We've been here before.
In 1963, the majestic Pennsylvania Station was razed in order to make way for Madison Square Garden and the current Penn Station. Preservationists at the time fought to keep the early-1900s Beaux-Arts beauty standing, but ultimately failed. There was one big win for those wanting to keep the city's old bones intact, however: the demolition led to the creation of The Landmarks Preservation Commission, which formed in 1965.
Still, the "architectural crime of the century" drastically changed the landscape of the neighborhood and left in its wake a ripple effect still felt today. While the cries for saving the original structure will echo through the avenues of New York forever, a new battle is on, and preservationists are back where it all began.
Some of the buildings still standing in the area that so drastically changed otherwise back in the 1960s are now slated for demolition under Governor Kathy Hochul's nearly $7 billion plan to redevelop Penn Station and the surrounding blocks. If this Penn Station Area Redevelopment Project moves forward as-is, it could destroy some historic pieces of the Manhattan streetscape, bound by West 30th to West 34th streets, and Sixth to Ninth avenues.
In response to the plan, which would raze blocks of buildings and bring in ten new supertall skyscrapers, more than a dozen different organizations have come together to form the Empire Station Coalition — including the 29th Street Association, Historic Districts Council, City Club of New York, ReThinkNYC, Limited Equity and Affordability at Penn South (LEAPS), TakeBackNYC, and the Victorian Society of New York. These groups are aligned in a push to stop the current plan from moving forward.
"We think there are ways to do this, where you can rebuild Penn Station and improve the neighborhood," Sam Turvey, the chairperson of advocacy group ReThinkNYC, told WNYC/Gothamist this week. "But you preserve the historic fabric — that's a huge seller in New York ... the new 21st century employers like historic fabric, so there's no reason to tear it all down. We're giving up the heavens for mediocrity at ground level, and then destroying all these historic resources and people's homes and businesses."
We're giving up the heavens for mediocrity at ground level
The New York Landmark Conservancy also opposes the plan. As WNYC/Gothamist reported in December, the group's public policy director, Andrea Goldman, called for the plan to be halted. While the group supports fixing Penn Station, it "cited 50 buildings in the area that are either part of a national historic registry or should be part of it."
During a hearing, Goldman called the project “anti-urban,” and said, "The state assumes that this neighborhood should be sacrificed ... the dynamic mix of old and new makes New York unique and successful. The renderings for a campus of new supertalls, and bland public spaces present an anodyne vision that could literally be anywhere in the world."
Some of the current renderings reflect Hudson Yards, critics argue, with a uniform landscape of glass skyscrapers pushing out elements that give New York City its chaotic charm.
This week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation sent a letter to the Empire State Development Corporation, and described the plan to “largely demolish nine Manhattan tax blocks” of the project area as “hauntingly reminiscent of urban renewal strategies of the 1960s." The group also claims the project is sidestepping a critical environmental review process.
Holly Leicht, VP of Real Estate Development & Planning for the Empire State Development Corporation, told WNYC/Gothamist, "The redevelopment of the sites south of Penn Station is contingent entirely on a separate federal environmental review process that will first study whether this is the preferred location for the expansion of Penn Station, and secondly, whether demolition of the sites is necessary to effectuate the expansion project."
Another public hearing will be taking place on January 20th, and the public comment period is slated to end on February 22nd; a finalized plan is expected by this summer.
Below, a glimpse of what the area could lose if the current plan moves forward.
WHAT THE CITY COULD LOSE
The Gimbels Skybridge
101-139 West 32nd Street
In 1910, Gimbels department store came to town, hoping to give Macy's a bit of competition, and set up shop in a sprawling 10-story building on West 31st Street. More than a decade later, things were going well enough that they acquired an annex across the street, which they wanted to link to their main store via a skybridge.
According to the Bowery Boys, the three-story custom traverse was "created by Richmond H. Shreve and William F. Lamb, a teeth-cutting project for two young architects who would go on to help design the Empire State Building."
