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Rebuild N.Y.’s Penn Station—On the WTC Site By: J.P. Zmirak
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 10, 2002


IT DID NOT PERISH in a fireball, nor was its passing marked by thousands of innocent or heroic deaths. The men who schemed for its destruction were not religious assassins, but dusty bureaucrats, whose noses never rose from their ledgers to sniff at the sky. It wasn’t pulverized in a sudden act of suicidal hate, but eaten away inexorably by workmen, rotted like a tooth, then finally yanked out and cast away. But the effect on my home town was as dramatic—and in some ways, more poisonous, since we are to blame for it ourselves.

I mean, of course, the wanton demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station (1910-1964), one of the world’s great buildings, which New York City officials colluded with inept railroad owners to tear down, and replace with a modern, Stalinoid monstrosity. The crime was planned in 1955 and complete by 1964—just before I was born. I never saw the wondrous original, a soaring, white marble modern expansion on the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

But I want to see it now. Don’t you? Well, now we have the chance—the chance to rebuild the original Pennsylvania Station, on a site where it would honor the fallen, inspire the living, and promote prosperity at the wounded heart of the City. On the site of the former World Trade Center.

There are currently well-intended plans to close down the lovely James A. Farley Postal Building on Eighth Avenue and remake it as a modernized memorial of the former Penn Station. This would simply sacrifice one great building to create a ghost of another. Much better to save the Farley Building and rebuild the old Penn Station as it was.

Marking Sacred Ground

Like every New Yorker and American, I mourn the deaths of those who perished on Sept. 11, 2001. I consider the site where they fell sacred ground—as important, in its way, as Arlington National Cemetery, or the battlefield at Gettysburg. Each site marks the place where thousands of good Americans are laid to rest, having perished in the course of mortal conflict over our nation and her fate. The site of the former World Trade Center is no longer simply a spot where private enterprise should be honorably conducted. To return the site to its former use would be like handing Arlington Cemetery back to the heirs of Robert E. Lee (its original owner) for use as a farm. Both trade and farming are noble occupations—but they’re not meant to be conducted on sacred ground.

To return the WTC site to ordinary use, and build a profane, inhuman glass box on top of its graves would be to dust off our hands and pretend the mass murder of Sept. 11 had never happened. To throw up some banal, modern memorial and rebuild office towers would be, in a way, to hand the terrorists their ultimate victory—by erasing their victims from our collective memory, and leaving our City poorer than before.

Who Wants a Cubicle Over a Graveyard?

Not to mention the practical question, which will be faced each day by thousands of clerks, typists, brokers, lawyers, and other working people: Who wants to go to work each day in a modern glass tower, built over the pulverized bones of office workers who went before him—to their deaths—in an office tower? (Some of whom plummeted, on national television, thousands of feet to their deaths....)

For that matter, which New Yorker wants to see the work of a trendy, contemporary architect enshrined forever on the site of an unforgettable national tragedy? The hole in the skyline left by the fall of those two mighty towers should not be filled by the fruit of a frenzied competition among "important" architects and well-connected companies, enriching the few, thrilling the cognoscenti—and leaving the rest of us gaping, puzzled, made smaller and somehow less human. That’s the effect of too many modern structures in New York. (Not of course, of the great Empire State Building or Chrysler Building; for all their vastness, these charm the eye and uplift the passerby, thanks to their grace and skillful use of ornament.)

Designed with all the subtlety of Lego-block constructions, vast, blankly geometrical towers crush the soul. Because they lack ornament, make no concessions to the eye or to the human desire for variety, symmetry, historical continuity—or let’s be frank, beauty—their scale and self-importance reduce the viewer to feeling impotent and ant-like.

That was the psychological state intended by the German Bolsheviks who founded the Bauhaus—the source, as Tom Wolfe unforgettably demonstrated, of America’s corporatist architecture, the modern skyscraper. Like the National Socialist Albert Speer in his own way, these modern materialists consciously meant to strip men to their economic and political "essence"—to render human persons down to obedient socialist subjects, devoid of memory or soul. In man’s metropolis as in his mind, form must follow function—and at the point of a bayonet.

Let’s refuse to be part of this grim collaboration among the worst aspects of modernity. In the place of our lost towers, let’s rebuild a monument to American mobility, prosperity and liberty that every native New Yorker already mourns—the old Penn Station.

Let’s Get Practical

The Station needn’t become the Amtrak hub immediately; the tracks would need extending down the West Side from 31st Street, where the current sub-basement station lurks. But PATH trains and most subway lines already reach the old World Trade Center station. It is also quite close to Newark Airport—ideally suited for ferry service, or a high-speed shuttle train—which it could serve as a remote terminal. As construction proceeded, the money spent and traffic redirected into downtown would guarantee the recovery of the Financial District, Tribeca, and Chinatown—all devastated by the events of 9/11.

Even before the grand structure is complete, it could handle all bus traffic into New York City, allowing the Port Authority to demolish its monstrously ugly Bus Terminal, which currently squats at the end of 42nd Street, forbidding the extension of newly opulent Times Square. The new station’s downtown location would be proximate to the Verranzano Narrows Bridge, connecting to Staten Island and New Jersey. In time, when the train connections were finished, the station could become at last the great gateway into New York, leaving plenty of room for retail commerce, memorial chapels of several faiths, and even deluxe apartments for those wealthy, civic-minded New Yorkers who wished to help underwrite the cost of giving the City back its soul.

The extraordinary restoration of Union Station in Washington, D.C., did much for a blighted neighborhood in our nation’s capitol. Why should battered New York not receive the same loving care? The devastation the City has suffered is the result of an attack on the U.S.; the nation should craft a Marshall Plan to restore the City, and throw back in the face of the terrorists a new, more beautiful New York.

Then how would we mark the dead? Beyond restoring in their honor one of the world’s great and beautiful buildings—a work of elegance, grace and historical reverence? I would agree with those modern conceptual artists who suggest that the night skyline be augmented by two vast, ghostly Towers of Light in the places once filled by the World Trade Center. I would illumine the towers exactly 12 times a year—on the eleventh night of each month. And I would suggest that the number of lights be exactly equal to the number of innocents and heroes who perished on the planes and in the towers, when that is finally determined. Let their lights shine up into eternity, as their souls abide with God.


Dr. Zmirak is author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist. He writes frequently on economics, politics, popular culture and theology.


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