Lead us not into Penn Station – but deliver us from poor architecture

Out of America: There are signs of life in the country's grand old terminal buildings – even if some are no more than museum pieces

Share
Related Topics

What's the most depressing thing in America? Arriving in New York. Perhaps that answer requires some amplification. I've nothing against the city, one of the most thrilling destinations on earth. It's just the feeling you get on arriving by train from Washington DC, Boston or Philadelphia, only to be confronted by the unspeakably miserable ordeal of navigating Penn Station.

It wasn't always like that. The original 1910 station was a Beaux-Arts jewel, a monument of America's transient railway age. Its demolition exactly half a century ago might have been an act of unsurpassed architectural vandalism, but it was driven by dollars and cents. Rail traffic was declining, and there were far more lucrative uses for this supremely valuable chunk of real estate. So they flattened the old Penn Station and its soaring concourses, replacing it with a shabby, claustrophobic maze, and sticking the latest incarnation of the Madison Square Garden sports arena on top.

Alight at one of the ill-lit subterranean platforms where the trains now pull in, and the only thing missing is Charon, the ferryman of Hades, hand extended for the fare to cross the Styx. As the architectural historian Vincent Scully put it when mourning the first Penn's death, back then "you entered the city like a god. You scuttle in now like a rat."

Happily, though, change is on the horizon. The lease of Madison Square Garden – these days a tawdry also-ran alongside America's new generation of glitzy city-funded sports stadiums – is itself up for renewal, and is unlikely to be extended by the city authorities for more than 10 years.

Progress towards the most obvious solution, shifting the station to the grand United States Post Office building on the other side of Eighth Avenue, has bogged down. But just last week, four top design firms unveiled their visions of the future Penn Station. All of them were exhilarating, as different from the current one as day from night.

But happiest of all, there are still magnificent old stations dotted around the country, to remind you of the days when railways ruled. One of them, of course, is to be found in Manhattan, just a few blocks away. Grand Central Station had its own near-death experience, but escaped the wrecking ball in part because of the outcry generated by the destruction of the old Penn.

One of its champions was Jacqueline Kennedy. "If we don't care about our past, we can't have very much hope for our future," the former first lady declared at a press conference in the station's Oyster Bar in 1975, called to protest a plan to bury Grand Central under a skyscraper. The fight went all the way to the US Supreme Court. But this time, even as New York City faced bankruptcy, an irreplaceable monument was preserved.

In almost every great American city you will find a great station building. Here in Washington we have the best of both worlds, a bustling inter-city Union Station, that also happens to be a 1907 Beaux-Arts miracle, inspired by the Arch of Constantine and Baths of Caracalla of ancient Rome. The station is one of the top tourist attractions in a city brimming with them – even though the breathtaking central hall, of white granite and stucco embellished with gold leaf, is currently under partial wrap after the DC earthquake of August 2011. (Yes, it really was 5.8 on the Richter scale.)

Out in the real earthquake zone, Los Angeles has its own Union Station (so named when competing railroad companies joined forces to build a single station), replete with coloured marbles and Spanish colonial-style architecture. There's also a fine specimen in Denver – like LA a terminus for, among others, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Did any railway on earth ever bear a finer name?

But the best of them, as you might suspect, are in the cities of the Midwest. It's the "rust belt" in today's throwaway parlance, but they were at their zenith in the early and mid 20th century, which happened also to be the zenith of the railway age. Measured by traffic, they are shadows of their former selves. Some have just a couple of trains a day; some are no longer stations at all, driven out of business by the car and the plane, stranded whales of transport history. But what buildings they are.

The working part of Pittsburgh's Union Station is now a sideshow. But the splendid rotunda that is its centrepiece remains a thing of wonder, with its marble floors and marvellous terracotta brickwork, illuminated by a colossal wrought-iron skylight.

Then there's the Union Station in St Louis, completed in 1894 and once the busiest in the entire US, but which last handled a serious train in 1978. The outside looks like a Romanesque fortress; the inside is a hotel and shopping complex, but the original Great Hall, a Moorish extravaganza, is still there, astounding visitors today no less than when St Louis hosted the World's Fair and Olympics in 1904.

My personal favourite, however, is Cincinnati, which I revisited earlier this month. The venerable Ohio river town hasn't had the best press over the years. "If the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati," Mark Twain wrote. "Everything comes there 10 years later." But its Union Station is something else, a perfectly preserved Art Deco masterpiece, its giant main hall surrounded by huge mosaic murals of the city's history. At its peak, 216 trains passed through daily. Today just a couple do, the merest afterthought for what is now Cincinnati's main museum complex.

And even in benighted Detroit, faint stirrings of railway station life can be detected. Of course, no train will ever again pass through Michigan Central, the once splendid, now derelict hulk whose abandonment and decay epitomise the city's dismal modern trajectory. Of late, though, a couple of long-broken windows have been replaced, and a few lights have appeared. The last glimmer of dusk – or herald of an improbable, still-distant rebirth for the rust belt's greatest casualty?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd end the war on drugs

Patrick Hennessey
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power