Narrator: November 27, 1910, 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. The excitement was palpable.
Lorraine Diehl, Writer: There were throngs of people in the station that day. It was as if someone took them to ancient Rome and ancient Greece. I mean, they’d never seen anything like that.
Narrator: 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 high, was comparable to the nave at St. Peter’s in Rome -- in both size and splendor. A French visitor openly sobbed, noted a reporter, “because such a ‘beautiful affair’ was ‘just a railway station.’”
Perched above the crowd was a statue of the man who had died bringing the station to life. Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, 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 clearly benefit the public.
Albert Churella, Historian: Cassatt believed that he was performing a valuable service not only for his company but a valuable service for the country.
Narrator: The unveiling of the station represented the culmination of an unprecedented engineering project -- the building of 16 miles of underground tunnels. Seven miles were under the Hudson and East Rivers, two of the busiest and geologically complex waterways in the world.
Keith Revell: When the Pennsylvania Railroad undertakes to build tunnels where no one thought tunnels could be built, it’s almost as though they are gonna go to the moon.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: The scale of this was pharaonic. It was huge. It was the biggest civil engineering project of its time.
Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic: Pennsylvania Station is one of the greatest symbols of monumental public space that any American city has ever had. It ennobles the acts of daily life. It makes every citizen feel important.
Lorraine Diehl, Writer: We were poor. We didn’t have very much. My aunt said to me, “When I walked into Penn Station, I felt like a queen because I felt as if someone had done that for me.”
Narrator: As 100,000 people streamed through its doors on opening day, a half dozen granite eagles peered down on each entrance.
Lorraine Diehl, Writer: The eagles represented the Caesars when they conquered new territory. So here Alexander Cassatt finally conquered New York, and he’d surround his station with eagles.
Narrator: Yet what no one that day could know was that Penn Station, built for the ages, would last only a few decades.
In July 1901, Alexander Cassatt and his family began the first leg of their journey to Europe, by boarding a train in Philadelphia bound for New York. As happened every time he traveled to the city, Cassatt’s train abruptly ground to a halt in New Jersey, on the western shore of the Hudson River. There was no way across by train -- an increasingly frustrating situation for the president of the nation’s largest railroad.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: Alexander Cassatt gets off into just total chaos, and what he and thousands of people are going to are ferries.
Albert Churella, Historian: Every 10 minutes a Pennsylvania Railroad ferry headed across the Hudson River threading a gauntlet of oceangoing ships, ferries operated by other railroads, tugs, lighters, car floats of one sort or another. The congestion of watercraft on the Hudson River was becoming intolerable.
Narrator: By the turn of the 20th century, New York had emerged as the nation’s preeminent metropolis, rivaling the great cities of the world. Still, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which controlled over 10,000 miles of track extending through the American heartland, had no direct access into Manhattan.
Albert Churella, Historian: For Cassatt it was a matter of image and pride. New York City was not just the largest city in the country. It was the nation’s commercial hub. And for the Pennsylvania Railroad to get so close, just one mile short of Manhattan, was to him unthinkable.
Narrator: As Cassatt looked across the Hudson, he was reminded of his recent failure to solve his company’s 30-year problem. A plan for a bridge across the river had fallen through when a consortium of competing rail lines balked at sharing the cost of the $100 million project. Cassatt realized if he wanted to get his line into New York, he would have to do it alone.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: As Cassatt heads over to France, he’s really, really disappointed because this whole plan has fallen apart and they really have no fallback plan.
Narrator: The Cassatts started their annual European holiday in London, then headed to Paris, where they visited Alexander’s younger sister Mary, who had built a reputation as an Impressionist painter.
While in Paris, Cassatt received a cable from his vice president, Samuel Rea, who urged him to investigate the new Paris train station, Gare d’Orsay. The celebrated train terminal had been completed for the Paris Exposition of 1900. The Gare d’Orsay’s Beaux-Arts architecture impressed Cassatt. Even more stunning was the station’s innovative use of electric traction and tunnels.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: Cassatt is an engineer. He knows everything inside out about railroads, and he spends three days inspecting every aspect of these trains, the tunnels, the whole system.
Albert Churella, Historian: What caught Cassatt’s attention was that trains got there through a long tunnel -- a tunnel that was smoke-free because those trains were pulled by electric locomotives.
