by Kevin Walsh

Word came to my unbelieving ears that some younger viewers of the Grammy Awards ceremony in February 2012 were stumped when the sprightly figure of Paul McCartney appeared on their television screens. Never before had they been forced to deal with anyone quite this old, and never having heard of the Beatles or pop rock itself, were puzzled by this man and the music he was making.

It occurs to me that many younger New Yorkers, both natives and visitors, might be scratching their heads when seeing the 34th Street stations of both the IND and IRT marked with the word “Pennsylvania.” What state is this, anyway? Why is it “Pennsylvania” or “Penn” Station?

The name, of course, refers to the old Pennsylvania Railroad, founded in 1846 and headquartered in Philadelphia. Nicknamed the Pennsy, it was once the largest passenger railroad in the USA, serving the Middle Atlantic and Midwest states as far west as St. Louis, and the largest traded corporation in the world. It merged with its rival New York Central RR in 1968 to form Penn Central, but its decline was too steep to be prevented, and its assets were transferred to Conrail in 1976. The Pennsy was dead.

The Pennsylvania Railroad controlled the Long Island Rail Road from 1900-1949 and built a magnificent, palatial railroad station, Pennsylvania Station, in 1910. The original Penn Station lasted only 53 years before it became judged to be too costly to maintain, as rail traffic had declined steadily after World War II–its air rights were sold off and an office building and new Madison Square Garden were constructed in its place. Today, there is no Pennsylvania Station building; the terminal is merely the basement of the Penn Plaza complex. Plans are floated now and then to convert the James Farley Post Office Building for use as a train station, but the costs for this type of operation have skyrocketed in recent years.

The IRT station at 34th Street, built in 1917, and the IND station, which came along in 1933, are vestiges of the grandeur that was the old Penn. The IRT station in particular illustrates the great adherence to detail that once characterized our public works.

Side platform “Pennsylvania” nameplate (1917). Station tiling is mostly brown but different hues are parts of the highlighting. Both the IRT and IND stations were built to prevent cross-platform transfers. Planners believed such transfers would lead to crushing crowds, so they built the stations with two side platforms and two central platforms.* Today this makes for a difficult transfer and savvy commuters use the across the platform transfers at 14th or 42nd Streets if they want to switch from the local to the express, or the reverse.

*See correction by subway historian Andy Sparberg in Comments.

When the IRT station was completed in 1917 the subways’ chief station designer, or “art director,” was named Squire Vickers. A painter by trade, he built stations according to design movements of the day, one of which, Arts and Crafts, emphasized what looked to be a handmade, almost rustic, appearance, even though it was very precise and exact. Note how the surrounding mosaic pieces in the “O” and “P” outline the letters. A careful look at the border reveals 3 different shades of aqua blue/green. The mosaic tiling pieces were all hand cut.

McKim, Mead and White, who built the original Penn Station in 1910, built the Pennsylvania Hotel across 7th Avenue in 1919, which is still standing today, though there are plans afoot to raze it and build a huge office tower in its place. Its phone number, Pennsylvania 6-5000, became a hit Big Band recording for Glenn Miller in 1940 (seen above in Jimmy Stewart’s Miller biopic) ¬†and today is the longest working phone number in NYC at over 80 years.

There are still vestiges of the Pennsylvania Railroad around, like this painted sign in a Penn Station passageway.

Keystones, the symbol of the Pennsy, were cut into this concrete overpass over Hillside Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens.

Had to blow this one up a bit, hence the fuzziness. All steam engines on the Pennsylvania, like the retired Engine 35 at the LIRR Museum in Oyster Bay, sported a keystone-shaped nameplate on the nose.



Jeff Morris February 14, 2012 - 12:18 am

Kevin, I get what you’re trying to say, but let’s face it: those who don’t know why it says Pennsylvania are also scratching their heads over everything else in your explanation. What’s the New York Central RR? What are the IND and IRT? What’s Conrail?

And while I understand this is about the Pennsy and not the old station, your rather curt dismissal of Penn Station as something that simply became “too costly to maintain” certainly does nothing to further the education of anyone who might not be familiar with the city’s history and the crime that was allowed to be committed in tearing it down. At least offer a link? I’m sure you were just in a hurry and didn’t mean to sound as if you thought that destruction was justified!

