GALLERY| Remembering the old Penn Station

Penn StationPerhaps the most famous photo of the old Pennsylvania Station, this shot was snapped in March 1943 by Alfred Eisenstaedt for LIFE.

A plotline in this week’s edition of “Mad Men” involved the 1963 demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station, a towering example of American architecture.

“I don’t think it’s crazy to be attached to a Beaux-Arts through which Teddy Roosevelt came and went,” Paul Kinsey, as played by Michael Gladis, tells a group of Pennsylvania Railroad executives visiting Sterling Cooper looking for ways to overcome public outcry against plans to replace the station with Madison Square Garden.

The railroad sold the air rights to their property for the creation of Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden. In turn, at no charge, they received a new, smaller and air-conditioned station below street level. It’s one of the ugliest complexes in the city.

Completed in 1910 and designed by McKim, Mead and White, the original station’s exterior was modeled on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and its interior on the Baths of Caracalla. Its demolition was widely decried, even garnering mention on the Times’ editorial page, and as the sledge hammers began to fall, the roots of the city’s architectural preservation movement were sewn.

A visit to today’s aging Garden and Penn Plaza will still yield hints of the old station. The Roman-style ballustrades on the staircases leading to the tracks are one of the more obvious reminders of the old station, the demolition of which is considered one of the great tragedies of public works in American history.

Here’s a gallery, assembled from the LIFE archive, of the old Penn Station in its mid-century glory.

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