Narrator: Unlike coal-burning locomotives, electric trains did not run the risk of asphyxiating their crew and passengers while passing through long tunnels. Up to this point, they’d primarily been used for lighter trolleys. Now Cassatt watched powerful electric locomotives pull 300-ton passenger cars through a mile-long tunnel running along the River Seine to platforms below the station.
Daniel Czitrom, Historian: It was the idea of going electric, I think, that really brought all this together for Cassatt.
Narrator: Cassatt envisioned his own electric trains gliding through tunnels under the Hudson River, into Manhattan. He cabled Rea that he believed this might be the solution.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: The railroads completely remade and redefined every aspect of life in America. They knit the whole country together and really created an entirely new economy. And it was a very industrialized economy and it was a very urbanized economy.
Albert Churella, Historian: As the nation’s largest railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad played a bigger role than most. The Pennsylvania Railroad hauled more freight; it transported more passengers than any other railroad in the United States.
Narrator: By 1900, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest corporation in the world. With over 100,000 employees, its operating budget was second only to the federal government’s.
Cassatt had been appointed president of the line in 1899, at the age of 59. His career hadn’t followed the typical path. Born into a wealthy family, he had the means to retire at age 42 before being persuaded to return after the company’s president died unexpectedly.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: The board of directors asked him would he consider taking on the presidency. In a way this was no small thing because almost every president of the Pennsylvania Railroad had died in office. So it was literally known as a killing job.
Narrator: As a condition for accepting the job, Cassatt demanded free rein to carry out his vision for the company.
Albert Churella, Historian: Cassatt certainly did believe that he knew better than anyone how things should be run. He understood the organizational and the financial complexity of the railroad industry.
Narrator: The railroad thrived under Cassatt’s leadership, nearly doubling its income in two years.
Keith Revell, Historian: He’s in a position to say, “Let’s do something really extraordinary that this company has been trying to do for years.”
Lorraine Diehl, Writer: New York City at the turn of the century was changing rapidly. The entire city is pushing itself into the 20th century and he wants to be part of the party. He wants his railroad to be part of that. He was really obsessed with taking his trains into Manhattan.
Narrator: To help realize his new tunnel plan, Cassatt tapped Samuel Rea to oversee the project, and recruited Charles Jacobs, one of the world’s foremost tunnel engineers. Jacobs had become prominent building a small natural gas tunnel under the East River, the first underwater tunnel into Manhattan.
Albert Churella, Historian: Charles Jacobs understood, perhaps better than anybody else in the world, the practicalities of building underwater tunnels.
Narrator: The plan was daunting -- 16 miles of tunnels that would link the Pennsylvania Railroad’s sprawling system to New York City and New England. Two tunnels would be bored under the Hudson River from New Jersey to Manhattan, where they would open up into tracks 50 feet below street level, leading to the railroad’s terminus in the heart of the city. Four tunnels would continue under the East River and emerge in Long Island, where they would connect with the recently acquired Long Island Railroad. The final piece would be the Hell Gate Bridge, a span over the East River extending the rail lines northward to New England.
For the company’s new terminal, Cassatt envisioned an architectural tour de force along the lines of the Gare d’Orsay, only twice as big. The expected price tag of the project was $50 million. The Pennsylvania would take on this massive venture alone, giving it exclusive access to the tunnels.
Daniel Czitrom, Historian: The ambition and the scope of the Pennsylvania Railroad project reflect something about America at the turn of the century. People identify these same themes with works like the Brooklyn Bridge, with the building of the first subways, with the building of the Panama Canal. But unlike some of the other great engineering feats of the late 19th, early 20th century, this is not being done with any government subsidy. This is being done by a private corporation.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: They feel as if they’re doing this great civic deed. They are actually going to finally attach New York City, which is the most important city in the country, to the mainland.
Narrator: It began quietly. In the fall of 1901, three men went door to door, buying up real estate in the Tenderloin, a working-class neighborhood that was also one of Manhattan’s most notorious vice districts. Snapping up shabby tenements, saloons, dance halls, gambling joints, and warehouses, the men worked to get the lowest prices possible.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: They had no idea who they were buying property for, and they went out into these blocks in the Tenderloin and just began looking for owners. They had giant wads of cash, and if someone was willing to sell their building they would pay them on the spot.
Narrator: The buyers needed to purchase the four blocks from West 31st Street to West 33rd Street between 7th and 9th Avenues. The area was to be the site of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Manhattan terminal, but that was a closely guarded secret.