KevinJWalsh February 14, 2012 - 11:17 pm

Added links for NY Central and Conrail to add some clarity…I think FNY readers know what IRT and IND are.

You do, don’t you?



Old Skool February 15, 2012 - 12:54 am

Broderick? Love the new commercial. And love the Pennsy. By all rights I should have been a Central kind of guy but when I lived in Queens it was in Long Island City and my Dad and I would walk over to Sunnyside Yards and watch the Pennsy in action. To this day I still have my HO GG1 that was a Christmas present when Penn Station and the GG1 were both alive and well.

Warren J Eng April 14, 2012 - 6:35 pm

I remember all of those distinct names and abbreviations: IRT, BMT, IND, the Pennsy (Pennsylvania) RR, the Central (NY Central) RR, and, even, the New Haven (NYH&NH) RR as i was using all of them during the mid-1960’s through early 1970’s when I was a teenager. During those years, my parents even provided NY Central commuter tickets so that I could visit my brother who worked near the Paterson NY station on weekends (Harlem Division of the NY Central) or anywhere else within the ticket’s zone restrictions. The requirement for such freedom was a phone call home as to where I was and when I anticipated returning home to Manhattan.

I know how confusing and frustrating all of these subway route abbreviations, etc. can be to “newbies” but all of what makes NYC move today is based on the “bits-and pieces” of corporate entities that still exist physically but are long out-of-business entities. As many of those corporate entities failed, they were subsumed by more profitable enterprises back then (BRT became BMT), all to be left to local government. And, what a task the city had!

Today, we are left with that unfortunate legacy as infrastructure requires major improvement. Nowadays, mass transit is an assumed governmental issue (with some private interest, project-specific) and therefore may not be at the mercy of private interests (except at the polls) but must assume the mantle to propagate what has been left to fail years ago to nurture our metropolitan areas.

JOEL NORMAN February 14, 2012 - 6:23 am

You all openned the flood gates on this one,my late father worked for the LIRR 45 years(hired on the railroad in 1924 after 8 years in the USNavy)and rode in from Rockaways for the MACYS parade every year and then lunch at H&H then a day visiting Gilbert Hall of Science(23nd Street & 5Av)and Lionel as well….Penn Station was sure a nice place for kid who loved trains like I did,I just retired after 41 years of railroading(E-L/BEDT/CONRAIL/CSX)the old place is sure missed!!!!!!!!!

Bob Andersen February 14, 2012 - 8:52 am

Engine 39 is at Riverhead in the Railroad Museum of Long Island. Engine 35 is at the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum.

Gary Farkash February 15, 2012 - 10:16 pm

Nice, but fuzzy photo of #35 at the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum taken roughly 5 years ago.
The entire rail yard looks a whole lot different as many pieces of equipment have been brought on site and have been restored. Even the old turntable, which was used to turn the steam locomotives at the end of their runs, is in the home stretch of its restoration.
Both the Railroad Museum of LI in Riverhead & Greenport and the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum are worth the visit

barb g February 14, 2012 - 9:33 am

yeah, the beatles. that band Paul was in before Wings. whoever THEY were….. and last thursday was the 48th anny of their appearance on Ed Sullivan…. greetings to the rest of your dinosaurs out there who remember it!

dave in milwaukee February 18, 2012 - 1:10 am

Barb: To quote the great Curly Howard, “Why, Soitenly!!” And greetings back to you! As in many American homes at the time, Ed Sullivan was a Sunday night institution in my family. I was 5 years old, and in kindergarten at P.S. 220 in Forest Hills. I saw the entire “really big shew” that night. My “old school” parents (an “ancient” 28 and 30 years old at the time!), actually thought the Beatles’ music was OK but that they looked ridiculous.

Roxanne February 14, 2012 - 11:52 am

I stayed in the Pennsylvania Hotel on a business trip. It is very run down and would require alot of work to return it to its former glory.

Jonesy February 14, 2012 - 4:17 pm

I feel like the demolition of Penn Station is symbolic to America’s psychological drive to throw out the old and bring in the new. I hate looking at pictures of that building because it just makes me want to go home and give up.

