Jet Modern: Columbus Circle + Pennsylvania Station

Posted on: September 15th, 2009 by Guest Writer 2 Comments

Why wasn’t 2 Columbus Circle the next Penn Station? It’s not the first time a building in New York has attracted the widespread attention of preservationists.

2 Columbus Circle, c. 1964

2 Columbus Circle, c. 1964

In 1963 when Pennsylvania Station (NY) was razed, the outcry helped to shift federal cultural heritage laws toward explicitly and systematically including structures. The destruction of Penn Station also helped bring preservation from a local/localized effort to a nationally coordinated one.

When plans to alter 2 Columbus Circle (Edward Durell Stone, 1964) were drawn up, though many rallied around the structure, there was no widespread groundswell of support resulting in either a major shift in preservation policy nor general attitudes towards the preservation of mid-century buildings. To be clear, a number of individuals and groups (including the National Trust for Historic Preservation) advocated on behalf of preserving the building, or, at the very least, having the New York Landmarks Commission have a hearing on the matter. I do not know the full history of the Commission’s decision not to hear the case for preserving 2 Columbus Circle.

The point, though, is that while the loss of Penn Station engendered broad support for preservation protections, the major loss of the façade of 2 Columbus Circle and the renovations to the interior did not. At the time Penn Station was destroyed, it was about 50 years old. When Columbus Circle was altered, it was also about 50. With two buildings of approximately the same age, how is it that one became a touchstone for the creation of a protected status for buildings and the other was heavily altered?

2 Columbus Circle in 2009.

2 Columbus Circle in 2009.

The removal of the original Penn Station building from the landscape of Manhattan was driven in large part by shifting modes of transportation, a corresponding declining use of rail, and increasing property values (air rights) which put a premium on space, making generous waiting areas and separate arrival and departure areas ripe for re-purposing for revenue generation. This very shift shows a social progression documented in a structure – from train to jet to car. The station took on a symbolic role as a constructed space with meaning within a community as the building became a historical marker of the rail age. Its form (appearance), shaped by grand rail travel, documented a moment in history.

Are there some ways that 2 Columbus Circle could have been re-set as a similar marker of history, a history this time not of the early 1900s, but of the mid-1900s?

To help understand some of the obstacles faced by those in favor of preserving 2 Columbus Circle, and some successful strategies for community engagement in and with modern structures, I headed to New Canaan, CT to visit Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a modernist residence set among colonial Connecticut farmhouses.

Next stop: New Canaan.

Learn more:

Seth Tinkham is self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, VA. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture. Follow Seth's JetModern adventures on Twitter @JetModern.

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Modern Architecture

2 Responses

  1. DMcD

    September 17, 2009

    There are those who say that preservation is not so much about a love of old buildings, but a fear of what will replace them if they are torn down. A truly ugly modern building replaced the grand Penn Station. And while I was never a big fan of 2 Columbus Circle, from the looks of the photo above, it looks like the cycle continues, with an even less attractive building replacing it. The more things change, the more they stay the same I guess.

  2. Kate Wood

    September 18, 2009

    Dear Seth:

    Your post on 2 Columbus Circle and Penn Station raised some great questions. We at LANDMARK WEST!, the New York advocacy group that led the charge to preserve the building, have every reason to be discouraged. But I would argue that the loss of 2 Columbus Circle was not in vain. One legacy is a volunteer advocacy group called the Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation (www.savelpc.org), dedicated to achieving key reforms in New York’s landmarks process to ensure that buildings like 2 Columbus aren’t lost in future. Just within the past year, the group filed, and won, a lawsuit against the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. State judge Marilyn Shafer ordered the Commission to set up a procedure for responding to a backlog of hundreds of outstanding Requests for Evaluation (i.e., landmark nominations from the public). If such a procedure had been in place when 2 Columbus was in play, the Commission would have had to decide its fate in a public forum, rather than just flat-out denying it a hearing. (None to eager for such transparency, the City is appealing the judge’s decision.) 2 Columbus Circle also sparked two editorials and a series of investigative articles by the New York Times (written by Robin Pogrebin). The impacts of this coverage are still unfolding, but a recent upsurge in landmark designations is cause for some optimism.

    Happy to discuss more,
    Kate Wood
    Executive Director
    LANDMARK WEST!