In 1986, all Gimbels locations were closed, and the lights went out at their West 31st Street shop. In 1989, the building was renovated and became home to what is still The Manhattan Mall.
The Gimbels Skybridge remains, in all its oxidized green copper glory, and while it's no longer used, it provides a visible link to the past, not to mention a striking element to the streetscape (just ask Steven Spielberg, who used its likeness in West Side Story).
It's possible this piece of the landscape will be saved. Leicht, of the ESD, told WNYC/Gothamist, "ESD’s plan does not require removing the skybridge. ESD takes impacts on historic resources seriously and will continue to work with the State Historic Preservation Office to explore feasible alternatives to demolishing the skybridge, and appropriate mitigation measures, if warranted.” It could depend on what happens to the Manhattan Mall, which could potentially be demolished, but more likely would be renovated if it were deemed necessary for the Penn Station project to move forward.
Turvey, of ReThinkNYC, notes the Manhattan Mall building is special in and of itself, as it was originally created by Daniel Burnham. "While it's hard to see the glory of what that building is, Daniel Burnham was the architect of the Flatiron Building and of Union Station in Washington, D.C.," he said. "This is the kind of architect who any city would be very happy to have his buildings in their city."
The Hotel Pennsylvania
401 Seventh Avenue / 15 Penn Plaza
The Hotel Pennsylvania — which before closing in April 2020 was home to one of, if not the oldest phone number in New York City — is a bit of an outlier here, as it was already slated for demolition more than a decade ago. While it was long past its glory days when the lights went out, the circa 1919 building was designed by William Symmes Richardson of McKim, Mead & White, the firm that designed the original Pennsylvania Station — the hotel was meant to reflect their grand transit hub.
The building holds a lot of history — notably, the hotel was also home to The Cafe Rouge, a hot spot of the Big Band era which hosted legends like Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller.
Certain smaller design elements of the hotel may be repurposed by the developer, Vornado, to bring some historic texture to its replacement. Once the hotel is demolished (likely this year), a supertall — named PENN15 — will be built.
St. John the Baptist Church
213 West 30th Street
The history of the church dates back long before the French Gothic structure was built in 1871 by architect Napoleon LeBrun, who designed several Catholic churches in New York.
In the 1990s, as part of the church's 125th anniversary, some renovations were done and the church was rededicated in 1996. A year later, however, a fire destroyed some of that work — while it was largely repaired, a destroyed organ was then replaced with an electronic one, and a few years later the bell tower was restored to its former glory.
The stained glass at the church is by renowned artist Benoit Gilsoul, and Turvey said, "It may need to be recovered if the building is taken down."
In the 1970s a brutalist building was added to the complex, housing the Capuchin Monastery of St. John the Baptist, which would also be destroyed.
The Stewart Hotel
371 7th Avenue
While it is now called the Stewart Hotel, to historians it's better known as the Hotel Governor Clinton (named for New York's first governor, George Clinton). The hotel is housed in an Italian Neo-Renaissance building designed by architectural firms George B. Post & Sons and Murgatroyd & Ogden. It first opened in 1929, with an inaugural dinner attended by former New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, former Governor Al Smith, and Mayor Jimmy Walker.
Though it never really saw the same scene that was going on at the Hotel Pennsylvania, the hotel reportedly became home to conventions and events like the Pug Dog Club of America Pug Show in February 1961.
Notably, Nikola Tesla lived in the hotel in 1934, "and after his death in 1943, the FBI was removing personal effects that the inventor had deposited in a hotel safe." This was because when he couldn’t afford to pay his hotel bill, according to Mental Floss, "Tesla offered the management something priceless: one of his inventions. He told them the device — which he referred to as a death beam — was extremely dangerous, and could detonate if someone opened it without taking the proper precautions." Of course, what he really left was no death beam at all, but a common electrical device.
At least if the building is torn down, this type of lore will live on.
