Slides from Norman McGrath's Penn Station demolition catalogue.

Slides from Norman McGrath's Penn Station demolition catalogue.

On Monday evening The Eternal Space team was honored to begin its partnership with the accomplished architectural photographer Norman McGrath. His photographic career has spanned over half a century with one of his first projects being Penn Station's demolition during the mid-1960's. 

Mr. McGrath's book Photographing Buildings Inside and Out  had sold nearly 50,000 copies quickly becoming required reading for any one interested in photographing architecture. His work has been featured in Architectural Digest and he has been awarded by the AIA with it's Institute Honor. He has lectured and exhibited at the Center for Architecture here in New York which garnered him a mention in the New York Times and cemented his reputation as a gifted teacher and an authority on the photography of buildings.

My first exposure to McGrath was eight years ago through Hilary Ballon's book, New York's Pennsylvania Stations. In it he presented a stunning photo essay of the station's demolition--the first I had seen in color. This was a topic he spoke on multiple times during our visit: "All the photos I've seen are in black and white and I don't know why." 

McGrath's welcomed myself and set designer Michael Gurdo into his home for an initial overview of his massive demolition collection.  In the short two hours we were there we felt like we hardly made a dent in the two thick binders of slides and boxes of prints. All the while McGrath would pepper our viewings with stories of his shoots. "I was lucky enough to be working for a structural engineer in the Pennsylvania Hotel across the street, so on my lunch, I could just go up to roof." McGrath admitted that he was fascinated by the glass roof of the station's main concourse.  He would say a couple times, "I just loved that roof."

Norman Roof Slide.jpg

Working on the 16th floor of the Pennsylvania Hotel and living on 30th Street afforded him the opportunity to capture the station at all times of day and night and through the different seasons. "We went in unchallenged. You could just walk right in and no one would stop you." He said it was as easy as crawling under a tarp and going about his business.

"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. But once they got to the inside it went down in no time. Because it was all faux." Almost like clockwork, I would come across a slide of a partially dismantled column from the interior of the main waiting room. It was virtually hollow with nothing but a girder running up the center of it.  A total stark contrast to the solid granite facade of the station's exterior.

Beyond the vivid color and meticulous compositions, what McGrath's photos did so well was explore the everyday public interacting with the station during the demolition. Most notably there was a photo of a street crowd leaning in to watch the demolition in progress. You couldn't see what they were looking at, but you could see the look on their faces: blank fascination mixed with a hint of disbelief. It so captured a universal feeling that still resonates with people when speaking about the station today. Or more poignantly I came across a slide of an older woman, handkerchief tied around her head, walking out of a shop in the old arcade with the placards behind her reading "FINAL SALE" and "CLEARANCE."

When I asked him if the public seemed at all affected by the demolition at the time. He said that, at first, no one believed they would actually go through with it. But when they started he recalled how incredible it was to witness the coordination of the massive deconstruction effort with the confused flow of commuters and travelers passing through. Cranes were literally suspended over people's heads and "I don't recall anyone ever getting hurt. People would just sit and wait calmly for their trains."

 Mr. McGrath displaying his Penn Station collection.

Mr. McGrath displaying his Penn Station collection.

The collection wasn't in any chronological order which made it all the more fun to go through. The juxtaposition between the old station giving way to Madison Square Garden and eventually its current basement location would pop up right next to slides of an untouched facade or the concourse roof intact. Then suddenly I'd see an interior of the brand new Madison Square Garden preparing for the circus or an opening of a new shop in the newly minted subterranean station. Norman McGrath was there from start to finish and then some after the finish. I told him I couldn't find pictures of the new basement station anywhere. He simply pointed and said, "They're right there." It was that kind of tireless consistency in his documentation that one would expect from a structural engineer. Luckily he invited us back to continue our examination and make the difficult choice of what we would feature in the production. 

Toward the end of our time, I noticed a photo of a partially dismantled granite column chained to a flatbed. It was scarred from the chains wrapped around it and the sheer size was nothing short of magnificent. It dwarfed the truck. Then I thought of something he said in passing earlier, "The station just didn't want to yield."

After all these years, it still doesn't.