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Will there be no Jackie Kennedy for Hotel Pennsylvania?

June 2022
5min read

Hotel Pennsylvania in Midtown Manhattan has been slated for destruction for the past 20 years which leaves New York City preservations with little hope as the powers capable of saving the iconic structure stand idle. Are they right to let it go?

Hotel Pennsylvania protest.
Hotel Pennsylvania protest.

Every New Yorker knows the story of how they were robbed.

Penn Station is destroyed and replaced with a structure that nearly all agree is an architectural abomination, and everybody feels a part of our history and public space was violated.

Fast forward almost 50 years, Governor Andrew Cuomo, whether right or wrong in this, begins moving the process forward to beautify and expand what is the nation’s largest transit hub in Midtown Manhattan.

Penn Station, it would seem, now stands as a blight that the state of New York is willing to erase, and the agency created amid the activism following the building’s destruction in 1963, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, is not coming to the rescue.

The Empire Station Complex

In January 2020, unaware that a global health crisis would force him to re-announce the plan the following year, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a plan to redevelop and expand transit as well as amenities in the area surrounding the station. Moynihan Train Hall to the west would open at the end of December 2020 despite the pandemic, then the Cuomo administration would work to up train capacity by annexing land south of Penn Station.

Soon, as a more concrete version of the proposal began working its way through public hearings, Community Boards 4 and 5 dismissed the plans as little more than a handout to the real estate industry as 10 skyscrapers could be up for construction within the scope of the project.

With the Penn District now parceled out, Vornado Realty Trust will hold sway over the Hotel Pennsylvania with plans for a development uncomfortably referred to as Penn15.

The Hotel Pennsylvania

Sitting across from Penn Station is one of the few remaining components to the original complex built well over a century ago in the Renaissance revival style to mirror that of the transit hub across Seventh Avenue.

Built by the Pennsylvania Railroad and designed by respected architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, the hotel was the largest in the world when it opened its doors to guests in 1919. It began changing owners, and names, from 1948 onward until Vornado Realty Trust acquired it in 1997.

Now, in the waning days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hotel sits more or less derelict with dust and debris having built up around its big brass main doors which clearly have not been opened in just as long, if not longer.

To go around to the south of the building where another rotating guest entrance presents a similar scene.

So it’s no wonder that despite owning it for almost 25 years, Vornado has been trying to clear the site of the hotel for at least as long. A high ranking individual in Vornado’s operations told American Heritage Magazine that the design was so lacking in versatility, it must come down for something more useful to be erected at 401 Seventh Ave.

The parcel of land across from Penn Station to the east could soon play host to a structure equal in height to the Empire State Building, offering mostly office space.

Why is the hotel historic?

At the time of its construction, the Hotel Pennsylvania was an engineering marvel with a grand lobby and the well-known Cafe Rouge ballroom which hosted performances from the likes of Count Basie.

Glenn Miller even wrote his Pennsylvania 6–5000 in dedication to his love interest who was staying there. The Hotel once touted the number as being the oldest still in use.

While the lobby originally sported fluted columns that support not only a mid-level mezzanine, but the domed ceiling had an artificially illuminated stained glass ceiling. Since its construction, however, those columns have been covered with stone to put them into a block-like form, and the mezzanine was expanded into a floor of its own so visitors now are deprived of the original Renaissance Revival grandeur.

Whether or not these elements could be restored is unknown.

The fact that it was designed by old Penn Station architects McKim, Mead & White alone makes the structure something of a New York City staple with the same firm being responsible for the Brooklyn Museum and Columbia University’s main campus. Even the Washington Arch in Washington Square Park was the brainchild of the firm.

They’re even known for their 1903 renovations to the West Wing and the East Wing of the White House.

The astounding thing is that with most of McKim, Mead & White’s work being built from 1880 until well into the mid-Century, Hotel Pennsylvania might be one of just a few of their works to be discarded for modern development.

Take the New York Herald Building which was razed in 1929 as an example.

The potential of that site can possibly be sized up by what sits near the location of the iconic newspaper’s old headquarters: a granite monument to James Gordon Bennett who founded the paper in 1835.

The Savoy-Plaza Hotel is another one of their projects that was torn down in the 1960s and replaced by the General Motors Building.

Why is nobody paying attention?

There seems to be only a minority of die-hards who want to save the hotel. If you ask famous local historians, the Bowery Boys, they will likely explain as they did in an October 2010 article, that even preservationists have reservations over letting a hotel already falling into disrepair distract them from bigger issues.

The bigger ticket item, as the Bowery Boys have written, was saving the Farley Post Office building which is now fully converted into Moynihan Train Hall across the street from Penn Station to the east.

But now that is over and done with, does anyone really care about this hotel apart from a relatively small group who make a lot of noise and have the backing of political heavy-hitters like state Senators Brad Hoylman, Liz Krueger and Robert Jackson. Also in the fight is Lynn Ellsworth, co-founder of Alliance for a Human-Scale City, and other groups who have held rallies on Seventh Avenue calling for preservation and an end to what they view as a “land grab” by the Cuomo administration to aid the buildout of the Empire Station Complex.

Unfortunately for the lovers of New York City architecture and friends of the Hotel Pennsylvania, those with the ability to stop the structure from going the way of old Penn Station see no reason to stop the demolition.

Vornado explained that with massive pillars every ten feet and with the design of the building, it would be unfeasible to convert the space designed for lodging into anything else. Also of interest to Vornado is the possible heights they could reach with new buildings if only the 22-floor Hotel Pennsylvania were gone.

As for the LPC? Well, the agency has argued against designating sites New Yorkers deem culturally valuable locations.

For American Heritage Magazine, we asked the agency to provide specific details as to why this has been their determination over the course of the last three mayoral administrations. The LPC, however, told our magazine that 115 McKim, Mead & White buildings were already landmarked by the commission, including 45 individual designations.

But by the LPC’s reasoning, the historical significance of the Hotel Pennsylvania dropped once the old Penn Station was destroyed.

“LPC has reviewed Hotel Pennsylvania numerous times over the last 20 years and each time has determined that the property does not rise to the level of architectural significance necessary for consideration as a potential landmark,” an LPC statement read. “In 1966, the Commission designated the nearby United States General Post Office (Farley Post Office), and noted in the designation report, ‘It is significant that the design of this building, won in competition, was until recently, a companion piece to Pennsylvania Station designed by the same architects. Today after demolition of the latter, it remains the lone survivor.’”

Going back as far as 2008, the LPC would not even make it to the full commission for review, according to a report from the New York Observer, which detailed a Valentine’s Day message to preservationist Gregory Jones rejecting his efforts to protect the building.

But the effort did not always have friends in the media.

The New York Post threw guff on the effort in a 2007 headlined “Don’t ‘Save’ Midtown’s Monster” after Community Board five voted in favor of recommending the LPC designate the building. Post scribe Steve Cuozzo scoffed at the excuse given by preservationists that Glenn Miller’s orchestra playing the hotel in the 1930s made it sacred ground.

“If the Pennsylvania is worthy of immortalizing for that reason, then so is the lovely apartment building I call home — because Sammy Davis Jr.’s mother once lived there,” Cuozzo wrote.

Perhaps the Hotel Pennsylvania needs a figure like Jackie Kennedy, who used her platform to aid activists to save Grand Central Station when it was on the chopping block. The former First Woman generated public awareness around the transit hub as a true piece of New York City’s cultural heritage.

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