The Stillness of Remembering What You Had, And What You Lost

I grew up in New York from age zero to six, when my family moved to Baltimore. Dad left Columbia University after the student riots [chronicle] and took a position at Johns Hopkins University. I still consider myself a New Yorker when it’s convenient to be.

Most summers, dad arranged some time at the National Archives in Paris, and we took the cheap route: train to New York, Icelandair to Luxembourg via Keflavik, and the early morning train from Luxembourg to Paris Gare Du Nord. That route usually got us into Paris at around 6am and we often found a bakery, bought bread and croissants, and hung out in Notre Dame Cathedral, which was always open. That route makes up a lot of my childhood memories (as well as a storm on the Dover to Calais boat train) I always knew on the return trip that 34th street (Penn) station in New York was the waypoint that meant “almost there” since we could usually sleep on the train down to Baltimore. I also remember the endless clinging stink of cigarette smoke, which covered everything on the trains and planes of the day. But I’ve always loved train stations; I’ve spent a lot of time in them.

The Penn Station of my memory is shabby and smells of piss and cigarette smoke. In the 60s and 70s it was a constant construction site – a flight of stairs and escalators that went a ways into the ground, to a walkway of cruddy stores and a Dunkin Donuts, to a waiting room and destination marquee that made an indescribable mechanical noise when it changed and triggered mass crowds charging for the escalators at the top of each of the track gates.

When I lived in Baltimore in the 90s, I did a lot of consulting work up in New York (SAIC, the company that runs the computers for the New York Stock Exchange was a big client of mine) and I spent a lot of mornings  on the Amtrak from Baltimore, and returning, stood around (eating Dunkin’ Donuts) waiting for the train home in the evening. The only improvement I ever detected to the station was that, eventually, it no longer reeked of cigarette smoke. I did not like Penn Station and I still don’t.

I haven’t made that run since I moved to Pennsylvania. Now, if I need to go to New York, I drive to Allentown, PA (3hr) and park, then take the Bieber commuter bus in to the Port Authority building. Major construction projects at Penn Station were off my radar screen, so I was surprised the other day to see that New York has upgraded the part of the station where the Long Island Regional Railroad and PATH trains come in. It’s… Better than it was. I still don’t like it.

[nyt] declares it “Stunning” and a good step. For $1.6bn, it ought to be stunning.

Immediately after claiming that the new train hall is “Stunning”, the NYT backs up a load of disdain for Penn Station. Deserved disdain. If you don’t know: in the 1960s, the old Penn Station was torn down and Madison Square Garden, a round building, was constructed on top of it. Madison Square Garden is a 1960s monstrousity of design – vaguely resembling a giant moldy cheese – built on top of 34th St station by demolishing the original Penn Station and leaving the gates and tracks and a small waiting room. Construction projects like this are insanely expensive because, often, the new construction is accomplished while the old train station is still operating. Buildings are built on top of buildings full of people and trains, so the traffic is not interrupted.

When the original Penn Station was built, the same architects designed a post office across the street, to match. Compared to the train station, the post office was smallish:

The new train hall occupies part of the old post office building. Thanks, New York, for ruining another of your architectural masterpieces. But, the wheels of progress must turn and churn the past to dust.

The Bowery Boys podcast [bb] recently did an episode about Penn Station and the destruction of the old station, which came up on my rotation. That’s why I am remembering the smoke and crowds and traffic; it’s vivid. What I never experienced was the original Penn Station. I’m familiar with pictures of it (The Bowery Boys go into a lot of detail about what happened to the various pieces of it) but it reminded me to do some google image searches for what the various bits and pieces around there looked like.

Of course I remember Madison Square Garden, a huge ugly thing but a product of its times. You can see the door at the bottom says “Pennsylvania Station” – if you go in there, you don’t wind up in the sports arena, you wind up in the cramped waiting room/lobby of the current 34th Street Station, a special 1980s sort of hell:

That’s the Penn Station I remember.

I also have one fun memory of Madison Square Garden. One time, in October 1976, we were coming back from France and missed our train to Baltimore because there was an absolutely insane traffic jam in all the streets around The Garden. We had to get off the bus and push our way through the crowds to get to the entrance to the train station, but it took too long. I remember asking dad, “What is a Led Zeppelin?” and he said, “I have no idea.”

If you look closely at the picture of Madison Square Garden being built, you can see the covered area where they maintained an opening for troglodytes to access the train. Across the street at the right is the post office building where, now, the new train gallery is located (underneath it, I think). The Garden doesn’t look so big but that’s just a factor of scale – look at the little bitty people on the sidewalk.

All of this meandering is to say that I’ve been in some of the great train stations of the world: New York Grand Central, Paris Nord, Est, and Orsay, London Paddington, Tokyo, Budapest, Istanbul. But I’ve never been in the real Pennsylvania Station, which lives somewhere in memory like a ghost that will forever haunt New York. You can’t look at the girders of the roof of the Moynihan Train Gallery and not see deliberate nods to the old station.

