Penn Station Falls and Sparks a Revolution
As the Craftsman era continued to ingratiate itself into the American psyche it came under attack from a new wave of European aggression. At the same time, a domestic threat that would come to symbolize everything wrong about urban planning was reshaping the country’s greatest city. After three bloody street fights an unlikely guerilla fighter rose to the top of fray becoming an iconic hero for all future preservation efforts.
In the early 1960’s skirmishes over freeways combined with the destruction of an ornate and obsolete train station started turning off the downpour of demolition raining down from urban renewal efforts. It all started in the 1920’s, as Modernism began to affect society in ways that would rival the long reach of the Arts and Crafts movement while at the same time trying to eradicate everything it stood for. The conflict began in perennially neutral Switzerland with the birth of an especially colorful character.
The man who named himself Le Corbusier is often credited with spawning the Modernism movement that defined a new era in architecture, even though he had no formal training in design. He was born Swiss but became a French citizen in 1930. His nom de plume was a mashup of his grandmother’s surname, Lecorbésier and Corbeau, French for “crow.” Translated into English, the pseudonym comes out as “the crow-like one.”
The man cloaking himself in the mythos of Corvus published manifestos and painted with the Cubists in Paris while rubbing elbows with Gertrude Stein. In 1925 he teamed up with his architect cousin Pierre Jeanneret and a French painter named Amédée Ozenfant, to design “Le Pavilion of the L'Esprit Nouvea for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. “Decorative” and “arts” got mashed together and became what the world started calling Art Deco.
The exhibition swelled to the scale of a World’s Fair featuring 15,000 exhibitors from twenty countries. It ran for seven months and attracted over sixteen million people. The United States didn’t participate, as Herbert Hoover, who was then serving as the Secretary of Commerce, stating that there was “no modern art in the U.S.A.”
While setting up his creation, Le Corbusier squabbled with the event organizers about a fence that was obscuring his building and bemoaned a lack of funding. “The Building Committee of the exhibition made use of ifs powers to evince the most marked hostility to the execution of my scheme,” he said. “No funds were available, no site was forthcoming, and the Organizing Committee of the exhibition refused to allow the scheme I had drawn up to proceed. “
Nevertheless, he persisted as his exhibit became a milestone in the evolution of architecture. Le Corbusier’s referred to his thought-provoking creation as a “cell-unit, standardized to meet the needs of men whose lives are standardized.” The two-story residence was rendered as an individual unit that could be folded into a multifamily apartment building. The kitchen and living spaces were downstairs, bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. It measured 2,200 square feet which included an outdoor patio with a singular tree growing through a hole punched through a partially covered, outdoor patio. There was a rooftop terrace, built-in cabinetry and an open floor plan. A rotunda abutted the living quarters, serving as a gallery for Corbu’s urban planning visions.
The interior of the unit was designed to reflect his views on how modern man was destined to live. Four years after the exhibition ended Le Corbusier self-evaluated his triumph by crowing, “In 1929 we realize, looking back, that a new term has replaced the old word ‘furniture,’ which stood for fossilizing traditions and limited utilization. That new term is ‘equipment,’ which implies the logical classification of the various elements necessary to run a house that results from their practical analysis.”
The equipment included built-in cabinetry that also appeared in the Craftsman-era bungalows that Corbu was running away from. Years later, Frank Lloyd Wright would also dabble in equipping his houses with furniture and housewares that he specified.
Corbusier professed to be a founder of the Purist Movement which set out to eliminate all forms of decoration in architecture. His vision meant that hand-made furniture would be replaced with machine-made fabrications. He liked working with simple rectangular shapes using unadorned concrete as an exterior façade which would later morph into Brutalism – arguably the most hated architectural style ever conceived. Compared to the Arts and Crafts designers who came before him, Corbu was the anti-Christ.
In 1928 Le Corbusier began work on Villa Savoye in Poissy, a suburban commune located fourteen miles west of Paris. He mounted a white concrete box on rows of pylons, included servant’s quarters in the lower level along with a parking space for a car. A ring of windows circled the box letting in vast quantities of natural light. He referred to the house as “a machine for living in,” a concept that turned the design world on its head.
The country villa was commissioned by Pierre Savoye, a wealthy French entrepreneur who made most of his money in the insurance business. The house served as a second home for the Savoyes who gave Corbusier free license to design whatever he wanted. When it was finished Corbu turned on his publicity machine to show off his first major commission. The design made history, but the execution revealed structural problems, somewhat surprising since Corbu had trained as an engineer.
