Take a Trip Back in Time with Louis Stettner and Discover Life in “Penn Station, New York” c. 1958

Photo: Louis Stettner, Penn Station, 1958

Once upon a time in Old York, the grandeur of life could be felt in the very construction of the buildings that stood proudly on its bedrock. It wasn’t just the mansions on Fifth Avenue or Victorian castles in Ditmas Park; a majestic opulence was part and parcel of everyday life, perhaps no more evident than in the original Pennsylvania Station.

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Sitting like a sultan on two square blocks, Penn Station was designed by Charles McKim of the legendary architectural firm McKim, Mead & White in 1901. McKim envisioned the station as “the entrance to one of the great metropolitan cities of the world.” He took it back to greatest empire of the Western world, studying the role of public buildings in Ancient Rome. After nine years of construction, Pennsylvania Station opened to the public on November 27, 1910, ushering in a new era of railroad travel across the United States.

Louis Stettner, Penn Station, 1958

It was a marvel of engineering that combined glamour and elegance with practicality during the industrial age, and has long been considered a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style. Made of pink granite and marked by a colonnade of Roman columns, it houses glass-and-steel train sheds, bringing together the old and new epochs. The main waiting room approximated the scale of St. Peter’s nave in Rome, with an atrium that soared 150 in the air. It was the largest indoor space in the city, and one of the biggest in the world, a veritable temple of transportation for a brave new world.

It reached its height during World War II, then precipitously declined as airplane travel launch the Jet Age. By 1963, it was a wrap. Penn Station was shut its doors and was destroyed, an act so devastating that it ushered in the practice of modern historical preservation.

Louis Stettner, Penn Station, 1957

But before it went by the wayside, it was a veritable muse to American photographer Louis Stettner (b. 1922). Stettner, who began his professional career in Paris following World War II, worked alongside masters like Robert Doisneau and Brassai, creating modern day stories of city life. In 1957, he took a photograph of a young girl in a white party dress, stepping along the circular patches of sunlight dotting the floor of Penn Station.

The image stayed with him, so much so he returned to Penn Station a year later to create a body of work documenting the quiet moments of life that occur as we go about our travels. The photographs have been collected in Penn Station, New York (Thames & Hudson), a large format volume featuring 66 prints and an essay by Adam Gopnik.

Louis Stettner, Penn Station, 1958

Stettner, now 93, told Gopnik, “No one ever objected to my taking picture—it was after the war; people were getting into enjoying peace. There was bonhomie, a wonderful spirit, a comradeship everywhere. It was a rare communion between the subject matter and me. Well, it helped I was in the dark.”

From the shadows, Stettner worked, creating a series of photographs that evoke a time that has past and yet, there is the sense of the eternal human spirit that continues to live. We’ve all been there: the eternal comings and goings that require us to wait patiently while we engage in private moments in a public space. In Stettner’s photographs we discover the beauty of the mundane set against a backdrop of magnificence, realizing how easy it is to take everything, even life itself, for granted.

Louis Stettner, Penn Station, 1958

All photos: Photo © Louis Stettner, 2015.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.

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