34th Street

Penn Station's buried glory

April 20, 2008
Larry McShane, New York Daily News

Like wayward ghosts trapped in a transportation time capsule, hints of Pennsylvania Station's past grandeur linger amid its drab present - if you know where to look.

The last bits of the brilliant Beaux Arts station, demolished 45 years ago, are obscured by file cabinets, wine racks and baggage counters. They're mostly ignored by the 550,000 daily commuters.

But to folks like John Turkeli, a glimpse of decades-old glass brick or a vintage brass rail is enough to conjure visions of the breathtaking original on its opening day: Nov. 27, 1910.

Turkeli, a longtime train buff, chugs through the station like an engine rolling down a well-worn track, pointing out long-hidden totems of Penn Station's glory days.

"I don't know anyone else who's spent as much time at this station," says Turkeli, who leads a monthly Penn Station tour for the 34th Street Partnership.

He's found every remote remaining fragment of the marble and pink granite station, despite the best efforts of "progress" to eradicate their presence.

Turkeli smiles as he ducks inside the kitchen at Zaro's Bread Basket, where a small stretch of the station's original brick floor survives in an unmistakable herringbone pattern.

There's even more, in even less plausible locations:

Overlooking a wine rack inside Penn Wine & Spirits is a segment of vintage glass bricks, once a floor and now a ceiling.

Across the hallway sits a storage room, its cracked and stained marble floor a remnant of Penn Station's once ornate men's room.

An Amtrak baggage station at the far southwest end of the station holds a piece of the last track indicator left from architects McKim, Mead & White's creation.

On the stairway to Track 17 of the Long Island Rail Road, a woman rushes for the 12:49 p.m. to Port Washington, oblivious to the detailed work to her right: a pair of decorative steel arrowheads, rising up from decades-old glass-wired windows.

"All of this was done by hand," Turkeli says, as if studying the craftsmanship for the first time. "The amount of money you'd have to spend now to create Penn Station is mind-boggling."

When Penn Station opened beneath its 150-foot glass vaulted ceiling, it was hailed as an architectural masterwork. The exterior was decorated with 85 marble columns, each weighing 35 tons; the interior was modeled after the Roman Baths of Caracella.

But in 1963, the grand old building was torn down. Its remains, grace turned garbage, were dumped ignominiously in the swamps of Jersey.

The most prominent surviving pieces of Penn Station stand facing Seventh Ave., virtually invisible to the hordes rushing for seats on their trains or into Madison Square Garden.

A 5,700-pound eagle, fashioned from pink Tennessee marble, stares dolefully at a nearby taxi stand - the last statue from a flock of 22 that once nested here.

At the entrance to 2 Penn Plaza rises a statue of Samuel Rae, the Pennsylvania Railroad's vice president. Its original Penn Station home was opposite a statue of railroad president Alexander Cassatt, which has since found a place in the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Much of the building's other sculpture is lost.

"The Pennsylvania Railroad did make an effort to save as much artwork as possible," Turkeli says. "But not enough people cared."

Inside Penn Station, remnants of the old station are as difficult to spy as stress-free commuters. But at the west gate of NJ Transit tracks 5 and 6, an original brass-and-iron staircase still leads to the platform. Its survival, Turkeli says, is simple economics: It was too expensive to tear out during a mid-'80s renovation.

There are classic plaques and pictures of the old Penn Station scattered throughout the building. But the biggest piece of nostalgia sits in a cramped office, hidden by chairs, cardboard boxes and twin filing cabinets: a 300-pound, baseball-shaped clock that once hung in the station's main room.

Its two hands are missing, and the decades-old timepiece looks every year of its age. To Turkeli's eyes, it remains a thing of beauty.

"Wouldn't it look great hanging out there?" he asked with a wave toward the station.