Penn Station Powerhouse
242 West 31st Street
With the glorious old Pennsylvania Station just dust in the wind, it was always a bit comforting to know that a solid little offshoot piece of it still remained on 31st Street. This granite building is much smaller in scale, of course, but its sturdy appearance lets you know it's from the same era.
Located at 242 West 31st, the circa-1908 building is the Penn Station Service Building (also referred to as the Penn Station Powerhouse), designed by Charles McKim and William Symmes Richardson of McKim, Mead & White. In 1989, the New York Times called the building a "little-noted element of the old station ... a monumental building in its own right."
"It's city landmarking that has teeth," Brad Vogel, of City Club of New York, said during a recent tour of the area, urging people to call the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission and Hohcul's office in an effort to save it from the same fate as the Pennsylvania Station it was built for.
8th Avenue Buildings
402 and 404 8th Avenue
"These buildings have survived chapter after chapter of New York City's history, they do not need to close the book because of this plan," Vogel said. Currently, number 404 is home to the Molly Wee Pub, the Gardenia Deli and a number of residences, but it also anchors the corner to its history.
There are some historic photos featuring these buildings back in the day, and showing the bar in its different iterations, including the New P.O. Inn (named for McKim Mead & White’s post office that had just opened up the street at the time), and, in the 1920s during prohibition, the Penn Cafeteria.
The building on the corner is a 19th-century rowhouse "with a great deal of its architectural and historical integrity intact," Vogel told Gothamist, "including its elaborate ornamental cornice with sunburst motifs."
As some preservationists have pointed out, these and other buildings in the area may not hold historical importance on their own, but are integral pieces of the city's rich tapestry of architecture — in a single block you can be taken from the late 1800s to the 1970s and beyond. These contrasting pieces of old and new New York also help to create the unique look and feel of the city, which seems to be at the heart of this fight.
Another building that could be lost is the Shelton Hotel-adjacent 363 7th Avenue, designed by Emery Roth (who designed the Upper West Side apartment building, the San Remo, among many others) in 1930. Preservationist Thomas Rinaldi wrote of the building, it's "one of about 8 classic garment/fur district loft buildings slated to be emptied of their tenants, jackhammered into gravel and trucked off to landfill for the state’s Penn Station area urban renewal scheme."
During her State of the State address earlier this month, Hochul addressed the plan, but not at length. She stated that "the reconstructed Penn Station will create a double-height, light-filled train hall that more than doubles passenger space to some 250,000 feet, eliminating the cramped and crowded passageways New York commuters put up with today."
However, Turvey claims "creating the Penn Station they're talking about will be like the Port Authority Bus Terminal, it'll be underground ... it's not going to be very nice."
As Hochul's office has pointed out, the plan "adds roughly 8 acres of public space, including a 30,000- square-foot plaza on par with Rockefeller Plaza." It also "requires community spaces that prioritize social services for the neighborhood," with a focus on the homeless community as well as affordable residential units.
Groups like the National Trust agree that while the area could "benefit from revitalization," the plan needs to be rethought.
"We strongly oppose the Plan’s proposal to demolish several city blocks and build new, high-rise construction," they stated in their letter this week. "Many of the goals of the project can be achieved through a more thoughtful plan that combines rehabilitation of historic structures, narrowly targeted and appropriate demolitions, and possibly areas of new construction that will not have the devastating adverse effects to at least thirteen National Register-eligible and two National Register-listed historic buildings."
In a proposal from ReThinkNYC, Turvey argued for a different path forward: "We believe a restored Penn Station and adaptive reuse of many of the architecturally significant buildings in its vicinity, including a revitalized Hotel Pennsylvania and a new Madison Square Garden moved (possibly) to Herald Square would affirm and reinforce New York’s unique urban identity while bestowing on the city a world-class unified regional rail network for the benefit of the city and the entire region ... This approach would boost public morale and give new hope that New York’s best days lie ahead of it."
This story has been updated to include comments from the ESD's Holly Leicht, who also told WNYC/Gothamist after this piece was published that the ESD would be meeting with National Trust for Historic Preservation to discuss concerns the week of January 17th.