Pierre’s wife, Eugénie Savoye wrote letters to the designer complaining about a skylight making strange noises, “which prevents us from sleeping during bad weather.” The contractor blamed the problems on design flaws that he identified during construction. Five years into the adventure, the house was awash. “It is raining in the hall, it’s raining on the ramp and the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked,” wrote Mrs. Savoye. “It’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods in bad weather, as the water comes in through the skylight. The gardener’s walls are also wet.”
By 1937 threats of lawyers were invoked. Eugénie wrote, “After innumerable demands you have finally accepted that this house which you built in 1929 in uninhabitable. Please render it inhabitable immediately. I sincerely hope that I will not have to take recourse to legal action.”
Installing triple pane windows in private homes was not an option in the 1930’s. Insulation methods were primitive, and the home’s furnace couldn’t keep up with the heat loss in winter rendering the house cold and damp. As war began spreading across Europe, the Savoye’s abandoned the property. During World War II the house was damaged and looted, first by the Nazis who used it as a hay barn. As the tide of the war changed, American forces also briefly occupied the machine for living in.
After the war the Savoye’s decided it wasn’t worth restoring the building and abandoned it again. It was expropriated by the village of Poissy who used it as a youth center and hatched plans for knocking it down. The French government stepped in and in 1965 declared it to be a historical monument, preserving Corbu’s vision and his flawed building– while he was still alive. In 2016 the villa along with 16 other Corbu creations became UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Le Corbusier was an atheist who designed churches. He wrote for fascist journals, traded in Nazi influenced antisemitism, and allegedly had an affair with exotic entertainer Josephine Baker. He was accused of taking credit for work he didn’t do and has been cited as the most influential designer in the world. There are claims that his inspiration is rooted in the occult by way of his membership in the Freemasons. Modernism would eventually inspire backlashes against its cold, straight-line aesthetics but the basic principles would lead to acres of production-built ranchers and ramblers that were filing up the suburbs of post-war America. But changing the world got off to a slow start.
Way before getting his first big commission from the Savoye’s, Corbusier stayed busy coming up with visions about redesigning Europe’s major cities. In 1922 he presented plans for bulldozing most of central Paris north of the Seine and replacing it with rows of sixty-story cruciform towers placed in an orthogonal street grid peppered with patches of green space. The towers would hold offices for armies of workers while mid-rise buildings below them would provide housing. The new neighborhoods would be served by superhighways that extended from downtown to farms outside the city. He called the Paris scheme, “Plan Voisin,” French for “neighboring plan.” It was an outgrowth of his concept for a Contemporary City that would sacrifice what he called the crypt of the old world. “Our world, like a charnel-house, lies strewn with the detritus of dead epochs,” he said. If Corbu had his way, large sections of the City of Light would be plowed under. Superhighways would transport drivers from the city to the country in the comfort of their own private cars.
Thirty years later Corbu’s basic strategy would become Americanized and abbreviated as “towers in the park.” The vision appeared in real life in cities all over the world as the location of the superhighways turned out to be the big sticking point.
When he released the plan Corbusier did not get the reaction he was expecting. “The result of my work was shown in November 1922 at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. It was greeted with a sort of stupor. The shock of surprise caused rage in some quarters and enthusiasm in others,” he wrote. “The solution I put forward was a rough one and completely uncompromising. There were no notes to accompany the plans, and alas! Not everybody can read a plan.”
Either that or the city fathers could read the plan and weren’t onboard with a destructive do-over for a large chunk of Paris. In the 1930’s Le Corbusier took another shot at urban planning by refining and expanding the Contemporary City concept into the surrounding countryside. He called it the Radiant City which also included plans for radiant villages and radiant farms.
The would-be urban planner traveled through Europe giving lectures while presumably looking for followers and clients. In 1935 he entered a design contest in Stockholm which challenged big thinkers to reconfigure the capital of Sweden for modern living. Corbusier stayed on brand by proposing a "cleaning and purging" for the city through a "a calm and powerful architecture." As with his plans for Paris, all the existing buildings would be knocked down and replaced with skyscrapers. Similar to Paris, his plans went nowhere.
As the world was transitioning from classic architecture to Modern, Art Deco shot off from Art Nouveau to make a short but memorable appearance on the architectural world stage by playing the role of Modern 1.0. Art Deco gave us the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, all completed from 1931-1933. Deco inspired movie theater design and gas station motifs while influencing the graphic arts, fashion, and the transportation industry.
