You heard it right. New York Municipal Art Society (ex) President Kent Barwick does not oppose the destruction of the McKim, Mead & White landmark Hotel Pennsylvania (click their name to get their website and make reservations) to aid in the redevelopment of the Penn Station area of New York City.
Barwick told the Aug. 20 The New York Observer that, “Preserving the hotel, which has become very seedy, is not anywhere near as important as reusing the Farley building and creating a new rail station.” Barwick did go on to say that the public had not been as much a part of the process as it should have been (good point, a bit late though), and to admit that the hotel is significant architecturally. (Read the “get it right” statement at Newpennstation.org).
Well, thank you for that, at least! Of course, he isn’t saying go ahead and tear it down. Instead, when a public statement like that comes from such an important person, the message is: it’s kinda sad, but we won’t miss it that much. The developer hears “go ahead and tear the fleabag hotel down. We’ll be sad, but won’t make too much of a fuss for you, Vornado.”
But the reality is that one man’s “seedy” is another man’s “middle-class hotel.” Ah yes, haven’t we heard that before; the building needs to go because it needs repair. The old march of progress! Echoes of the old man Moses, and we aren’t talking about the man who parted the Red Sea. The Penn Station redevelopment is, after all, a massive transportation project.
It is surprising that anyone would fall for the “it’s seedy so it can be torn down” argument, as usually that is a lame last ditch trick used by stupid developers, and not a group as sophisticated as the Muncipal Art Society. But it doesn’t work; this argument was used by the Commonwealth of Virginia to attempt to tear down the Hotel Richmond. It did not work and Virginia is now restoring the building.
So let’s make the case here for what IS a landmark. If the Penn Station destruction is the architectural crime of the century, then the companion buildings that defined the backdrop of the station across the street are even more important, as they tell the story of what was lost. Perhaps that’s why establishment New York hasn’t stepped in more. It’s a reminder. Pride is more important than principle. At least the National Trust is concerned, and wrote about it last year. Check out the website I Know A Railroad for more great photos and history (http://www.iknowarailroad.net/hotelpennsylvania/index.htm).
We could argue the case for Hotel Pennsylvania on architectural grounds, but others have done that. Frankly, any sensible person outside the snobby reaches of once-credible Municipal Art Society can see that the building is a landmark by merely looking at the hotel. We could argue the case on social history grounds (what happened there, and folks associated with the construction), but others have done that too. (In fact, Municipal Art has argued for the importance of the CBGB nightclub.) We could also argue the case on tourism alone; New York City NEEDS those 1,700 rooms, and there is a ton of money to be made if the hotel is refurbished. But because this is BrandlandUSA, we have one other minor but important argument for the hotel.
It is one of the last remaining named remnants of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
There is not much of the Pennsy left. In one of the most colossal mistakes in architectural history, New York City demolished Pennsyvania Station. The railroad and its subsidiary companies are mostly gone, too.
Sometimes, the sheer audacity of a bad idea makes it easier to happen. The Hotel Pennsylvania is such a case; it has been there for so long, and so long associated with McKim, Mead & White, that no one would even think that it would not be around anymore. But money and pride talks.
A reminder. What gets people to come to New York, Mr Barwick, is the history, and not dead history, but living history. Middle class history. The hotels that surround a landmark are no less a landmark than the original landmark. So tell your successors to get some spine and fight this thing, and save the CBGB landmark discussion for the interns. (Interestingly, it is a CBGC-like hacker group on HOPE Forums that has risen up to save the hotel cause they use it for conferences.) And if Municipal Art gets some fight, they might actually get some membership support. Nothing like a good old preservation battle to bring in cash and press attention.
It is astounding that a city like New York would repeat its mistakes. But history will be the judge. The crime of of the destruction of Penn Station is not over, and the people that are associated with the destruction of the Penn hotel in 2007 will be lumped in, by history, with the earlier 1960s bunch. If the first bunch were the folks who did the crime, the 2007 bunch would be the accomplices who hid the body.