierced by cascades of sparks, commuters and long-distance
travelers largely ignored the battle, threading their way through the maze of obstructions that seemed to grow daily.
Then came a major surprise. The great waiting room, the main space in the terminal, seemingly as solid as the exterior, turned out to be like a giant stage set. The masonry was only a veneer supported by a metal framework. Each of the massive interior columns was plaster, with a steel section of modest dimensions at its core.
The coffered ceiling was easily peeled off, revealing a web of steel supports, not nearly as generous as one might have expected. So much for the impression of solidity. Unlike the unyielding granite facade, the interior virtually crumbled. This portion of the demolition work proceeded speedily, with changes evident almost daily.
I showed my material to various magazines, architectural and otherwise, but it did not provoke much response at the time. Once the fate of the station was sealed, people seemed unconcerned. A few of us mourned, but the majority assumed that old buildings had to be sacrificed in the interest of progress.
All that remains of the old station is our ever-dimming recollection of it, and the photographic record.
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Norman McGrath is an architectural photographer and teacher. In 1985, the AIA selected him for its Institute Honor, and the New York chapter of the AIA awarded him a special citation for photography in 1999.
This article is excerpted from New York's Pennsylvania Stations, copyright © 2002, available from W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. and at Amazon.com.