Preservation Movements & Memory: New York’s Grand Railroad Stations

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In 1963, the originally magnificent, but then ignored Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York City, was demolished.  Although, by then, more  US Americans were driving and riding the new automobiles and flying in airplanes, the railroad held a significance to memory for Americans during this time.  When parts of the station were slowly dismantled, rail service was still continuing and it has been told in many stories and biographies, that people could not imagine that the station would disappear so there was no public outcry at the time.

However, after the building had been destroyed, there was a huge public outcry from across the country, including Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy and several movie stars and music stars who became stars virtually by television and traveling on trains throughout the country, who loved traveling on trains.  The managers and owners of the Pennsylvania Railroad, along with the New York Central Railroad–who owns the Grand Central Station in New York City, were thinking of new ways to make money and at that time, could only think about tearing down in order to build new things.

After Penn Central was built and the public began to question the corporate actions of demolition, a huge movement helped to create more intense legislation regarding the preservation of architectural sites in the US.  Although some historians and writers credit this moment of Penn Central’s demise as the ‘creation’ of the architectural preservation movement in the US, there have been several preservation actions and initiatives throughout history, whereby certain grounds and buildings have been preserved.  But the Penn Central one, was perhaps the more intense, which carried news across the country rapidly through the medium of radio and television, as well as the national newspapers.

Although many complained of the noise and the general dingy and poverty-bringing aspects of some of the railroad track and terminal areas in New York City, most admired the beauty and grandeur of Penn Station.  For some, it was the memory of the glory days when cities and nations were building themselves and moving their identities out into the world through imagery and stature.  Many, apparently, could not believe that the owners who had built these magnificent buildings, would tear their own creations down.  What was forgotten was that for many of the corporate owners, the buildings themselves were not loved by these owners.  What they loved was the money and power they brought to themselves.  If it meant tearing down to make more……..well then??  Why not?   Even as the public, including important public figures, were protesting the idea of the future plan of  demolishing Grand Central Station in New York City, the owners were thinking of going ahead with it.  In the end, Grand Central was saved and is considered a national architectural treasure.

What, today,  is standing where Penn Central Station used to be?  Madison Square Garden.  Some have called Madison Square Garden an ugly monstrosity that would hardly be somethings that should’ve replaced Penn Central.

But such is progress and modernization.  We would work to preserve buildings of nations.  But we destroyed native american lives by the millions, and destroyed the lives of the poor of every ethnicity and race, including  European, in order to build what we have today in our cities.  Life is always contradictory.  Without preservation movements and people who have learned to follow laws, there would be ultimate chaos.  What new things need to be in life?  How will these ‘new’ ideas or things live?  Does there need to be destruction?  If so, who decides and how?  Who is marginalized and what is lost in a destruction?  How do we learn to care about such decision-making processes that may be built into our systems?  Remember, these are not new things.  There are many people and organizations today who bring ethics and democratizing processes in decision-making.  There have been many who continued to be destroyed, but that is not the point.  Just because it has happened over and over, does not mean it is universal or eternal.  Humans have a capacity to reflect on sustainability, the transformation of certain violences into useful possibilities infused with justice and care.

In an October 1963 editorial in the New York Times, it was said by an author who was saying ‘farewell’ to Penn Central Station:  “we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed”  “Farewell to Penn Station”The New York Times. October 30, 1963.

Penn Central history – wikipedia :

Grand Central  photos: evening front:  Trodel (; Rooftop sculpture: Javier Saenz (; Windows: Klingon65 (

Penn Central photos: courtesy of

Books on Penn Station:

Books on Grand Central Station:

For those readers interested in Railroad culture, trains, and steam trains, including galleries of stations, etc., please visit my new site blog on World Steam:

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