Gary March 31, 2012 - 9:58 am

I agree with Jonesy. Everytime I go by Madison Square Garden, I cringe. I do so because MSG is just an eyesore to me. It hasn’t aged well at all. NYC deserve a better intercity rail station than the current one. Let’s face it, it’s basically a basement .Plus it’s too small. It’s so refreshing to walk through Washington’s Union Station and see natural light streaming through the windows..Natural light in today’s Penn Station? – forget about it.

andy February 15, 2012 - 9:55 pm

The comment about the station platforms on the IRT and IND is basically incorrect. First, each one has one central platform for express trains in both directions, not two central platforms. While it’s true that the subway operators wanted to discourage transfers between the local and express at 34th Street, the real reason is that the subways were built after Penn Station was opened, and the subway tunnels had to be squeezed above Penn Station’s tracks and below the street surface. There was no room for the normal mezzanine found in most NYC express stops that allows crossover between the two typical island platforms found at express stops. The mezzanine is below the subway tracks, on the same level as the Penn Station concourses. A similar situation, for the same reason, is found at Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where the IRT tunnel had to go above the BMT Brighton Line tunnel with the LIRR in between.

Also, the painted blue and red sign in the photo is a vestige of a number of temporary directional signs that were installed in 1964, when the station was already being demolished and the World’s Fair was in its first year, no doubt attracting many out of town visitors who took the LIRR from Penn to the Fair site in Queens.

William H February 16, 2012 - 5:27 am

And that is the best explanation for those unusual platforms I’ve ever heard. Thanks.

Joe Brennan February 20, 2012 - 10:29 am

It doesn’t account for Atlantic Avenue, the oldest of the three, since there was no tunnel underneath when it was built. At that location, circumstantial evidence is that they wanted the railroad and subway tracks to be at the same level to make it possible to run through. Given that, there was no room for a mezzanine above the subway. Side platforms made it possible for at least some passengers to reach the street in one flight of stairs. The same logic applied at 96th St (Broadway), which is under a dip in street level.

At Penn, both stations could have been built with a mezzanine above, level with the main floor of the railroad station. They chose instead to put the subway mezzanine under, level with the Long Island floor of the railroad station, maybe because they thought more subway riders would be going there. And possibly that led again to side local platforms to reduce stair climbing to the street. This is sheer speculation on my part but as good as any other explanation. I wonder if someone someday will find the smoking gun of a documented explanation for at least one of these stations!

I’ve seen comment that the old Penn looked impressive was not anywhere near as functional as the brilliant design of Grand Central. But I was too young to have formed an opinion first hand.

Julien February 20, 2012 - 10:07 pm

Still, I don’t really understand why having the mezzanine below rather than above the tracks would force to ressort to the three-island design, instead of the typical two-island one ?

Doug February 16, 2012 - 7:27 am

For many years when you dialed the hotel, Glenn Miller’s “PEnnsylvania 6-5000” greeted callers on the automated system. Now a live operator answers.

Tal Barzilai February 16, 2012 - 7:01 pm

I know some of you will probably grill me for saying this, but here is the real story. Although the current MSG replaced the station house, it wasn’t as if the owner for the place forced it for sale on the air rights. Believe it or not, Pennsylvania RR was actually selling the place, though not what was below it. Unlike the AY going over in Brooklyn, it not only didn’t involve a forced sale, but it also didn’t involve publicly funding the place. Even the current rennovation will not involve taxpayer dollars. Still, as bad as it was to demolish the station house to build MSG in its place, there was nothing that was done that was illegal. On a side note, Dolan once thought of relocating MSG one time to the West Side Yards to possibly where the Woody Johnson wanted to put a new Jets Stadium not that long ago, but decided to rennovate the place instead. In all honesty, I do see the current location as good place, because it serves several subway lines, a hub for most lines of NJT/LIRR, and Amtrak, the owners of the concourse, makes it only NYC stop here, plus vehicle-wise, it’s near the West Side Highway while the Lincoln Tunnel is right by it, which is what makes it a strategic location.

KevinJWalsh February 16, 2012 - 7:41 pm

I’ve never had a problem with the current location of either MSG or Penn and it might be blasphemy to say it, but they let the old Penn deteriorate so much in the Fab Fifties, and cluttered it up so much with kiosks and other crap, that a lot of people were OK with it going. If it had hung on a little longer, it might have gotten a Jackie O to bang the drum and get it restored, but that would’ve been a massive multi-year operation, like GCT was. It was money well-spent, but if it had to be spent today, could it be?

