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Lights, Camera, Demolition: Penn Station Recalled on Stage and in Pictures

Then I started thinking, Im taking down what some poor guy broke his back 50 years ago to put up. Going home to his kids at night telling them their daddy was building a station that would last forever.Paul Abbot, Scene 5

On 11.06.13, The Eternal Space, a play written by Justin Rivers, reminded everyone at the Center for Architecture about the 1963 demolition of Penn Station and the lives of the New Yorkers that were changed along with it. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Station’s demise, and what better way to bring back the haunting images of that deconstruction than with a reading of River’s moving play, with Norman McGrath’s historical photographs as the scenic backdrop.

That evening at the Center, the roomed vibrated with the emotion cultivated by actors Clyde Baldo and Matt Pilieci, who played Joseph Lanza, a professor, and Paul Abbot, a demolition worker-turned-photographer whose connections to Penn Station bring them together to publish a book depicting Penn Station and its unraveling. The quote above, spoken by the character Paul, is an iconic moment in the play, because it reflects on the lives of the people affected by the loss of this the monumental 1910 structure. This line in the performance forced us to ponder the implications of what a decision like tearing down a New York City landmark and the inherent consequences that this action has on a city’s urban fabric and its people.

The performance was followed by a panel discussion between historical photographer Norman McGrath, Lorraine Dheil, author of The Late Great Pennsylvania Station, architectural historian James Stamp, and the playwright Justin Rivers, moderated by Hana Alberts, an editor at Curbed. They each shared their experiences of Penn Station, and what it meant for them to watch the building as it came down.

In the end, the evening at the Center opened a window into the lives of two fictional New York characters. Characters who brought us closer to the reality of the “electric jackhammers that tore at the granite slabs of the side of the terminal…” depicted in McGrath’s photos. The amazing performance fused photography and storytelling, transporting the audience back to 1963, a time where it dawned on many that beautiful architecture was not forever.

To read more about The Eternal Space, please click here.

Marvine Pierre, Assoc. AIA, is an architectural designer at Kohn Pedersen Fox, and a contributing writer to e-Oculus. She is also a member of the Emerging New York Architects (ENYA) Committee.

Event: Lights Camera Demolition: Penn Station Recalled on Stage and in Pictures
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.06.13
Speakers: Clyde Baldo, Director and Actor (Joseph Lanza); Matt Pilieci, Actor (Paul Abbot); Rome Brown, Technical Director; Norman McGrath, photographer; Lorraine Dheil, author, The Late Great Pennsylvania Station; James Stamp, architectural historian; Justin Rivers, playwright, The Eternal Space; Hana Alberts, Editor, Curbed
Organizers: The Eternal Space Production and the AIANY Historic Buildings Committee