Gillham fountain helped launch architecture preservation movement

Bridget Moss of South Hyde Park won our third fountain contest by identifying the Eagle Scout Memorial Fountain. She gets two tickets to the Jiggle Jam Family festival over Memorial Day weekend, which unfolds around the fountain at Crown Center.

The Eagle Scout fountain at 39th Street and Gillham Road was dedicated in 1968 and the sculpture originally flanked a clock at an entrance to New York’s famous – and infamously demolished – Pennsylvania Station.

As our fountain contest is intended to raise awareness and help raise money for care of the fountains of Kansas City, this one stands as a tribute to a vanished architectural landmark and as a warning of the impermanence of art.

The original Pennsylvania Station was designed by McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1910. Like Kansas City’s massive union station, which opened four years later, it was considered a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style.

Wikipedia tells its story:

It’s glass and steel train sheds and stunning concourse were a monumental entrance into New York City. Its twin carriageways on the street were modeled after Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and its main waiting room, inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, were about the scale of St. Peter’s Nave in Rome.

Historian Jill Jonnes called it a “great Doric Temple to Transportation.”

The Pennsylvania Railroad operated it from 1910 to 1963, when demolition began. Modern architects tried unsuccessfully to save it, chanting “Don’t amputate – renovate.”

But it was replaced by the Penn Plaza and the Madison Square Garden complex. The tracks are below street level with a brand-new, air-conditioned and smaller station that cost the rail company nothing. Pennsylvania Railroad also got a 25 percent stake in the Madison Square Garden complex.

The demolition of the head house caused international outrage and the New York Times editorialized: “Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.”

The demolition prompted New York’s first architectural preservation statutes. It was also a catalyst for the architectural preservation movement nationwide, perhaps contributing to later efforts that saved Union Station in Kansas City.

Many were outraged at the demise of a grand structure and its replacement by a mediocre one.

Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote: “One entered the city like a God; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

The sculpture at old Penn station was the work of Adolph Alexander Weinman. The piece in Kansas City, donated by the rail company, was from one of his clock surrounds and the figures were based on model Audrey Munson.

Tomorrow, more about Audrey Munson, the model for many New York statues and the first woman to appear fully nude in a mainstream movie.