Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Category: Architecture

Confessions of a Romantic Bridge and Tunnel Person

There is a certain dark depression that smothers Penn Station in its subterranian despair under the eyesore that is Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza. As soon as a New Jersey Transit train shuffles on its track away from Secaucus Station into the underground tunnel towards its dreadful destination, a certain unspoken sadness fills the heart. I harken back to the stories I heard as a child, such as station managers playing classical music 24 hours a day to try to calm would-be felons lurking for victims. The grittiness of my surroundings almost makes me feel dirty myself. But these days I conjure a vision of a structure that existed and fell long before I was born: the original 1910 Beaux-Art Pennsylvania Station, deigned to look like a Roman bath to exault the Golden Age of train travel. Pennsy Station welcomed travelers to New York on a glorified 7 acres of steel stone and glass that was reminiscent of Gustave Eiffel’s works. If left to think about its destruction for too long, I can make myself physically ill. As short-sighted a project as cutting a doorway through Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in the church of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, where Jesus lost his feet sometime during the 17th Century, the early 1960s dismantling of such a beautiful New York landmark was architectural homicide. Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully once wrote, “One entered the City like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

I have searched everywhere with no luck for a photograph of an old caryatid from that glorious edifice that was discarded in our own Meadowlands, along with many other architectural artifacts. Perhaps its best that I cannot find it. The glory of the renovated Grand Central Terminal just crosstown is painful enough: to see what might have been. As much as I enjoyed seeing the spoils of the painstaking work of the Norwalk, Connecticut restoration firm that gently scrubbed away years of soot to reveal the original constellation ceiling, it makes me pine for the likes of a Jackie Kennedy to have saved our Penn Station. Instead, it lies in ruins somewhere in a New Jersey dump. The proverbial salt has been rubbed firmly into a New Jersian wound.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan backed a plan to try to atone for the past sins of the Pennsylvania Railroad by repurposing the Post Office on Eighth Avenue. Whereas nothing can take the place of the palatial Penn of 1910, the Corinthian columns of the James Farley Post Office will certainly bring back a bit of dignity to the New Jersey commuter. Although there are differing reports on who will actually move to Eighth Avenue: a recent New York Times article revealed that disappointingly, only Amtrak would make the move. But another proposal exists that can inspire giddiness: the #7 subway line extending all the way to Secaucus! A New Jersey rat can certainly still dream.

Footage of the Ultimate Train Wreck, the dismantling of Pennsylvania Station, can be found here:

On the Porch

The recent unseasonably warm temperatures have gotten me thinking about the iconic American front porch, which in most suburban towns have gone by the wayside.  Here in Montclair, however, they are common and soulful, a delightful transition from the private area of the home itself and the public realm that is the street.  On the fourth of July, the town parade marches its way up Midland Avenue which as you might have guessed is situated in the center of town.  I usually find an obliging curb on the Avenue to watch the campy display with my family and eye out the school children I know marching with their respective boy scout troop or gymnastics team.  But I envy those families who are sitting on their front porches watching the charming line of fire trucks, convertible cars and shriners go by.  They have cold drinks and popsicles from their conveniently available freezers, yet they are also enjoying their neighbors and fellow villagers.

Most of the houses in this town were built in the 1920s, a time when the porch was necessary to keep cool and provide respite from the thick summer heat.  Most of these homes have now been updated with central air conditioning and their porches are too pristine to be regularly used, with their gorgeously planted urns and tasteful outdoor furniture arranged like a living room.  They are underutilized and offered instead as an introduction to what lay behind the door, than perhaps a diversion from it.  Rarely are its occupants seen enjoying it, with the possible exception of the fourth of July and Halloween, which is precisely why these are two of my favorite holidays: those that force us all to come together as a village and listen to something other than the hum of our air conditioners.

I saw my neighbor yesterday, and during our chat over the fence (another favorite aspect to life in the ‘burbs) we remarked about the early Spring.  I noticed as I continued down my driveway to my reclusive back yard with my toddler that he pulled up his lawn chair and sat down on the deep porch of his Dutch Colonial, opening up his lap top to surf away the rest of the warm afternoon.  I longed for that porch as I settled in on my more modern back patio and frankly felt a little lonely.