On October 28, 1963 our nation's collective plate was full. Civil rights was in the fore of our national consciousness because of Dr. Martin Luther King's historic march just two months before. A controversial war was brewing in Vietnam and in less than a month a President would be assassinated. What would go almost completely unnoticed was the first demolition day of New York's Pennsylvania Station. It was a drizzly Monday morning because Hurricane Ginny was barreling up the East Coast and would eventually hit Eastern Long Island with high winds and heavy rains. Now, closer to our time, most New Yorkers are remembering the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy's devastation, another turning point in our city's history.
But 49 years before, wrecking crews showed up on 8th Avenue and promptly began chipping away at the granite facade of the largest indoor space in New York City and one of the largest public spaces in the world. Photographer Norman McGrath said: "They started the demolition with the car ramps and the outside of the station. The columns were massive and you could see the workers struggling." It looked as though "the station didn't want to yield."
It's clear that the anniversary of Penn Station's demolition, like its commencement, will go practically unnoticed. Just like 50 years ago there are so many important things taking the spotlight. But consider what architect and original AGBANY member Peter Sampton told the New York Times last August on the 50th Anniversary of the AGBANY protests outside Penn Station: “I really believe Grand Central Terminal was saved because of what happened at Penn Station.” And not only Grand Central but any historic building or neighborhood that was standing in the way of government-funded progress.
In 1966 the National Historic Preservation Act was passed and signed into law by President Johnson. Penn Station's demolition became the poster child for preservation. As Chairman and Founder of the New York Preservation Archive Project said, "We had to lose Penn Station to get the Historic Preservation Act." The act was a signal that not all Americans were interested in misguided attempts at urban renewal. And more important: Many Americans woke up to their history. A country wrapped up in a maelstrom of social and cultural change stopped for a moment to realize that there were some things in the jet-set age of progress worth preserving for future generations. Penn Station was one of the major sacrifices that opened people's eyes. That alone is worth stopping for a moment to remember.