If ever a hallowed place existed for the travel of the common man and woman, it was New York’s original Pennsylvania Station. Yet a magnificent, soaring station that Alexander Cassatt and the Pennsylvania Railroad built for the ages and opened in 1910 lasted barely over a half-century. Two days after workers started tearing down the station on Oct. 28, 1963, a New York Times editorial called the demolition “a monumental act of vandalism” and observed “…we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” Still, the Times’ Oct. 29 news report of the demolition’s start termed Pennsylvania Station “a grimy monument to an age of expansive elegance” and an “anachronism” – its fate as an allowed-for-years-to-dilapidate rail station in an age celebrating the automobile and the jet. This week, the PBS American Experience series is premiering its film on the station’s birth and ultimate destruction in “The Rise and Fall of Pennsylvania Station.”
The station’s elegance and its engineering accomplishments, indeed, had inspired masses of travelers when it first opened and during subsequent decades. Some 100,000 visitors came on Nov. 27, 1910, the grand opening day when the first trains began using the Hudson River tube, according to the Times. The railroad had opened portions of the station in September, 2010, and trains were able to use the new East River tunnels to Long Island.
Crowds on the Pennsylvania Station concourse, 1944 (Photo credit: United States, Office of War Information – From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York)
Those who caught trains or arrived in New York at Pennsylvania Station found a spectacular space that covered eight acres in all. The Beaux-Arts temple to travel that Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White designed had grand archways and dozens of Doric columns, 150-foot-high ceilings, shafts of light through an iron and glass roof, and inspiring sculpture. While it captured the classical grandeur of Ancient Rome, the early 20th century space also drew on the “new tradition of the Crystal Palaces and the glass galleries and halls of Paris exhibitions,” wrote Nathan Silver in his 1967 book, Lost New York. The station also represented the Pennsylvania Railroad’s transformational feat of constructing 16 miles of innovative tunnels under the Hudson and East rivers that would connect the railroad not only to New York City but eventually to New England, as the PBS program recounts. [Read more →]