American Experience - The Rise And Fall Of Penn Station

Updated Mon, Jan 27, 2014 3:45 pm

Tuesday, February 18 • 9 p.m.

It was a day New Yorkers had been anticipating for nearly a decade. Pennsylvania Station, a monumental train terminal in the heart of Manhattan, finally opened to the public on November 27, 1910. Covering nearly eight acres, the building was the fourth largest in the world. The main waiting room, which extended the length of two city blocks and rose 150 feet, was comparable to the nave at St. Peter’s in Rome in both size and splendor. The unveiling of the station represented the culmination of an unprecedented engineering project, the biggest civil engineering project of its time — the building of sixteen miles of underground tunnels, seven miles of which were under the Hudson and East Rivers.

Perched above the awestruck crowd was a statue of Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who had died bringing the station to life. He had defied legions of skeptics and gambled millions of dollars to link the nation’s biggest railroad to America’s greatest city. It was a rare example of a private investment that would also be a great gift to the public. Yet what no one could know that day was that Penn Station, built for the ages, would last only a few decades.

By the 1960s, what was supposed to last forever was slated for destruction. In 1961, the financially strapped Pennsylvania Railroad, which had been losing customers to air and automobile travel, announced that it had sold the air rights above Penn Station. The company would tear down what had once been its crowning jewel to build Madison Square Garden, a high-rise office building and sports complex. There were protests, but to no avail.

On the rainy morning of October 28, 1963, the demolition of the grand edifice began and construction on the new station was completed in 1968. As architectural historian Vincent J. Scully, Jr. famously lamented, “one entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” In response to Penn Station’s destruction, New York City established the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Grand Central Terminal was designated a historic landmark in 1967, sparing it from the sad fate of Penn Station.