Deco defined the skylines of major US cities, frequently sparking future preservation battles, yet producing very few residences where people live. New York City is considered a world capital of Deco and while also serving as the staging ground for an epic battle between city hall and main street. The forces of urban renewal in the U.S. were taking multiple pages from Le Corbusier’s plans for contemporary, radiant cities dominated by office towers, automobiles, and highways. But they were about to meet their match.
In 1935 a freelance writer the world would come to know as Jane Jacobs began publishing a series of behind-the-scenes looks at the luxury goods industry for Vogue Magazine. She covered the fur trade with, “Where the Fur Flies,” an expose tracing the journey from live animals to upscale garments. Stops along the way included visits with trappers, farmers, auctioneers, dressers, dealers, manufacturers, and retailers.
She used the same format for ‘‘Leather Shocking Tales,’’ by starting with the cowhide that would become shoe leather. She traced what was left of the animal all the way to the fertilizer factory. “Diamonds in the Tough,” was all about rough conditions in the Diamond District with the neighborhood’s pawnbrokers playing by a major role. ‘‘Flowers Come to Town,’’ traced the journeys of flowers as they travelled to market via truck, boat, plane, and dirigible.
Jacobs was born as Jane Isabel Butzner in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Bess Robison Butzner, was a schoolteacher and worked as a nurse. Her father, John Decker Butzner, was a physician. She was raised Protestant in a town that was mostly Roman Catholic. After high school she spent a year working as an unpaid editor’s assistant at the Scranton Times.
She’d moved to New York with her sister in 1935 and ended up in Greenwich Village. The writing gigs gave her an inside look at how a city works. "They gave me more of a notion of what was going on in the city and what business was like, what work was like," she said. She enrolled at Columbia University for two years studying economics, political science, law, and zoology – most of which would come on handy for what her future held.
During World War II Jacobs wrote for Iron Age magazine and worked as a reporter for Amerika, a Russian-language propaganda tool published by the U.S. State Department who distributed behind the Iron Curtain. It was eventually supplanted by the Voice of America. Jacobs met her husband while working for the magazine and they started a family settling on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village.
Jacobs was suspicious of the suburbs, pro-union, anti-communist and allegedly a fan of Saul Alinsky’s writing. She was questioned about her political beliefs by the State Department during the McCarthy era and broke up with Uncle Sam in 1952 by taking a position as an associate editor with Architectural Forum. The Forum was being published by the legendary Henry Luce who also helmed Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. While working for the Forum, Jacobs began witnessing the effects of what became known as urban renewal in Philadelphia and East Harlem. She was horrified by the carnage of demolished buildings and displaced populations.
U.S. cities after World War II were under assault by several forces. A perfect storm of economic and lifestyle factors was sucking people out of urban areas while collapsing the urban tax base. As the war ended, service men and women began to transition back into the private sector and needed places to live. War-time industrial production switched to consumer goods, families searched for better schools and many neighborhoods were segregated by red lines drawn on maps keeping minorities out by law.
Working class neighborhoods in the cities during that time were being assailed by blight, both real and imagined. 1946 the Detroit Plan began laying waste to homes, businesses and the population of Black Bottom, the African American enclave that gave birth to heavyweight champ, Joe Louis. The Housing Act of 1949 devoted a billion dollars to slum clearance. The razed neighborhoods would be replaced by public housing projects – the percussors of today’s affordable housing efforts. Getting rid of the slums via urban removal was dubbed “Negro removal,” by Black writer and activist James Baldwin in 1963.
The gusher of federal funding was turned into clumsy hammer of eminent domain wielded by local officials with no experience in rebuilding the neighborhoods they were bulldozing by the acre. Change was also in the air for the transportation industry as planes and cars muscled out trains. In 1947, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the owner of Penn Station in Manhattan recorded its first ever operating loss, a trend that continued into the 1970’s when the federal government had to intervene to save what was left of the nation’s rail passenger service.
In the early 1960’s Robert Moses was operating at the height of his powers in and around New York City. In the wars over preservation Moses plays a reliable villain but his early years in government shows him in a favorable light. He believed his efforts helped the common man and that urban renewal was akin to cracking the eggs needed to make an omelet that everybody would enjoy. “You have to move a lot of people out of the way of a big housing project or a slum clearance project,” he said. “A lot of them aren’t going to like it. Many of them are misinformed.” Before Moses began moving the misinformed out of their homes, he began his career as a progressive reformer.
