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Penn Station: A Place That Once Made Travelers Feel Important

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Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, is the author of nine books and a contributor to NBC News and “PBS NewsHour.” Follow him on Twitter at @BeschlossDC.

If you don’t enjoy arriving in or departing from New York City through the squalid cavern known as Pennsylvania Station, you can blame — at least for a start — the desperate executives, short on public spirit, who tried to prop up the money-losing Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1950s.

During that decade of new interstate highways and commercial jets — all aided by various forms of public spending — the railroad’s managers became convinced that passenger train travel was in permanent decline. So in the mid-1950s, they decided to sell air rights to the eight acres between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 31st and 33rd Streets, where the costly-to-maintain old Penn Station stood.

The asking price was about $50 million (equal to about $440 million today), and their decision led to the demolition of one of the crown jewels of New York’s civic and architectural heritage.

Completed in 1910, the original Penn Station was intended to symbolize not only its powerful corporate owner but also New York’s status as the most vital city in a nation that was becoming a political and economic superpower.

The august and spacious building was designed by the architectural firm McKim Mead & White, which had also reconfigured the White House for Theodore Roosevelt to make it more suitable for the leader of a world colossus. The terminal’s brash, white, eagle-crowned exterior with 84 granite Doric columns was based on the Acropolis, the Brandenburg Gate, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Bank of England. Its vast, lofty waiting hall was derived from the ancient Roman baths of Caracalla, Diocletian and Titus...

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