Catesby Leigh on Penn Sta.

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Rendering of Pennsylvania Station rebuilt to modern specifications. (Jeff Stikeman/NCAS)

The National Civic Art Society, in Washington, has named the critic Catesby Leigh, one of its co-founders and early board chairmen, as its research fellow for 2018-2019. This salutary honor will enable Leigh to continue studying the phenomenon of monuments, and also enable his involvement in the latest project at NCAS (of which I am a member). I convey my congratulations!

One monument America lost in 1962 was Pennsylvania Station, designed by Charles Follen McKim of the firm McKim, Mead & White, and completed in 1910. It was razed in an act of cultural barbarism described at the time by the late critic Vincent Scully’s lament that “one entered the city like a god,” but “now one scuttles in like a rat.”

Of course train stations are supremely utilitarian structures but Penn Station transcended its utility, emerging as nobility. That’s no longer allowed these days, but the NCAS has embraced a proposal by Brooklyn architect Richard Cameron to rebuild Penn Station as originally designed. The project would naturally include changes to suit the needs of today, as if anyone has to be assured of that. And yes, some do require, or pretend to require, such assurances. They are called modernists.

Leigh wrote a memorable, indeed, a beautiful essay on the option to rebuild, “Penn Station, Reborn?,” published at delicious length in the Summer 2016 edition of the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly, City Journal. Leigh deftly parses the interlocking difficulties of the plan and how it can solve the dire transportation infrastructure problems facing the New York region today. He has done so in such a manner as to make the seemingly impossible sound perfectly logical – and even affordable. Leigh writes:

[T]he old Penn Station was not architecture “of its time” but architecture for all time. Cameron puts the cost of rebuilding it at $2.5 billion. Demolition of 2 Penn Plaza as well as [Madison Square] Garden could move the price tag up to $3 billion. But thanks to Hudson Yards and the High Line, property values in this neighborhood have risen dramatically. Even under existing zoning, the station’s reconstruction would yield millions of square feet of transferable air rights that would make a big dent in that price tag.

More than affordable, after finishing Leigh’s essay, readers come away with an almost spiritual assurance that rebuilding Pennsylvania Station can help revive the nation, pulling us together again – as a train station ought to do.

The result would be a stupendous public resort like Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, with a major transportation component built in.

“One entered the city like a god.” Yes, and we can do so again.

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Rendering of the Grand Waiting Room of a proposed rebuilt Penn Station. (Jeff Stikeman/NCAS)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Catesby Leigh on Penn Sta.

  1. LazyReader says:

    But subway ridership declined in 2016, contributing to a 2.3% decline in nationwide transit ridership. The drop in the Big Apple’s subway ridership was only 0.8 percent, but unlike most cities where transit fares bring in less than 20 percent of operating costs, the subway covers 60 percent of its operating costs with fares. Even a small decline hurts more than a bigger decline would do elsewhere. Money is particularly crucial now, as the subway and other New York transit systems have become increasingly unreliable. It is so bad that some transit riders have sued New York City transit for failing to provide safe and reliable service. A few years ago, when the Federal Transit Administration reported that the nation’s transit systems had a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog, New York’s systems seemed to be in pretty good shape compared with Boston, Chicago, Philly, and DC, which were on the verge of collapse. What has happened to lead New York’s systems to become so unreliable? The 1990s, the region spent a lot of money restoring the various rail systems. But in the 2000s, rather than keeping up that investment, the city decided to blow billions of dollars on the Second Avenue Subway and a connection for the Long Island Railroad. In short, rather than fix what they have….they went towards spending to build even more infrastructure, now they have to pay for both. Rebuilding Penn Station is gonna be place on the back burner….it’s cost will probably come close to 2-3 Billion with numerous delays and while beautiful it’s ignoring the fact that rail transit ridership is in decline. Outside the Northeast area, rail transit is obsolete. Maybe privatizing rail would make it profitable again but that’s unlikely, not the way it’s currently owned and governed.

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  2. Catesby Leigh says:

    Thank you very much for the kind words, David. Much appreciated as always. I shared your Stockholm posts with an old friend (from South America days but who also had a stint here in DC) who was the senior foreign correspondent for the leading Swedish daily. He was familiar with the Web site you cited at the top of the second post and admires the organization. Cheers, Catesby

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    • The pleasure was mine, of course. I am sure I must have entered the original Penn Station when I was very, very young, perhaps after it was already doomed, on visits from D.C. to my grandmother in the Bronx. But I have no memory of it. I would love to be able to feel that feeling again.

      I wonder whether your Swedish friend concurs that there is a revolt against modernism in Sweden.

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      • LazyReader says:

        I tend to think Sweden has more pressing concerns than building aesthetics…..like gang rapes, grenade attacks, feminization of males and it’s inevitable status as a Third World nation by 2030.

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