Cameron’s Penn Sta. pitch

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Grand Central Terminal would have fit inside the Penn Station waiting room. (Richard Cameron)

Richard Cameron, who spearheads the plan to have New York’s Pennsylvania Station rebuilt much as it was when it opened in 1910, pitched his proposal in Boston yesterday. Before a large audience at the Boston Design Center, he described how Charles Follen McKim’s design is feasible to replicate today. It was a powerful presentation, delivered with his inimitable charm.

Cameron, who runs the firm Atelier & Co. in Brooklyn, was invited to speak by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. Chapter president David Andreozzi pointed out in his introduction that Cameron was one of the original founders of the ICAA, headquartered in New York City. Cameron said his 7-year-old child asks him every morning whether Penn Station has been rebuilt yet. It was a touching moment. I hope the boy will someday be able to see what his grandfather must’ve seen after getting off a train at Penn Station before it was torn down in 1963-1966.

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Architect Philip Johnson protests 1963 demo.

It remains an open question whether the ICAA’s national leadership supports the Rebuild Penn Station initiative. With the dearth of organizational leadership from inside the city, the initiative is being led from Washington, D.C., by the irrepressible National Civic Art Society and its president, Justin Shubow, who led opposition to the odious Frank Gehry memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower and was recently appointed to the U.S. Fine Arts Commission. (Why the ICAA has not stepped up to the plate, as yet, on the plan to rebuild Penn Station is a question for another day.)

There’s no reason Penn Station cannot be rebuilt substantially as it was designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim Mead & White, America’s premier firm at the time. Obviously, any such project would incorporate the technologies of the 21st century and features such as a shopping mall and an upgraded rail and platform plan, while making use of the rehabilitation of the Farley Post Office ongoing next door as an extension of Penn Station, to be known as Moynihan Station after the late Senator Patrick Moynihan, a notable train buff when he represented New York State. One can imagine an ebullient Moynihan opening his New York Times and pumping his fists in ecstatic joy upon learning of the Rebuild Penn Station plan.

The late Vincent Scully famously remarked after Penn Station’s demolition that “one entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Penn Station’s fate, amid the national shift from rail to automobiles and airlines, is still considered the cultural crime of the century. But we still have Grand Central Terminal, don’t we? So what’s the big deal? Well, as Cameron pointed out, we once had both. And together they reinforced New York’s status as the greatest city in the world. Now, even with its financial stature and fabulous skyline … not so much.

Cameron gave an example of Penn Station’s scale compared with that of Grand Central. The entirety of the GCT would have been able to fit within the General Waiting Room of Penn Station with room to spare. I found that difficult to believe, but Cameron showed a comparison. That’s it, the collage assembled by the architect and displayed atop this post. We think of Grand Central as monumental, and it is, but that image is enough to enable the imagination to grasp how amazing it would be if New York City could have Penn Station back. We really would enter the city like a god again.

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Photo of Penn Station at Penn Station.

The pathetic facility that is the current Penn Station once had photographs of the old Penn Station in its public passageways, or rat holes. They have been taken down. The National Civic Art Society should do another ad campaign (as it did in the New Jersey commuter trains) and put up drawings of Penn Station’s waiting room with Grand Central inside. Or maybe urban guerrillas could put them back up in Penn Station itself, and get the Times to do stories on this derring-do. That would get people’s attention!

Cameron also raised the possibility of getting a major celebrity such as Oprah to back Rebuild Penn Station. Or maybe try to get Trump and Obama to make a commercial saying that a rebuilt Penn Station is something they can both agree on. But such a celebrity would need to have mega star power to overcome the ridiculous inertia of most of the major local, state and federal politicians and institutions involved, not to mention the private corporations (such as Madison Square Garden). It might also be instrumental to publicize how feasible it would be to finance rebuilding Penn Station. Selling the air rights not only above Penn Station but above all the buildings around the site – which Cameron today imagines rebuilding in classical styles, as McKim once did. Analyzed and computed with even a shred of wisdom, insight and foresight, this could be a monumental sum far above what the project would cost, a deal that New York, city and state, cannot afford to miss.

Speaking of Madison Square Garden, I asked Cameron whether MSG could be relocated to the Farley (now Moynihan) post office next to Penn Station, as was proposed earlier in this long process. He said it would be too big, and he is probably right. But maybe it could be reconceptualized as a modern-day Roman Colosseum in appearance, just smaller, as the original Penn Station was a reimagined Baths of Caracalla. Something beyond a financial incentive to relocate – perhaps along with the suggestion that the owner of the new Garden would be the equivalent of the Roman caesars! Bread and circuses atop the newly glorified palace of transportation! Put that august personage upon a divan between Trump and Obama, or on a love seat with our next president – Oprah! Whatever. Every man has his price.

Cameron rocked the big room at the Design Center. New York can rebuild a Penn Station that will rock the world.

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Sketch envisioning vicinity of Penn Station as Charles Follen McKim envisioned it.

About David Brussat

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 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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