The old Penn Station was clad in marble, so it quickly became dingy from smoke. The interior, dingy from smoke. The exterior, dingy. That was the excuse for spending $1.1 billion to build Madison Square Garden. You can buy a lot of cleaning for $1.1 billion, but the sad fact is that Penn Station was built at the moment of “peak train” and glamour travel switched to air just as the station became available. Instead of the upper crust traveling by train, suddenly the building dropped a notch or 5 in the class hierarchy, which meant that nobody wanted to spend money on it, and Pennsylvania Railroad didn’t have money, either.

It’s popular in some quarters to deny that the US is an empire. Yet, unmistakably, the US of the 1900s was architecturally declaring itself to be an imperial power. By the way, the architects of the building deliberately lifted visual references to the Great Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

[source] rendering of the great baths of Caracalla as they might have looked

The 60s/70s were a time of counter-culture and rebellion, but also bad taste.

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Go back and look at the picture of the post office building. Do you think it was staged? I do. The people are sharp and clear, but the street has no cars. If you look carefully at the street, you can see artifacts that may be reflections off of moving cars. My theory is that the camera was locked on a tripod and loaded with slow film, and the cars deleted themselves because they didn’t register on the film. What about the pedestrians? I suspect that the photographer had a few people stand still for about 30-40 seconds while the camera’s shutter was open. I could be completely wrong; it could be an early photocomposite produced by separately exposing a negative of empty road onto a masked area at the bottom.

I know this piece is a bit meandery but that’s how the experience of my memory works, so I try to reflect that in my writing. I’m not sure if it’s a good method but it’s what I’ve got. It’s certainly not literature, but then I never said I was trying for literature.


  1. xohjoh2n says

    The other week there was an article about how lots of 60s buildings are being demolished and redeveloped, and how we’re losing an important part of our architectural history as a result. And I thought: yes, but they *are* still bloody ugly.

    Also, compare:

    Original Victorian building:,_old_postcard.JPG
    1960s monstrosity:
    2002 slightly less hideous rebuild:

  2. Bruce says

    My reading of the old Post Office photo is simpler. The photographer just set up across the street, then waited until there were no cars. No need for any imaging processes. It’s just that in these modern days it’s harder to imagine NYC with no traffic, even for a second. But, maybe, with traffic signals?

  3. flex says

    I’m with Bruce. The shadow of Penn Station is a little more than half-way across the street, this could have been taken fairly early in the morning, like 8:00 in the summertime, and on a Sunday. It’s also possible that someone was stopping cars for a minute, if there were 4-5people involved.

    I found the picture on-line and it said it was taken in the 1950’s. The make of the cars in the shot support this dating as well. They had some pretty high speed film by then. The exposure would be only a fraction of a second.

  4. komarov says

    That… is an incredibly low ceiling. The slightly stooped person in the middle back somehow makes the effect much worse. Everything in this picture gives the impression that you could easily bang your head.* My dislike of crowds, crowded small spaces and (currently, even if the photo isn’t current) internal pandemic alerts sync up nicely into a blaring siren. *CRIIIIiiinge* *CRIIIIiiinge* *CRIIIIiiinge*

    Doesn’t help that I, for my part, dislike airports, train stations and similar locations on general principle (Travel time is wasted time). And sorry, but they still reek of cigarettes, just walk within 10 m of the nearest door leading outside and you’ll be hit by clouds of smoke laced with nictoine, tar and maybe a hint of nostalgia. (It also doesn’t help that the EU approach to smoking areas is often “let’s paint a yellow square in the middle of the platform, that’s the smoking area so no one outside the painted square will be bothered by the smoke”)

    *Hm, do or did they ever have a vandalism problem where people would steal all the lightbulbs during the quiet hours? You could probably pawn them for a few bucks and come back once a week (and get by the rest of the time working as the station nightwatch)

  5. jenorafeuer says

    The last few pictures of the old Penn Station remind me, not unspriisingly, of the Great Hall at Union Station here in Toronto:

    Not surprising; it was built around the same time (Union Station was designed in 1906 after the big fire that destroyed a lot of downtown in 1904 and built from 1914-1920, while Penn Station was built from 1901-1910 according to Wikipedia) and obviously had the same purpose.

    That said, while significant parts of Union Station have been rebuilt since then and new sections have been added (many of them underground), the main building and the Great Hall have been listed as a National historic site since the 1970s and a Heritage site since the 1980s, and the recent construction over the last couple of decades was careful not to damage the original building. I see that the tearing down of Penn Station is credited as galvanizing much of the modern historic site preservation movement, so both for its original design and its lack of destruction Union Station may have Penn Station to thank.

    (I note that Toronto Union Station is listed as the second busiest railway station in North America. Right after… Penn Station, of course.)

  6. billseymour says

    This was interesting.  I’m also an avid rider of Amtrak; and I prefer to fly Icelandair across the Pond precisely because I get to get off the plane and stretch my legs in Keflavík.  (I’m also one of those fools who hasn’t been able to quit smoking yet, and there’s a smoking lounge behind some double doors not far from the Saga Class lounge.)

    The old Post Office, nowadays called the Farley Building, is supposed to be a big improvement over the current Penn Station.  We’ll see.

    My next excuse to ride Amtrak won’t be until February of ’22, and maybe not then either if we don’t get COVID under control.  I’d be taking the Empire Builder to Portland if that happens, but only if Amtrak goes back to a daily schedule and returns to decent food service in the diner.  I don’t know when I’ll see the new Penn Station.

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