This essay is adapted from Chapter 20 of Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. I’ve kept cross-references to other chapters in the book, all of which will eventually be updated and posted on this site. Click on “Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan book” in the Obsessions cloud at lower right to see which are already here.
- Sculptor: Adolph A. Weinman
- Dedicated: 1930
- Medium and size: Bronze (10 feet), pedestal (approximately 3 feet)
- Location: Entrance to 2 Penn Plaza, Seventh Avenue at 32nd Street. Standing at the top of the Seventh-Avenue stairs to Penn Station, turn right and go up 6 steps. Bear left to the front of the building that rises over Penn Station. Subway: 1, 2, 3 to 34 Street – Penn Station.
About the sculpture
Nearly ninety years after this statue was cast, Rea would still look appropriate at a Wall-Street conference table. From his well-groomed hair and mustache to his three-piece double-breasted suit, overcoat and hat, he is impeccably turned out. His upright posture, level gaze and unlined brow mark him as calm, confident and ready to deal with major projects or sudden crises. The New York Times recalled on 3/29/1929:
Mr. Rea’s appearance was that of a man of great strength and power. He was more than six feet in height, and his strong, rugged face was surmounted by a shock of iron-gray hair. He would deal with tremendous problems and immense figures almost as with trifles, and while his associates often were struggling with a problem he would snap out his decision and the problem would be ended.
Rea was president of the Pennsylvania Railroad for over a decade. After his death in 1929, this sculpture honoring him was set in a niche high in the wall of the original Pennsylvania Station. The model next to him and the roll of plans in his hand are for the Station, whose construction he supervised (see below).
About Rea and Penn Station
“The station . . . is the largest and handsomest in the world,” declared the New York Times in 1910. “Any idea of it formed from description and pictures falls short of the impression it makes upon the eye.” Commissioned in 1902, begun in 1904, completed in 1910, Pennsylvania Station was a magnificent building, from the steel and glass vaults of the concourse, to the coffered ceiling and arched windows of the waiting room (as large as the nave of St. Peter’s in Rome), to the pediments and 35-foot columns of its exterior.
“No half-way solution should be attempted by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company,” asserted Rea (1855-1929), who was in charge of the project to link the PRR’s Jersey City terminal with Manhattan. “It should ultimately go into New York in such a manner as to answer the needs of the Company for the next half century at least, and on an equality with, if not on a more elaborate scale, than the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company.”
But the Penn Station project was much more than the building at Seventh Avenue and Thirty-Third Street. A set of railroad tubes under the Hudson (the first such built in the Americas) brought trains from New Jersey to Manhattan. Another set of tubes sent trains under Midtown and the East River to the sprawling railroad yards in Sunnyside, Queens, where cars were serviced, cleaned and assembled into outgoing trains. The complexity of the Penn Station project was matched only by that of Grand Central Terminal, which the heirs of Cornelius Vanderbilt were constructing at the same time a few blocks away. (See Chapters 25 and 26, on Vanderbilt and Glory of Commerce.)
The tubes still carry trains under the Hudson and East Rivers. The Sunnyside Yards still service trains. But barely fifty years after its much-lauded completion, Pennsylvania Station was torn down by the very company that built it. What happened?
The Pennsylvania Railroad was the most efficient and aggressive competitor of Vanderbilt’s New York Central, but for over forty years, PRR trains reaching New Jersey had to transfer passengers and freight to ferries in order to cross the Hudson River. The PRR did not have legislative permission to build a railroad into Manhattan. By the end of the nineteenth century, when the PRR was finally granted permission to run such a line, the commercial center of the city had shifted north to the mid-40s. The price of land forced the PRR to settle for a site on the less developed west side of Midtown.
In 1906, while Pennsylvania Station was under construction, the Interstate Commerce Commission was given power to set “just and reasonable” rates for railroad freight and passengers. From 1900 to 1915, under new laws favoring unionization, the wages of railroad workers increased 50%. Real prices increased 35%. Taxes paid by railroads increased 200%. During the same period the ICC permitted one rate increase for the railroads, of 5%.
By the 1950s, the PRR’s major competitors – automobiles, buses, airplanes – had use of publicly financed and operated roads and terminals, including the interstate highway system, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and Idlewild and LaGuardia Airports. Railroad travel during the 1950s fell to less than 25% of its peak during World War II. By the early 1960s, the PRR was deeply in debt and losing another $1.5 million every year.
The multi-million dollar upkeep and operating expenses of Penn Station came out of the pocket of the PRR, which also paid over a million dollars a year in New York real-estate taxes. With no relief in sight for its steeply declining revenues, the PRR decided to reduce present and future losses by going into partnership with Madison Square Garden to build a smaller, underground railroad station beneath a sports arena and office tower.
The elegant home of the Chattanooga Choo-Choo (“You leave the Pennsylvania Station ’bout a quarter to four / Read a magazine and then you’re in Baltimore”) was demolished in the 1960s amid cries of horror that insensitive capitalists were destroying a historic building of tremendous architectural beauty and importance. But who destroyed Penn Station: the PRR, which paid for its demolition as well as its construction, or the local, state and federal officials who hampered and harassed the PRR until it could no longer afford to maintain Penn Station?
- The General Post Office at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street, designed a decade later by the same architects, gives some idea of Penn Station’s monumental facade.
- Like Cooper, Ericsson and Holley (Chapters 10, 2, 11), Rea, who worked his way up from the lowliest ranks of the PRR, was the sort of man who knew how to persuade nature and his employees do his will.
Back of the beating hammer by which the steel is wrought,
Back of the workshop’s clamor, the seeker may find the thought.
The thought that is ever master of iron and steam and steel,
That rises above disaster and tramples it under heel.
The drudge may fret and tinker, or labor with lusty blows,
But back of him stands the Thinker, the clear-eyed man who knows. …
— Berton Braley, “The Thinker,” 1948
- For more on railroads and steel, click the Railroads tag in the Obsessions cloud at right.
- Adolph A. Weinman (1870-1952) moved from Germany to the United States at age ten. He studied at Cooper Union and trained with Philip Martiny, Augustus Saint Gaudens, and Daniel Chester French. One of his most notable works is General Alexander Macomb, in Detroit. Manhattan has Rea, Hamilton and Clinton at the Museum of the City of New York (Chapters 20, 48), as well as the gilded Civic Fame atop the Municipal Building, 1914 (Chambers and Centre Streets), and the John Purroy Mitchel Memorial, ca. 1926 (Central Park, near Fifth Avenue and 90th Street). Brooklyn has the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, 1909 (Fort Greene Park), and Mayor William Jay Gaynor, 1926 (Cadman Plaza). Weinman designed the Walking Liberty half dollar (minted 1916-1947) and the Winged Liberty (Mercury) dime, minted 1916-1945.
- Outdoor Monuments has been “translated” into a fabulous app that you can enjoy on your phone or tablet for the images and music – even if you’re not in New York. The Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videoguide is available for iPhone users (free Preview; complete app) and Android users (free preview; complete app). The supplementary page on ForgottenDelights.com is here.
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