Madison Square Garden, Mad Men, and Preservation

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

One of the launching points for last Sunday's stellar episode of the AMC drama "Mad Men" -- titled "Love Among the Ruins" -- was the proposed demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station on the west side of Manhattan to make way for Madison Square Garden.

The original Pennsylvania Station structure was one of New York City's architectural masterpieces. It was designed by the storied firm McKim, Mead, and White, one of the leading practitioners of the Beaux-Arts movement in New York. McKim, Mead, and White's work can still be seen throughout the city -- Columbia's campus, the Manhattan Municipal Building, among others -- and up and down the eastern seaboard.

Preservationists and a number of New Yorkers were outraged that a totemic structure would be torn down to make way for ... what ... a sports arena and entertainment center?!

(You can check out the scene in which the embattled copywriter Paul Kinsley, who is assigned to the campaign, turns on the developers in a preliminary meeting, and defends the preservation of Pennsylvania Station here at the 3:19 mark.)

Paul bombastically makes his stand:

I don't think it's crazy to be attached to a Beaux Arts masterpiece through which Teddy Roosevelt came and went ... Do you know where the greatest Roman ruins are? They're in Greece. Spain. Because the Romans tore theirs all down. They took apart the Coliseum to build their outhouses!

At which point MSG's developer responds about his arena complex:

This is the Coliseum. Have you seen the plans?!

Historic preservation is a very tricky balancing act. Even the most dedicated futurists among us have a hard time reconciling our steadfast belief that sentimentalizing tradition is a lousy way to affect change in a world that needs it, against our visceral aesthetic attachments. A preservationist is just a modernist with memories.

It's hard to argue that the demolition of Pennsylvania Station for an arena that could've been placed elsewhere didn't make New York City a slightly lesser place, as articulated by then-New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable in May 1963. The opposition fought a losing battle, but the station's demise was the impetus for the formation of New York City's Landmarks Preservationist Commission, which is still active -- and effective -- to this day.

Progress always comes with a price, and the cost-benefit analysis of annihilating a beautiful relic in favor of new development with inferior architectural appeal is one of the tougher calculations a city has to grapple with. Yes, the station was gorgeous, but it was also a money pit. In the early 60s, rail traffic through its grand concourse was declining precipitously, and the city was hemorrhaging dollars to maintain the structure.

After Paul botches the meeting with the developers, Sterling Cooper's creative director, Don Draper -- the show's central character -- is called in to salvage the account. At a three-martini lunch with MSG's disgruntled developer, Draper makes the case for Madison Square Garden (the scene can be viewed here at about the 1:00 mark).

Draper's case is an elegant, moderate manifesto for the future:

Let's say that change is neither good nor bad. It simply is. It can be treated with terror or joy -- a tantrum that says, 'I want it the way it was,' or a dance that says, 'Look -- something new.' ... I was in California. Everything is new, and it's clean. The people are filled with hope. New York City is in decay. But Madison Square Garden -- it's the beginning of a new city on a hill.

The rest is history: The original Pennsylvania Station was eventually demolished, and rail traffic was sent underground, beneath the arena we now know as MSG.

More than forty years after Madison Square Garden was opened above the new, dingy Penn Station, we regard it as basketball's holiest site -- a place whose mystique inspires basketball greats such as Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James to their most impressive heights. These NBA titans rhapsodize about the Garden. Bryant calls it the "mecca of basketball":

You want to play well here ... The building is special because it is the last one left. This is the last one that holds all the memories of all the great players. Coming up the elevator shaft and thinking about Willis Reed, thinking about Jerry West and all the great rivalries they had in this building. It makes it very special.

After his 52-point game last February, James said:

It's just a different feeling when you come into this building, honestly, like you're on stage when you're on the court. Because of the fans, how light it is in here. You think about the history of the game: so many great performances, so many great coaches, so many great players have come through here ... It isn't just another road game.

Four decades later, it's ironic that the building that was the bĂȘte noire of architectural preservationists has become the defining symbol of basketball preservationists -- a receptacle for the sort of sentimentalism that fueled the opposition to its creation.