He was born into a German-Jewish family in New Haven Connecticut, but the family moved to New York in 1897. His father, Emmanuel, was a successful department store owner who also dabbled in real estate speculation. Moses’ mother, Bella was active in the Settlement Movement, which sought to solve the divide between rich and poor. Eliminating squalor in urban tenement buildings was part of their mission. The Hull House was the headquarters of the Settlement Movement in Chicago. Speakers at Hull House over the years included Susan B. Anthony, Clarence Darrow and a young, idealistic designer interested in improving the life of the common man named Frank Lloyd Wright.
Robert Moses graduated from Yale and Wadham College and held a PhD. from Columbia. As a young man, he stood up against patronage hiring practices in New York City. Moses and his progressive roots slid into city government on the arm of Belle Moskowitz, a progressive political animal who started her career as a social worker championing the causes of Jewish immigrants. She wrote, mediated, and flacked her way into a job with Al Smith, the four-term governor of New York and Democratic presidential nominee in 1928. Smith was eventually replaced by FDR. Smith graced Moses with leadership of the Long Island State Park Commission and from there, his tentacles began to explore. Although never elected to anything, Moses held leverage in twelve different city and state commissions and authorities from 1924 to 1975.
His accomplishments include building 23 public swimming pools in New York. He masterminded the Triborough Bridge, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Throgs Neck Bridge, Bronx Whitestone Bridge, Henry Hudson Bridge, and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. He gets credit for the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and the Staten Island Expressway. He is still blamed for the Cross Bronx Expressway a chronically traffic-clogged artery that cut the borough in half.
The expressway construction in the Bronx started in 1948 on a 6.5-mile project that lasted until 1972. The original projection called for relocating 540 families with an estimated cost of $38.6 million. By 1963 it was mostly finished but the budget had ballooned to $128 million with an estimated 1,500 families permanently displaced.
In his lifetime Moses built 28,000 apartment units but the amount that he demolished along the way is unknown. He was the guiding force behind New York’s extensive parkway system and designed freeways in Portland, Oregon. In an ironic twist, with all the energy Moses devoted to boosting automobile travel, he himself did not drive.
His fingerprints can be found on Fire Island, Jones Beach, Lincoln Center, the United Nations building and Shea Stadium. He is blamed for the Brooklyn Dodgers absconding to Los Angeles due to an unresolved beef with the team’s owner Walter O’Malley over a stadium deal that went south. Moses has been accused of being a racist who purposely designed his parkways so they could not accommodate busses of city dwellers from riding out to the suburbs because the bridges weren’t high enough – a claim that has since been challenged.
Preservation of 19th century buildings in the New York’s five boroughs was not on Moses’ mind when he was tapping federal matching funds to move urbanites by car out to new homes in the suburbs on his freshly poured freeways. Le Corbusier’s vision of office towers in a park bordered by superhighways was coming to life in the new world. Moses believed he was doing his bit for the common man by putting people into better homes, but his efforts were read as ham-fisted at best. His soundbites didn’t help his image.
“Today our greatest single problem is tenant removal,” he said. “The tendency on the part of people in politics as well as those who are living on these rights of ways are immediately affected is to assume that the people who are doing this job are unsympathetic, they’re even sadistic. Well of course that isn’t the truth at all.” His alleged sadism was on course for a series of head-on collisions with grass roots traditionalism that began in an abandoned graveyard now known as Washington Square Park.
The battle over Washington Square Park began with plans that begin appearing in the 1940’s. The objective was improving southbound traffic flow from Fifth Avenue through the park and onto West Broadway. There was already a road in place that snaked under the Memorial Arch around a fountain and out the other side. The arch was built in 1889 to honor the centennial inauguration of President George Washington. Washington’s own home had been rescued by preservation forces years earlier.
The original version of the arch was a temporary structure made from lumber and plaster that was designed by Stanford White. White would go on to partner with Charles Folen McKim, and William Rutherford Mead to form McKim, Mead & White, the preeminent power trio of neoclassicists that were designing important American buildings at the turn of the 20th century. MM&W were also the architects for the permanent version of the arch made from Tuckahoe marble. Their tour de force in the city was the Pennsylvania Railroad Station located a mile and a half to the north.
