MARY, JACKIE, PENN AND GRAND CENTRAL

Appeared in Margaret van Eyck Volume 2 2018 https://www.printedmatter.org/catalog/55877/

At Penn Station in New York City they announce the New Jersey Transit trains a mere 10 minutes before departure.  This means that everyone stands waiting at attention, facing the board.  We stand waiting for the platform to be announced.  When the designated platform is finally revealed, there are only 10 minutes to scurry to the train before it pulls out.  It is absurd, impractical and wonderfully exciting.   

People with taste despise the underground station.  They compare it to its old palatial self.  When the stone and glass construction was new. When it was beautiful. The Beaux-Art style building was an emblem of Old New York then.  A real gem and a shinning beacon of everything we wanted to be during the early 1900, civilized and capable. The railroads struck an agreement and the station became a reality through the persistence of painter Mary Cassatt’s brother and PRR President, Alexander.  Eventually this grand building became unmanageable and rundown.  

In the 1950s the air rights were sold and it was demolished to make way for the more American style, Pennsylvania Plaza and Madison Square Garden.   In 1961, Two years before the building was demolished, the first lady Jackie Kennedy requested to borrow two paintings, one from the MET and one from the Philadelphia Museum, both by former PRR President Alexander Cassatt’s sister, Mary.  The work on loan from Philadelphia Museum was ‘Woman Arranging Her Veil’ 1886.  

When the original Penn Station was torn down on October 28, 1963 everyone with taste was outraged, they became even more outraged when the entire station was reconfigured, this time completely subterranean.  Architect Victor Scully said, “One entered the city like a god.  One scuttles in now like a rat.”  Every city has rats, and they also fight for an entrance. 

A few months after the building was leveled, Jackie’s husband was shot.  Everyone with taste was sad about it.  Everyone without taste was sad about it.  At the funeral Jackie would adjust her own veil. An article that was written on the occasion of the demolition of Penn Station seems like it could have run a few months later.  With a few adjustments, it would have read like it was about the assassination of John.  

Huxtable suggested disdainfully that a city gets what it wants, what it will pay for, and what it ultimately deserves.  So does a country.  Jackie realized it fully in the car in Texas in November.  Maybe she had a sense of the rats’ powerful desires as far back as June 1961 when she borrowed the paintings.  

Everyone with taste loves Grand Central Station.  Almost 10 years later Jackie took a stance.  She defended Grand Central against our tendencies to let things we once found so lovely slip into disrepair, for passionate convictions to morph into vague afterthoughts.  She stood up against our tendency to forget.  She spearheaded renovations and introduced initiatives to keep the building standing as a landmark of bygone eras.  She must have thought about Penn Station, the one that was not saved, about the paintings she borrowed, about John and about adjusting her own veil.

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