One enters Madison Square Garden, perhaps unaware that one of America’s great landmarks once stood in its place, until it was demolished in what can only be termed a monumental act of vandalism that was perfectly legal.
By the turn of the 20th Century, electric locomotives made it possible for trains to run in tunnels. No longer were train passengers forced to take a ferry from Manhattan across the Hudson River to Jersey City. The Pennsylvania Railroad decided to challenge rival, New York Central, on its own turf, tunneling under the Hudson River to Midtown Manhattan. The architectural firm McKim, Mead and White were faced with a problem – the task of designing a train station befitting the “Standard Railroad of the World” when no trains would be visible.
To celebrate the power of the Pennsylvania Railroad when no trains were visible, McKim girdled the 28-acre site, borrowing the simple, powerful colonnade thot surrounds the Piazza of Saint Peter’s. The relentless horizontal, formed by the two-block (Seventh Avenue from 31st to 33rd Streets), was punctuated by a tall clerestory. Inside, the immense waiting room modeled on the Baths of Caracella, gave way into the train concourse, where ramps and tracks were covered by acres of glass vaulting supported by intricate traceries of steel.
McKim started designing the Pennsylvania Station in 1902 and construction started three years later. It was the largest structure to be built in one stretch and McKim and White would be in their graves by the time it was finished in 1911. Stanford White, a flamboyant man about town, was shot and killed by Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw, who thought that White was having an affair with his wife, chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit. White was portrayed in the movie Ragtime by Norman Mailer, another flamboyant New York Kind of guy.
In 1966, the Pennsylvania Station was demolished by the railroad. A rather bland Madison Square Garden now stands in its place. A great landmark as well as a gateway to the nation has been lost. Architectural historian Vincent Scully said, “One entered the city like a God. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
Jamaica Station is perhaps Queens’ best-known landmark with more commuters passing through it than any railroad station in the world. Though not a glamour girl like the old Pennsylvania Station, Jamaica Station has a “girl next door” appeal. Will Jamaica Station join our own too long list of lost landmarks?