During the excavation for the permanent arch, human remains were uncovered, a reminder that Washington Square is built on a graveyard. An estimated 20,000 bodies once inhabited by New Yorkers who could not afford a proper burial lie beneath in what was then known as a “potter’s field,” a term that dates to biblical times. Epidemics of yellow fever in the early 1800’s helped fill the holes. Spread by mosquitos, the dominant pandemic of its time killed via organ damage. After doing its stint as a cemetery for poor people, the future park served as a military parade ground. In 1850 the space began to morph into a park without anybody rising to preserve the mass of graves below.
The road through the park circles around a thrice-remodeled fountain. The New York Daily Times, which would eventually become the New York Times covered the original fountain’s completion in 1851 in the first edition of the paper. Robert Moses already knew the park well. As the Parks Commissioner in 1934, when he was still considered an agent of change for the good, he renovated the fountain, turning it into more of a wading pool. The park also served as a turnaround spot for busses and a parking lot. By 1952, Moses’ persona had transformed into its evil twin phase. He was actively tweaking plans to get more cars through the park faster by expanding the roadway into a two-lane highway that would eventually merge with the
Lower Manhattan Expressway, a piece of road that never got built due to public opposition.
Unfortunately for Moses, friends and neighbors of Washington Square Park included Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Jacobs, and Lewis Mumford, architectural critic for The New Yorker. John Lindsay and Ed Koch, two future New York City mayors lived nearby and became thorns stuck into his side. The biggest impediment to progress was Shirley Hayes. Hayes worked as a stage actress, radio deejay, and did a tour of duty in the New York advertising world. She not only opposed expanding the existing road, but she also advocated closing the park to all traffic. Her plan would cause a major disturbance of the street grid – a practice normally abhorred by urban planners to this day.
Moses countered the protests with a revised plan for digging a trench through the park which would take the highway below grade. The preservationists returned fire by staging a “ribbon tying” ceremony that symbolized closing the park to development. The city listened to its citizens and closed the park to car traffic as part of a trial arrangement – an anti-auto move that’s still employed today by cities trying to activate their streets. The Save the Square battle raged for seven years ending in 1958 after the last car passed though the park, festooned with a banner to mark the occasion and covered by the local press.
The battle over Washington Square was the first installment of a three-round cage fight between Moses and Jacobs. Round two happened in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood where Washington Square is located. The fracas began in 1955 when a subsection of Greenwich Village known as the West Village showed up on a map designating it for slum clearance.
Framed by 14th Street on the north, Houston on the south, Broadway on the east, and the Hudson River on the west, the origins of Greenwich Village date back to when the Dutch still owned the island of Manhattan. The name translates from “green district.”
In addition to the Dutch, the neighborhood was also controlled at various times by the English and freed slaves. It hosted Newgate, New York’s first state prison, which was designed by Joseph-François Mangin, a French American architect who also designed New York City Hall and St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral a few blocks south. The prison was run by a Quaker warden named Thomas Eddy who was bent on reforming his resident criminals. His efforts mostly failed as the prison became overcrowded and prone to riots.
Technically the prison was outside the northern city boundaries of New York and a trip to Newgate became known by prisoners as being sent “up the river,” a phrase used again years later for the longer upriver trip to Sing Sing prison located in the town of Ossining, New York.
Greenwich Village has served as a magnet for the artistic types since the 1800’s. Cultural landmarks in the village include the Tenth Street Studio Building which houses the country’s first school of architecture. The Hotel Albert hosted Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol.
Jane Jacobs was living in the Village and had just finished writing a manuscript that would turn into “The Death and Life of American Cities,” when Jacobs began his assault on her neighborhood. Her book is a 450-page takedown of the urban planning methods that Robert Moses was using to knock down neighborhoods to make room for freeways leading to free and easy parking in the suburbs.
The West Village had especially strong bohemian roots as the neighborhood hosted off Broadway theaters and artist studios. The Café Society nightclub opened in 1938 as a racially mixed joint that featured performances by Pearly Bailey, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, and every bebopper in town including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charley Parker. The neighborhood’s street grid is asymmetric and eccentric, following the path of the Hudson River as opposed to a civically imposed pattern of rectangles that came to define every major metropolis.
Jane Jacobs and her troops believed all that history and culture was worth preserving as both sides got ready to rumble – again. She formed the Committee to Save the West Village that conducted its own study to disprove the notion that the West Village was a slum. She discovered that no public hearings had been conducted to sanctify the slum designation which was against state law. She convinced a state judge to order public hearings to slow the roll of the destruction.
