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Clearspeak: The monuments we destroy

Community Columnist

I lived and worked in New York City for 22 years and know the place well — except for Staten Island (most New Yorkers think of Staten Island as New Jersey living under an assumed name).

But there’s one place in the city I never visited — the first Pennsylvania Station. That’s because the magnificent building that originally housed Pennsylvania Station was demolished in 1963, well before I arrived.

Its destruction provoked international outrage. Here is what the New York Times had to say in an Oct. 30, 1963 editorial: “Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age, [a building] of Roman elegance … We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

The outrage was amply justified. Penn Station, created by McKim, Mead and White (the same firm that designed Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus and the New York Public Library), embodied classical Greek and Roman elements as filtered through the City Beautiful movement.

There were twin carriageways modeled after Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and an enormous main waiting room, inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, which approximated the scale of St. Peter’s nave in Rome. To see some haunting photographs of this elegant structure, visit nyc-architecture.com/GON/GON004.htm.

Pretty soon, if developer Dave Muraco has his way, haunting photographs will be all that’s left of the 1830 Zephania Comstock farmhouse that has overlooked Cazenovia’s eastern approaches for nearly two centuries. See “Clearspeak: Has Cazenovia Lost Its Mojo?” in the June 6, 2012 issue of the Cazenovia Republican.

In reaction to Penn Station’s demolition, five architects formed an “Action Group” and issued this manifesto: “It may be too late to save Penn Station, but it is not too late to save New York. We serve notice upon present and would-be vandals that we will fight them every step of the way.”

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