(Part one of a three-part series. See Part 2.)

When someone who’s been well-liked passes on, it’s amazing how many people suddenly materialize to pay their last respects. You’d think it might be better to do this while the person was still sentient and around to appreciate it.

Not that there’s any comparison in degree, but well-liked buildings have often gotten the same treatment. This is odd because, unlike human beings, our favorite buildings can be around forever if we want them to. Almost any infirmity can be dealt with given enough money and effort. Yet time and again, we allow irreplaceable buildings to vanish before our eyes as we stand idly by, only to wring our hands and mourn when it’s too late to bring them back.

The story of New York City’s colossal Pennsylvania Station is the classic case in point. Completed in 1910, Penn Station was the largest railroad terminal ever built, and perhaps the crowning achievement of the renowned Beaux-Arts architects McKim, Mead and White. With its soaring and resplendent waiting room modeled on the Roman baths of Caracella, there could hardly have been a structure more worthy of preservation. Yet in 1963, amid just a scattering of protests from a few ardent admirers (the term “preservationist” had not been coined yet), the cash-strapped Pennsylvania Railroad began to demolish Penn Station in order to sell the air rights above it for development.

Even today, historians all but weep at the heartrending photographs of this temple of transportation slowly succumbing to the wrecker’s hammer–a process made more excruciating by the building’s unshakeable permanence, which cruelly dragged out demolition for two years and gave New Yorkers plenty of time to rue their inattention. In a final insult, the station’s replacement turned out to be little more than a banal network of tunnels that burrowed furtively beneath the new sports arena occupying the site.

Of the original Penn Station–by that time reduced to so much landfill in the New Jersey mudflats–art historian Vincent Scully lamented:

“It was academic building at its best, rational and ordered according to a pattern of use and a blessed sense of civic excess. It seems odd that we could ever have been persuaded that it was no good and, finally, permitted its destruction. Through it one entered the city like a god…one scuttles in now like a rat.”

New Yorkers weren’t the only ones asleep at the switch back then. On the Left Coast, San Francisco was likewise scarred by the loss of the Fox Theater, a work of stunning, over-the-top Beaux-Arts splendor by the great theater architect Thomas Lamb. Built at a cost of some five million dollars and opened in June 1929, the Fox was without doubt one of America’s greatest metropolitan movie palaces. Yet within a single generation, changing architectural tastes and the rise of television had taken their toll on the Fox. By the early sixties, its owners were anxious to be rid of it.

Unlike the demise of Penn Station, the Fox’s impending destruction was widely publicized, and was even commemorated with a final show on Feb. 16, 1963. Although a few architecture buffs spoke out on the building’s behalf, most people were apathetic, while others, including San Francisco mayor George Christopher, actively supported demolition. Amid this climate of resignation, the building’s destruction duly began 12 days after closing night. Today, the utterly mundane (but presumably more profitable) Fox Plaza office building occupies the site.

It’s easy to blame greedy developers for many of the great losses our cities have suffered. Yet our public servants have done their share of bungling as well. We’ll look at that next time, before we ask ourselves: Could it happen again?


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