Moses and his type often scheduled public hearings on short notice to avoid attracting a room full of angry neighbors. Jacobs stayed one step ahead of him by developing her own sources inside City Hall that would tip her off about upcoming hearings. She noticed that press releases from the real estate developer that was tapped to remove the alleged blight featured an irregular shaped letter “R.” The same R showed up on statements issued by a community group that favored removal of the blighted properties. As the suspicion and clamor from Jacob’s forces grew, the city blinked and removed the blight tag from the West Village. The score was now 2-0, Jacobs vs. Moses. Round III centered on the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which the city called “Lomex.”
The Moses-endorsed Lomex would connect ten lanes of Interstate 78 from the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, another 6.5-mile stretch across the island that which would require removing large chunks of Little Italy and what’s now called SoHo. The estimated death toll was high even by the Moses standard. To make room for Lomex the city would need to sacrifice 416 buildings, 365 retail stores, and 480 other commercial establishments. Twenty-two hundred families would be displaced with 90% of the funding coming from Uncle Sam as part of Eisenhower’s plan to complete the country’s Interstate Highway system.
The plan was endorsed by the Municipal Art Society and the American Institute of Architects even though it would obliterate one of the greatest collections of cast-iron architecture in the world. Cast iron buildings moved onto the architectural scene in the 1840’s and SoHo is full of them. Storefronts were stamped into existence from prefabricated molds that produced columns, arches, and decorative details. Patterns were picked out of a Sears-like catalog and assembled on a commercial scale. Cast iron briefly held sway because it was a cheaper alternative to building with stone. The material was structurally sound, weatherproof, easily repaired and could be painted to change the appearance. Its reign was short as it was quickly replaced by skyscrapers built on steel skeletons. The U.S. Capitol dome is made from cast iron as is the Bartholdi “Fountain of Light and Water,” located nearby.
Jacobs was not onboard with steamrolling most of the cast iron in SoHo. She organized rallies and garnered support from inside the immigrant neighborhoods the road was set to pummel. New Yorkers of Puerto Rican and Italian descent came together to oppose the wrecking balls. She sought delays in the courts and railed about the ensuing air pollution by cars that in those days were still burning leaded gas.
Despite the outcry, Moses was convinced he was doing good by rolling out Lomex. “The route of the proposed expressway passes through a deteriorating area with low property values due in considerable part to heavy traffic that now clogs the surface streets,” he said. “Construction of the expressway will relieve traffic on these streets and allow this locality to develop in a normal manner that will encourage improved housing, increased business activity, higher property values, a general rise in the prosperity of the area, and an increase in real estate tax revenues.”
Things came to head at a public hearing held on December 11, 1960, when Jacobs approached the city officials presiding over the raucous proceedings. “I intended to climb up to their level and walk across the stage,” she said. “There was a steno typist who had a new machine. She was frightened and she picked up her steno type machine and clasped it to her bosom. The tapes fell out of the machine and ran across the floor like confetti. People began tossing them in the air. I knew it had to be brought to an end, so an inspiration struck me. I said, ‘there is no hearing because the record is gone and without a record, there can’t be a hearing.’ The chief state person was saying, ‘arrest that woman, arrest that woman.’ As I went out a police captain told me I was arrested.”
Jacobs spent the night in jail for inciting a riot and criminal mischief, but she was never convicted. Plans for the expressway became tangled in the red tape she and her minions were cranking out. The contested piece of road was politically and legally blocked in 1962. Changing politics in the mayor’s office and constant pressure from the proletariat eventually killed off Lomex once and for all in 1969 when it was officially de-mapped. One section was constructed during all the hoo-ha, an 80’ by 80’ undercrossing approach at Chrystie and Broome Streets that was built in 1962 at a cost of $941,000. The construction happened to avoid disrupting a subway line. While Jacobs was battling Moses, a larger fight was happening between trains, planes, and cars right up the street.
The 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act juiced the interstate highway system in the US by authorizing $25 billion in government spending to build 41,000 miles of highways over a ten-year period. It was the largest public works project of its time and marks a legitimate attempt to put the final nails in the country’s reliance on the railroads. The effect of the privately owned automobile was changing the way the country traveled and where people lived. It was also changing the historic preservation movement forever by hastening the already sealed fate of New York’s Penn Station.
The large-scale battle between preserving traditional buildings and nostalgic lifestyles of the past versus embracing a modern and disappointing future is often traced to the demise of Penn Station in Manhattan. Demolition began in 1963 on an architecturally beautiful building that many believed was functionally obsolete. Stylistically, it was a duel between Beaux Arts grandeur versus a round, Modern sports arena that would become the third version of Madison Square Garden.