Daniel Czitrom, Historian: The idea is that once we buy these buildings up, we’re gonna tear ‘em all down. They wanna do this before it becomes publicly known that they’re buying everything up. That’s the way to keep the prices down.
Narrator: When news of the tunnels leaked out, it stunned the public.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: People still assumed that somehow or another they were in pursuit of a bridge. The idea that you would build tunnels was not on anyone’s mind because it was not viewed as technically possible.
Albert Churella, Historian: Cassatt certainly understood that driving a tunnel under the Hudson River was a risky business. In the 1870s DeWitt Clinton Haskin had tried to build a tunnel under the Hudson River and had suffered a series of blowouts, one of which killed 20 people. The project was abandoned. Proof, critics said, that it just couldn’t be done.
Vincent Tirolo, Jr., Engineer: The geologic conditions for the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels in the Hudson River were difficult. The soil that you’re mining through, it’s a soft silt. So there was a lot of concern about whether the tunnel in that soft material would stay in position or would settle.
Narrator: A typical Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train weighed 700 tons. The tunnels would need to withstand hundreds of them everyday.
Keith Revell, Historian: Building a tunnel of that size to handle that level of traffic is going to be an extraordinary undertaking. When you put several hundred tons of railroad car underneath the river in that silt the likelihood is that things are gonna start to move around, and you don’t want a railroad tunnel underneath the water to start moving around.
Albert Churella, Historian: What concerned Samuel Rea was that the tunnels would fail, and in failing doom the entire project.
Narrator: Cassatt had already spent $5 million buying up land for his Manhattan train station. Now he was betting 10 times that amount on what many considered a mad and reckless pursuit.
On a spring day in 1902, New York architect Charles McKim was in Washington to discuss a renovation of the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt. While there, McKim received an unexpected telegram from Alexander Cassatt, requesting a meeting. “I suppose President Cassatt wants a new stoop for his house,” McKim joked. McKim hurried to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s offices in Philadelphia the next day. He spent the morning with Cassatt, who described his plans for a new railroad station in Manhattan.
Hilary Ballon, Historian: Alexander Cassatt wanted a monument. He didn’t want a simple opening into an underground space. He wanted a monument to his company that could express the importance of the railroad and the ambitions of New York City, that captured its sense of itself as a world capital.
Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic: Cassatt was a very unusual executive. He not only knew how to run a railroad, he really did have a grand vision and he wanted the Pennsylvania Railroad to stand for the grandest, the noblest, the most elegant, the most inspiring. He saw in McKim the kind of architect who would give him that.
Narrator: Along with Stanford White and William Mead, McKim had founded one of the country’s most famous architectural firms.
Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic: McKim, Mead & White were the top guys in town. And Charles McKim was a strong-willed, earnest believer in the nobility of Classical architecture.
Narrator: McKim had made his name designing civic spaces like the Boston Public Library and the campus of Columbia University. Although he had never designed a train station, he created works on a heroic scale. By the end of their meeting, Cassatt had commissioned McKim to design Pennsylvania Station. In the Tenderloin, about 500 buildings were soon torn down, displacing hundreds of families, to make way for Cassatt’s immense new terminal. McKim marveled at the huge expanse -- a sprawling, blank canvas on which he could design a monument for the ages.
On June 24, 1903, Charles Jacobs stepped up on a wooden platform next to a large pneumatic drill and began drilling down into the bedrock of Manhattan. The massive hole would soon be a 55-foot-deep shaft for tunneling under the Hudson River. At the same time, workers sunk a similar shaft in Weehawken, New Jersey. Construction had begun on what Engineering News lauded as the “most extensive and difficult piece of submarine tunnel work ever undertaken.”
The shafts would be the access points for simultaneously digging two tunnels that would meet up under the Hudson River. On the other side of Manhattan, crews would burrow four tunnels under the East River, also starting from each shore and connecting in the middle.
At the contractor’s field offices, doctors began examining hundreds of applicants for jobs as tunnel workers, called Sandhogs. The dangerous work drew men from all different nationalities and ethnic groups -- Irish, Italian, Polish, West Indian, African-American. At the shaft entrances, a makeshift elevator transported Sandhogs to the dank depths of their underground work. Tunneling never stopped -- three eight-hour shifts a day, seven days a week. Rows of steam engines pumped the lifeblood of compressed air into the tunnel below.
