In 1963, America learned a painful lesson when Pennsylvania Station, an architectural treasure that Senator Daniel Moynihan described as “the best thing in our city,” was torn down and replaced with a dreary complex that includes an office building and Madison Square Garden. The rail station, to this day the nation’s busiest, was moved underground into a claustrophobic warren of artificially lit passageways and bleak waiting rooms. While there has been an active campaign since the 1990’s to rectify the mistake by creating a new and worthy station a block away, the $1 billion-plus project remains stuck in political gridlock.
But the sad saga of Penn was by no means an isolated incident. Almost like a rite of passage, cities across the country embraced the era of Interstates, Big Macs, and suburban sprawl by tearing down their train depots. (Frequently, they just did the Joni Mitchell thing and put up a parking lot.) But time and experience are showing that train stations are vital organs in a healthy city, and removing them deadens the entire organism. The lesson is especially stark at the moment, as cities around the country face the challenge of rebuilding the infrastructure for regional high speed rail networks. Chicago–once abundantly blessed with grand stations–is today bouncing around ideas for a new high speed rail depot.
One lesson of this legacy is that what replaces a well designed and centrally located rail depot is rarely of equal worth to the city. Following is a tour of 10 great depots that were lost to demolition orders–plus one more that might be still–and what stands on those sites today.
1. NEW YORK CITY: PENNSYLVANIA STATION
THEN: “The best thing in our city,” according to Sen. Daniel Moynihan
WHAT’S THERE NOW: The new Penn Station is a dingy labyrinth beneath an ugly arena
2. MEMPHIS – UNION STATION
When this city’s Union Station opened in 1912, it was the largest stone structure in town. But when the U.S. Postal Service announced that it needed new land in the city in the late 1960s, the magnificent building was chosen for demolition because it no longer attracted the crowds that it had once brought into the city. Any interest in saving the structure itself was ignored.
These days Memphis is expressing interest in being part of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor.
THEN: A grand Beaux Arts depot for a thriving city
WHAT’S THERE NOW: A windowless postal facility surrounded by barbed wire
3. ATLANTA – TERMINAL STATION
Atlanta was once the largest rail crossroads in the south. Travelers could get virtually everywhere quickly and conveniently by rail. Built in 1905, Terminal was the grand portal to the city. It had two Italianate towers and a huge train shed behind. When the station was razed in 1970, it was replaced by a government office building. These days Atlanta’s intercity rail depot is a small former commuter rail station located far north of downtown, adjacent to a 16-lane highway.
Recently, Georgia governor Sonny Perdue–after scouting the passenger rail systems in Spain and China–has enthusiastically embraced the idea of a high speed rail network for the southeastern US. Of course, Atlanta would be a network hub–and very likely in need of a suitable depot.
THEN: A fitting portal to a regional capital
NOW: A government office building
4. BIRMINGHAM, AL – TERMINAL STATION
In 1909, Birmingham opened its grand Terminal Station, which united the train services of six operators. The two block-long Byzantine-styled complex had 10 tracks, and when opened was the largest of its kind in the South.
Yet this station — which served a peak of 54 trains a day in 1943 — by 1969 only was seeing seven daily arrivals. As a result, the city chose to demolish the structure that year. Although the land was originally intended for a new federal building, a highway was built there instead.
Today, Birmingham is slated as a primary stop on the designated high speed rail corridorlinking New Orleans and Atlanta.
THEN: An impressive and centrally located depot
NOW: A connector highway
5. CHICAGO: GRAND CENTRAL STATION
Perhaps more than any other American city, Chicago’s destiny has been a result of its transportation links to the rest of the country. As such, it had something of an abundance of train stations. Even while it still has four commuter terminals inside the Loop, knocking down impressive stations like Grand Central did not yield much for the city. The site of this former station, prime real estate on the banks of the Illinois River, is still a vacant lot after nearly four decades.
THEN: Located on the banks of the Chicago River, the beautiful station with ornate marble floors, Corinthian columns, and a fireplace. It served travelers to DC and many other cities.
NOW: A vacant lot
6. CHICAGO: CENTRAL STATION
This 13-story Romanesque structure was built in 1893 and demolished eight decades later. Like former Grand Central, the site remains undeveloped to this day.
THEN: A well-designed depot in the heart of downtown on the shore of Lake Michigan(Pic)
NOW: Undeveloped land at the edge of Grant Park
7. ROCHESTER: NY CENTRAL RAILROAD STATION
Rochester’s principal train station opened in 1914, with New York Central Railroad connections to New York, Albany, and Buffalo. The elaborate curved brick exterior made a prominent mark on downtown. But the decline in passenger traffic emptied the station by the late 1950s, and the building was razed in 1965. In its place? A parking lot.
THEN: A local architectural triumph and an important part of the local infrastructure
NOW: A parking lot and an unappealing Amtrak facility
8. ATLANTA: UNION STATION
After being built in 1930, the smaller of Atlanta’s train depots was demolished in 1972.
THEN: A centrally-located secondary depot serving a large city
NOW: A parking lot
9. BOSTON – NORTH STATION
Boston completed its Union Station in 1895, but tore it down only thirty years later to build the Boston Garden basketball arena. Which is to say, the city lost a beautiful neoclassical structure for its train services, replacing it instead with a basement of a stadium. When the Garden itself was demolished for a new arena in 1995–the mellifluously-named TD BankNorth Garden–North Station was renewed as an underground facility (still, sadly, not directly linked to the city’s larger South Station). While it’s easy to pick on the new Garden’s bland design, the new building is at least a vital and economically productive part of the city’s fabric. The fact that North Station fell so long ago, might have something to do with this.
THEN: An important portal for commuter and intercity rail travelers traveling to or from points north
NOW: The new Garden and an underground rail station
10. SAVANNAH: UNION STATION
Completed in 1902, the Savannah Union Station stood on the west end of downtown with its two Spanish Renaissance towers marking its presence on the historic city’s skyline. For blacks in the city, Union Station was the center of life. All that changed, however, in 1963 when building the depot and much of the neighborhood around it was bulldozed to make way for the tail end of an Interstate.
If Gov. Sonny Perdue gets his way, Savannah will someday reclaim its rail heritage and become a stop on an HSR link between Atlanta and Jacksonville.
THEN: An attractive and well-used depot in the center of town
NOW: Feeder ramps at the tail end of a highway
11. DETROIT – MICHIGAN CENTRAL STATION
Unlike the other stations on this list, Michigan Central is still standing. But if the Detroit city council gets its way the station, which was the 1912 encore act by the same team of architects that designed NYC’s Grand Central (itself almost a victim of the wrecking ball until the US Supreme Court intervened in 1978), will be demolished. Ironically, the city council wants to use funds from the stimulus act–the same piece of legislation that provided $8 billion to begin building a high speed rail network–to do the dirty work on Michigan Central.
Though it has suffered two decades of vandalism and disuse, the depot remains well worth saving. With a bit of imagination it could be part of Detroit’s future as a hub on the Midwest regional HSR network.
THEN AND NOW: The building was the second act of the architects who designed NYC’s Grand Central Terminal. But will it be demolished now as Grand Central almost was in the ’70s (even years after the epic mistake of tearing down Penn)?