Time to get real, and leave the Garden where it is. We have Penn in a basement. Perhaps we can make it a damn fine basement. I like the new NJT terminal actually.

dave in milwaukee February 18, 2012 - 1:36 am

Kevin, your “Penn in a basement” comment reminds me of a humorous ad in the program that I got at a Rangers game in the inaugural 1967-68 season in the new MSG. It had a cartoon figure of the Penn Plaza office tower smiling and saying to the Garden arena: “Man, have we got a set of trains in our basement!”

Tal Barzilai February 16, 2012 - 11:08 pm

I don’t think that Dolan has any plans to move it anytime soon either especially with the current rennovation going. It would really be a waist of money to do that only to move it shortly after, and I can say the same thing with Jacob Javits Convention Center. My guess is that we will never know when it will move probably at least for another couple of decades, though it will probably be rennovated again for the most part. I always thought that many wanted to save the station house. Despite not being saved, mainly because it was too late, this did lead to the Landmark Preservation Act that did manage to save other known places in the city. However, I do find it weird how the arena has kept its name when it hasn’t been by Madison Square since the third was built in 1925 where Worlwide Plaza now stands, and the first two is now the site of the NY Life Insurance Building. Had the station house been maintained better, it would have probably still been around today and Penn RR would have never put it up for sale. Keep in mind that Amtrak owns the concourse below, not the MTA. Nevertheless, I won’t argue that it was a loss, but lets not forget that there were other losses as well in this city throughout time, so this wasn’t the first or the last. Seriously, building a new station house doesn’t help improve transit at all, which is why I was never for the one that Fulton Street hub is getting let alone the new PATH entrance near it as well. On a side note, the reason why the Greyhound Buses were moved from its original location, where 1 Penn Plaza is now, to the PA Bus Terminal was pretty much because it would be near the Lincoln Tunnel and it wouldn’t have to take up roads for that since many of the buses were already using them.

Ken B. February 24, 2012 - 9:28 am

Regarding not moving MSG, there is another serious financial reason for Dolan to not make the move. A major real estate tax break was given when the current MSG was built, and would be lost if the current site were to be abandoned. It is unlikely that the current City administration would grant such a concession in a new location.

Dave C. February 17, 2012 - 3:09 pm

Paul McCartney. Oh yeah, he played in that skiffle band with a kid named John, called The Quarrymen, right?

dave in milwaukee February 18, 2012 - 1:22 am

Oh, right. Wasn’t he was also the guy who became the Beatles’ bass player after Stu Sutcliffe quit?

Charles Engelberg February 20, 2012 - 11:26 am

Funny you should bring this up. My girlfriend and I were on the LIRR Port Washington line heading intro Penn yesterday to see a show and there were a group of young boys around the age of 8 and their dads sitting behind us and one of them mentioned to his dad that they wanted to stop at the pen store to buy pens at Penn station and the father’s said that they could do that. I was tempted to turn around and explain to the group that Penn station wasn’t a place to buy pens but then I thought of this group wandering around the station looking for the pen store and decided not to say anything.

Kevin Davitt February 22, 2012 - 4:58 pm

I think what also gets overlooked by the grandeur of the original Penn Station and its demise were the tunnels that were built in 1910 by the Rail Road to gain entry to Manhattan. They were a marvel for their time and there would not have been a Penn Station without them. Westbound tunnels were dug through the palisades (yes – that’s still the same vein of rock that towers over the Hudson near the GW Bridge and gradually declines as it reaches Hoboken/Jersey City) to give entry for trains leaving New Jersey for New York . Simultaneously, the tunnels from Sunnyside Queens into Manhattan were also being built.
An interesting vestige that remains to this day is the steelwork supporting Jamaica Station – it contains imprints of the “keystone” and the word “Lackawanna.” Some are also engraved with “Carnegie” – yep, the steel maker.

Blake M January 28, 2013 - 3:05 am

I was looking at those pictures of the old Penn Station being demolished and compared them to pictures of the ruins of the Twin Towers…perhaps the two entities responsible are not that far removed from each other in their criminality….


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