The railroad was the preferred means of transportation for the factory-made fancy trim work that adorns Victorian style homes. Architectural pattern books traveled by rail carrying the designs for Greek Revival into the Wild West. If you bought a kit house from Sears, the parts and pieces were shipped via rail. But by the late 1940’s the nation’s railroads began taking a nosedive as ridership started to fall.
Pennsylvania Station in Midtown Manhattan, New York City was built for and occupied by the Pennsylvania Railroad. In addition to the “Pennsy,” the station also served the Long Island Railroad. The Pennsy came to life in 1846 and was based in Philadelphia. By 1882 it was the largest corporation in the world. During its rise to prominence, it gobbled up 800 other rail lines and companies. In 1968 the Pennsy merged with the New York Central Railroad, a nearly last-ditch effort to achieve financial stability. Two years later the new venture was flat broke. In 1976 the firm’s assets were bought and divvied up into Conrail which in turn became Norfolk Southern, CSX and Amtrac. What was left of the Pennsy became an insurance company called American Premier Underwriters which is now a subsidiary of the American Financial Group.
During its golden years, the Pennsy’s commissioned McKim, Mead, & White to design its
New York headquarters. MM&W’s influential hands also shaped the second version of Madison Square Garden, the East and West wings of the White House, the National Museums of Natural History and American History. They designed a private home for Frederick Vanderbilt and the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana which hosted a key battle in Fulgencio Batista's 1933 coup that overthrew the government.
Charles McKim was a Quaker who attended Harvard and studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, the Paris-based training school for designers specializing in ornate, classic architectural styles. McKim was prone to depression, married twice and was detail obsessed. William Rutherford Mead was cousins with President Rutherford B. Hayes. He’s portrayed by history as the quiet, formally educated, middle of the road guy who kept a steady hand on the tiller at MM&W.
Stanford White was the wildcard of the bunch. Like Le Corbusier, White had no formal training in architecture. He studied under Henry Hobson Richardson, known primarily for inventing Richardsonian Romanesque, an ornate Victorian offshoot style that had a good 20-year run starting in the 1880’s. White had connections to the art world and a taste for underage women that would eventually cloud his reputation in scandal. He was murdered via a gunshot to the face during a live performance of a play by a jealous and deranged husband.
MM&W was tapped to design a state-of-the-art train station that would connect New York City to points south. Construction started in 1904 and finished in 1910. The site was bordered by 7th and 8th Avenues in between 31st and 32nd Street. To make room for the station, seventeen city-owned buildings were purchased, condemned, and demolished.
The boys went full out Beaux-Arts on an 8-acre site that spanned two, Manhattan-sized city blocks. The material list included 490,00 cubic feet of pink granite, 650 steel columns, and 30,000 light bulbs. Colonnades of Roman columns harkened back to the Acropolis of Athens and St. Peters Square in Vatican City. Other design influences include the Brandenburg Gate, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the baths of Diocletian.
The station had entrances on all four sides of the building. The structure soared nearly 70 feet above ground level which enabled the awe-inspiring, arched ceilings and a supply of natural light. Carriageways led directly into the waiting room with separate passageways for baggage.
When it was built, it was the largest indoor space in the city, chocked full of high-end retail stores and statues of railroad tycoons. The station was equipped with telephones, telegraphs and newspaper stands. The waiting room spanned the entire block between 31st and 33rd Streets, measuring out at over 300 feet in length. There were separate smoking areas for men and women. The lower walls were lined with travertine marble sourced from Campagna, Italy. Large murals 25 feet tall and 70 feet long painted by artist Jules Guerin adorned the interior. An article in the Baltimore Sun referred to the station “as grand a corporate statement in stone, glass, and sculpture as one could imagine.”
The architects commissioned original sculptures by Adolph Alexander Weinman, the firm’s go-to guy for neoclassical work. Weinman immigrated from Germany to the U.S. when he was fourteen. His greatest artistic hits include designing the Mercury dime, elements of the Jefferson Memorial and the interior of the U.S. Supreme Court building. He also carved twenty-two eagles and four pairs of sculptures called “Day” and “Night” as decorative elements for Penn Station.
Audrey Munson, known as America’s first supermodel, was the inspiration for the sculptures. Munson was also known as Miss Manhattan, with her likeness appearing on numerous statues and coins. She starred in four silent films and was the first American actress to appear nude in a non-pornographic movie. She suffered from mental illness but lived to be 104. All that star power and architectural grandeur was not enough to save a building serving as a monument to travel methods of the past.
