The architects Peter Samton and Diana Goldstein can tell you exactly where they were a half century ago, at 5 p.m. on Aug. 2, 1962: out on Seventh Avenue, tilting at windmills.
How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
Pennsylvania Station, the McKim, Mead & White masterpiece, was doomed. They knew it. But they weren’t going to let it go down undefended. With Norval White, Jordan Gruzen, Elliott Willensky and others, they assembled an impromptu resistance brigade known as Agbany, for Action Group for Better Architecture in New York.
On that 86-degree summer evening 50 years ago, commuters were greeted by the sight of more than 100 buttoned-down and white-gloved protesters marching around the colossal colonnade at the station’s entrance.
“Save Penn Station,” their signs said, in nicely formed letters. (Architects. Of course.) “Don’t Sell Our City Short.” “Save Our Heritage.” “Action Not Apathy.”
Philip Johnson was impeccably present, in the company of the peerless Elizabeth Bliss Parkinson, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, who would soon be its president. There was Aline B. Saarinen, the widow of Eero Saarinen, who had been until 1959 an associate art critic at The New York Times. Agbany counted Eleanor Roosevelt, Stewart Alsop, Jane Jacobs and Norman Mailer among its supporters, along with many of the most respected names in architecture and architectural criticism.
Also on the protest line were Ms. Goldstein’s friends, ex-husband and a few old boyfriends, whom she had dragooned into picketing duty. “I said to someone, ‘This is like my life passing before my eyes — all these guys walking round and round,’” she recalled in a telephone interview on Tuesday from San Francisco. She was then 30 years old and known as Diana Kirsch.
Mr. Samton, who was 27, recalled being deputized to get Mr. Johnson down to Penn Station that day. “He said, ‘I have a meeting with Mrs. Parkinson; I can’t come.’ We said, ‘Well, bring her along and you can have your meeting while you parade.’”
“The fact that he came meant that we got publicity,” Mr. Samton said the other day, after spreading out Agbany memorabilia in the comfortably modernist living and working space he created on the parlor floor of an Upper West Side brownstone.
Mr. Samton’s Penn Station files bear more than spiritual scars. A number of pages were singed on Sept. 11, 2001, when the offices of his firm, Gruzen Samton, two blocks south of the World Trade Center, were set ablaze by flaming debris. These include a newspaper ad, reproduced below, that heralded the Aug. 2 rally.
More than a year before the protesters assembled, it had been known that the developer Irving Mitchell Felt and the Pennsylvania Railroad had every intention of tearing Penn Station down to street level and replacing it with a new Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue, and an office tower and hotel tower on Seventh Avenue.
Mr. Samton attributed some of the early inertia among opponents to sheer disbelief. “It was impossible to think that this monumental building was going to be demolished to make way for something that would make more money for the landowners,” he said.
As the threat loomed early in 1962, Ms. Goldstein was invited to attend a luncheon meeting of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter by her boss, Herbert Oppenheimer. Raised in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) and educated in South Africa, Ms. Goldstein had grown up unafraid to speak her mind. She asked at the lunch about the pink granite elephant in the room. She recalled being told that construction unions strongly favored the project and that the chapter considered it a done deal.
As she, Mr. Samton and Mr. Gruzen walked out of the meeting, she said, “Why do we need them? We can just do it ourselves.”
Mr. White, already an imposing figure in the field, long before he achieved renown with Mr. Willensky as an author of the AIA Guide to New York City, was recruited to head the fledgling Action Group for Better Architecture in New York. The protest won front-page coverage in The Times. A month later, the group met with Mayor Robert F. Wagner.
That turned out to be nothing but a palliative, however. Demolition began on Penn Station a year later and was completed in 1966, by which time the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission — a purely advisory body in 1962 — had been given regulatory muscle.
“I really believe Grand Central Terminal was saved because of what happened at Penn Station,” Mr. Samton said. The experience propelled him into a career of civic service paralleling his architectural practice, including the presidency of the City Club of New York.
Ms. Goldstein, who loves railroads and industrial architecture, spent much of her career designing and planning schools, housing developments and building systems. Her last project was a hospice. Now an artist, she said she still regards the demolition as a “moral outrage.”
Then she added, “We knew we wouldn’t win, but we did hope to change the climate.”