Thursday, August 6, 2009

Speaking In A Vacuum

By Tom Yots
I work in downtown Buffalo and live in downtown Niagara Falls so I drive through the Cataract City’s tourist district everyday going to and from work. I don’t have to take that route: there is a shorter, quicker way to the highway. However, I like to see what is happening in the place where tourists roam and, to be honest, I have some favorite buildings I like to drive by: some 1920’s houses on Buffalo Avenue, the Hotel Niagara, the United Office Building (Oh Yes! The United Office Building!), Gordan Bundshaft’s Carborundum Center, Phillp Johnson’s Convention Center (both now finding themselves in a ‘Sovereign Nation’ that is not my own) and, until recently, Cesar Pelli’s award-winning Winter Garden. I mention ‘award-winning’ lest you believe that it is gone because it was not a worthy design. It was, indeed, a worthy design; I fear that Niagara Falls quite simply was not a worthy city. It is gone, demolished to ‘restore the historic street grid’. Yes, that is how they are justifying the removal of a truly significant building. May I suggest that it was the original buildings and not the perpendicularity of the street that made this particular block ‘historic’? I stop often at the site of the once revered green house (the expected mass of returning traffic has not yet materialized, so I can safely linger as long as I wish). I stop and mourn one more loss in a city that has experienced crushing losses for over half a century. The last time I was there I was reminded of a guest editorial I wrote less than two years ago when word was circulating that the supposed ‘historic street grid’ was demanding resurrection. My words are below and I've included these photos. When you speak in a vacuum, is there anyone to listen?

"November 4, 2007

My wife and I recently attended a function in New York City and stayed at a hotel in Manhattan overlooking the site of Penn Station. At the time I was reading a book on the historic entry of the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at the beginning of the 20th Century. The PRR suffered from having its tracks on the west side of the Hudson. Its major competitor, the New York Central Railroad, traveled along
the east side of the river allowing its passengers to depart and arrive directly in Manhattan, while the Pensy’s passengers were forced to cross the river on ferry boats to get to their downtown destination. The Hudson was too wide to be spanned by the rail bridge construction technology of that time, so the PRR solved the problem by performing the Herculean task of building tunnels in the soft subterrain of the river. This monumental feat was celebrated by the building of an equally monumental piece of architecture, the original Penn Station. Designed by the world-renowned architect, Charles Follen McKim of the firm of McKim Mead and White, the station occupied two full city blocks between 7th and 8th avenues and 31st and 33rd streets. McKim designed a classic Doric temple, sheathed in pink granite with massive columns and adorned with beautiful stone sculpture. The interior was equally stunning with a massive Grand Waiting Room based on the Roman Baths of Caracalla (except larger!), highlighted by soaring stone columns, monumental staircases, huge wall murals and clerestory windows that bathed the stone room with filtered light. From this tribute to the past, the passengers entered the concourse, a light-filled vision of state-of-the-art technology done in glass and steel. It was said that one did not rush to a PRR train; instead the passenger followed a grand path through the marble Gallery to the Waiting Room, into the Concourse and down to the departing train. In general the public loved the grand building but the accolades were not universal. Some criticized the fact that the building totally dominated an otherwise non-descript neighborhood, that it was too horizontal in what, even then, was an unabashedly vertical city and it was even criticized for blocking the East-West traffic flow by closing off part of the street grid.

For 50 years after its opening in 1912 Penn Station served its original purpose well for both the Pennsylvania and the Long Island Railroads. However, by the early 1960’s the management of the Railroad was giving second thoughts to the cost of maintaining and operating such a huge facility that was not giving the financial return they needed as their ridership was falling. Additionally, the PRR had never invested in the surrounding neighborhood so the building remained isolated commercially. Sadly management had mutilated the once beautiful interior adding construction that obscured the grandeur and light of the original design. The building was allowed to become filthy and dark and any sympathy the public once had for Penn Station was gone. When it was announced in 1962 that the building would be demolished only a handful of people, architects and historians, objected. The public just shrugged and the building came down, replaced by the current below-ground Penn Station with Madison Square Garden on top.

When we returned to Niagara Falls from our trip, I could not help but be struck by the similarity of this story to one that is playing out in our City, where an award-winning building designed by a world-renowned architect, Cesar Pelli, and loved by a segment of the public is now mutilated, obscuring its original design and purpose. I am, of course, referring to our Winter Garden. The similarity continues since we hear that it is no longer economically viable, it blocks the East-West traffic flow to the Falls and it needs to come down.

I hope that whoever makes the decision to allow the demolition of the Winter Garden will at least look at the story of Penn Station. Especially the current chapter where 40 years after the demolition of the original station, the City of New York is planning to rehabilitate a stone classical-style former U.S. Post Office across the street from the site, designed by the same firm that did the original terminal, and make it a new, grand rail entry into Manhattan.

Perhaps if the Winter Garden is demolished the same will happen here and 40 years from now someone will decide to build a glass arborarium where the public can enjoy a respite from the day of sight-seeing, shopping and gambling. In forty years, I will be 102 years old. I think I would rather keep what we have and restore it to its former beauty. Wouldn’t that be simpler?"

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