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A Bus Terminal, Overshadowed and Unmourned

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Published: November 3, 2011



THE demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1963 is still an open sore. People who weren’t even alive then burn with indignation; it’s a kind of permanent ache. But is there no one to mourn the sleek little Greyhound bus station of 1935?


The Greyhound Bus Terminal, with Pennsylvania Station in back, in 1936. The art moderne terminal, designed by Thomas Lamb, allowed easy train-to-bus transfer. It was torn down soon after Penn Station's 1963 demise. Today One Penn Plaza, an office building, stands in its place.


On 33rd Street just north of Penn Station, the bus depot might seem to have sheltered competition for the Pennsylvania Railroad, but it was the railroad that built it. Railroads had been buying or establishing bus companies for years, both to offer transfer points for their passengers, and to stave off start-ups looking for new markets.


Bus stations in the 1920s and 1930s posed new problems for architects. In 1920s New York, a common solution was to fit them into a new building — like the Baltimore & Ohio’s bus station, on the ground floor of the 1930 Chanin Building, on Lexington and 42nd. The B & O was, as bus stations go, palatial. With a great double-height space, a forest of bronze torchiers and marble counters, it might have been a hotel lobby except that it had no rugs.


John C. Fistere, writing in 1930 in The Architectural Record, spelled out the requirements of the new building type. Internal windows overlooking the vehicle area were important, since most passengers still found bus transportation “somewhat of a mystery,” and were concerned with missing their trip. A separate baggage room was advisable since “the inconvenience which would result from giving the passengers their luggage immediately upon alighting is obvious.” Truly, bus travel has changed.


Greyhound was a consortium of different lines, including Pennsylvania Greyhound, half owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1935 the railroad cleared a through-block site just north of the station, from 33rd to 34th, for the new Pennsylvania Greyhound Bus Terminal.


The art moderne terminal, designed by the theater architect Thomas Lamb, was a swing-era reproach to the fusty grandeur of Penn Station across the street. The 33rd Street facade was plain, but Lamb put a showy rounded corner on the busy 34th Street side and faced the entire front with enameled steel panels in glossy blue, the company’s trademark color since the 1920s. There was no baggage room, but apparently the riding public bore up under the hardship. At that time there were half a dozen small bus stations sprinkled over Manhattan.


The company advertised 40 round trips a day to Philadelphia at $3 each, and 18 departures to Los Angeles, for $76.05 round trip. In 1943 Greyhound began planning a replacement 14-story terminal, and acquired most of the city block from Eighth Avenue over to just short of Seventh.


But in 1945, the Port Authority proposed its own single consolidated bus terminal, at Eighth Avenue and 40th Street, saying that intercity bus traffic jammed the streets. Part of the plan was a rooftop landing strip, 500 feet long, for what the authority called “the flying bus of the future.”


By this time the modernistic Greyhound terminal was not just a stop for travelers, but the haunt of vagrants, delinquents and petty criminals. In 1947 a police inspector called it the worst spot in Midtown. Five years later two escapees from the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane waiting for a bus to Baltimore were caught by police officers with drawn guns.


Nonetheless, Greyhound resisted the Port Authority plan. It liked its central location just fine, and had no need to help small operators gain the advantage of a union terminal. The city retaliated by prohibiting any bus terminal expansion in Midtown. The Port Authority completed its big, bland terminal in 1950, counting on Greyhound’s eventual capitulation — it was the biggest dog by far among the carriers.


The standoff continued through the 1950s, and in 1958 Greyhound proposed using its block for a huge $10 million terminal, about half as big as Penn Station. The Port Authority yelped, and the project was finally put down in 1959.


The following year, a headline in The New York Times proclaimed: “Greyhound Bus Finds It’s in the Enemy Camp.” The bus, coming through the Lincoln Tunnel, had mindlessly followed a line of buses ... right into the Port Authority terminal. The authority was not taking prisoners, and let it go. Then, in 1962, Greyhound gave in and agreed to move its 200 daily buses to the terminal, for which it began paying an annual rent of $1.2 million. The days of easy train-to-bus transfer were over.


The architect Peter Samton recalls the terminal as a student traveler in the 1950s, but has no memory of it during the protests against the demolition of Penn Station in 1962, when he wired himself to a column. Lamb’s little gem survived at least until mid-1963, and probably later. Today One Penn Plaza, completed in the 1970s, stands on the block. Whenever it met its fate, the low blue terminal met it alone, and without public reaction.





E-mail: streetscapes@nytimes.com

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