The destruction didn’t happen all at once. The first blood was spilled in 1950 via a new ticket counter that included a steel canopy suspended by cables. The idea was to bring the train hall’s cavernous feel down to a more human scale. The canopy was designed by Lester C. Tichy who began his career working for John Russel Pope, a known classicist who designed the Jefferson Memorial.
Tichy was a Modernist in hiding and a protégé of Raymond Loewy who also worked for the Pennsy as a designer. Tichy’s flair for combining Modernism with travel can also be seen in other projects including train car paint schemes, a parking garage for the Pennsy, and the snack bar in La Guardia airport. He also converted a dining room to a bowling alley for the railroad.
The suspended ceiling hovering over the modern ticket counter was dubbed “the clamshell” and inspired instant derision. Lewis Mumford referred to it as “an indescribable botch,” and declared is to be a “great treason to McKim’s original design,” saying it “brutally raped” the station. The insults did nothing to stop the onslaught to the station as grime and general decay began appearing on the grandiose columns, marble expanses and works of art. Looking desperately for a return to profitability the Pennsy optioned the air rights of New York Penn Station to real estate developer William Zeckendorf in 1954.
Zeckendorf once owned the land that now hosts the United Nations building – another Moses era project. Zeckendorf also once owned the crown jewel of Deco, the Chrysler Building along with several grand dame hotels in New York. He worked in Chicago on the Miracle Mile and got mixed up in a land deal involving 20th Century Fox in Southern California that resulted in his company going bankrupt in 1965.
Optioning the air rights essentially legalized the destruction of the train station but not the tracks below. Initially the station was going to be replaced by a world trade center that eventually morphed into an office and sports complex. By 1962, the rights had passed from Zeckendorf to Irving Michael Felt who formerly announced the old train station was going to be torn down.
Architects of all stripes went wild and supported a movement to re-purpose the building. Their battle cry was “Don’t Amputate – Renovate,” but the effort fell short. The New York City Department of Planning, the main nemesis of Jane Jacobs, took a vote in January 1963 that set the demolition for summer of that year. The same year, Ada Louise Huxtable, writing for The New York Times said, "The tragedy is that our own times not only could not produce such a building, but cannot even maintain it.”
The sale bequeathed the Pennsy with a brand new, smaller, airconditioned station located below the street level and 25% ownership of Madison Square Garden. As it became clear that the old station was heading for the scrap heap, the New York Times opined in a non-bylined piece saying, "any city gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves."
Felt believed the angst over the loss of the station was overblown. He said that “the gain from the new buildings and sports center would more than offset any aesthetic loss" and that "fifty years from now, when it’s time for (the new Madison Square Garden) to be torn down, there will be a new group of architects who will protest.”
By 1966 the major demolition was over. The old station was gone, and the third version of Madison Square Garden had risen. It officially opened in 1968. Felt went on to become the president of the Madison Square Garden Corporation that owned the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers. He brought the Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier to the arena in 1971. Madison Square Garden III is now the oldest arena in the NBA and the second oldest hosting NHL teams. Construction credit for MSG goes to Robert E. McKee. McKee’s other notable accomplishments include the iconic Theme Building at LAX and the U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs.
The fall of Penn Station spurred the formation of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The LPC was originally a toothless tiger, but it garnered more authority over the years through City Council-enacted legislation. The critics were not amused by the train station to sports garden transformation. Architectural historian Vincent Scully said, "one entered the city like a god, one scuttles in now like a rat.” The quote still gets plenty of airplay in describing the public outrage.
In 1966, Huxtable admitted the building had passed into obsolescence perhaps bargaining away her grief for a more forward looking present. “Functionally, the station was considerably less than noble,” she said. “The complexity and ambiguity of its train levels and entrances and exits were a constant frustration. Except for its glass-and-iron waiting room, the station was a better expression of ancient Rome than of 20th-century America.”
But the humiliation of the train age wasn’t complete. Many of the station’s unique architectural elements were trucked to a landfill in the New Jersey Meadowlands including Weinman’s, sculpture “Day.” In 1968 Eddie Hausner, a photographer working for the New York Times took a shot of Weinman’s discarded work lying in on its side in the dump. Hausner fought in WWII and shot for the Times for fifty years, some of his images are part of the permanent collection at MOMA. When the picture of the trashed sculpture appeared in the paper, the lunatic fringe of the historic preservation movement had seen enough. The war was on, this time to the death.