Vincent Tirolo, Jr., Engineer: Compressed air means you’re raising the pressure of the air inside the tunnel to a pressure that’s equal to the pressure of the water trying to come in. Now the water’s trying to flow inside the tunnel, and you’re pushing on that, the face of the tunnel with the pressure, with a pressure equal to the pressure of the water. That compressed air pressure keeps the water from coming in.
Narrator: To bore under the river, the engineers used a Greathead shield. Weighing nearly 200 tons, the shield was a steel cylinder with a diameter of 23 feet in which the tunnel was constructed. The head of the shield had nine compartments with doors, allowing for the extraction of earth and rock, called “muck,” from the face of the tunnel.
In the tail of the shield, the tunnel was built by assembling a series of two-and-a-half-foot-wide cast-iron rings, each made up of 12 segments bolted together by hand. As each ring was put in place, hydraulic jacks pushed the shield forward so that another ring could be erected.
Vincent Tirolo, Jr., Engineer: The process is kind of an inchworm process. You erect a ring, you jack forward, you pull the jacks back, you erect another ring. And out the back of the shield you’re getting this continuous line of cast-iron rings.
Narrator: In the beginning, it took Sandhogs about six hours to put a ring segment in place. With experience, they soon could build one every 90 minutes.
Vincent Tirolo, Jr., Engineer: Excavation was essentially hand labor. Generally speaking it was done with a spade. And the rock was drilled by a pneumatic hammer held by a Sandhog.
Scott Chesman, Sandhog: It’s grueling. There’s tremendous power down there that needs to be used, and if you’re in the wrong spot at the wrong time you’re gonna get crushed. Equipment moving in and out; muck cars full of muck. I mean, they weigh tons. If you’re not paying attention you’re gonna get hit. And when you’re in a confined space and anything can happen, there is nowhere to run.
Narrator: Concerned about the tunnel settling in the soft silt, Jacobs had engineers measure the alignment and grade every second to fourth ring. As the enormous shields crept towards each other Jacobs knew there was no margin for error.
At the site of the new station and its accompanying train yard, work gangs began to dig, drill, dynamite and cart out tons of muck. Construction crews worked day and night to excavate the 28-acre expanse.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: It’s just block, after block, after block that’s going down, down, down. They’re having to prop up entire avenues, including above the avenues, the elevated railroads. And then excavating around all of the underground infrastructure that’s there: the sewer pipes, the water pipes. It’s an amazing engineering feat.
Daniel Czitrom, Historian: The construction site also became an object of fascination for ordinary passersby who were just struck by the breathtaking size of this operation. It was almost an unworldly scene that was going on. Nobody had ever seen a hole this big. And nobody had ever seen an excavation project this ambitious. The newspapers and other observers would constantly refer to the excavation job as being our own Panama Canal here on the west side of Manhattan.
Narrator: Just blocks from the excavation site, Charles McKim was working intensely on designs for a lofty space -- to celebrate what he called, “the entrance to one of the great metropolitan cities of the world.” For inspiration, McKim studied the great buildings of ancient Rome, in particular the Baths of Caracalla, which he had recently visited.
Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic: The Romans believed that public buildings were inherently noble things. They were not just functional. He looked at the Baths of Caracalla, and decided that there was the model for the great space of a train station. This is saying that we can evoke the grandeur of ancient Rome and make it part of modern New York.
Narrator: Cassatt had also visited the Baths, and was equally taken with them.
Daniel Czitrom, Historian: He was not solely interested in aggrandizing power. He was a man of culture, of taste, of fine art. He paid tremendous attention to aesthetics, and beauty, and great architecture.
Lorraine Diehl, Writer: Alexander Cassatt and Charles McKim, they both had a very deep, keen respect for beauty. They decided on how the station should be built with that same dream in their heads.
Narrator: McKim dreamed big. His grand design included importing Italian Travertine marble -- the same material used in ancient Roman monuments -- for the interior. For the exterior, he chose lustrous pink Milford granite from Massachusetts. He built full-scale models of the facade to study the proportions of his design.
When the railroad’s board of directors pushed to include a revenue-generating hotel on top of the station, McKim was appalled. He argued that this would compromise the artistic integrity of the building. Cassatt was won over, but his engineers also gave him practical reasons to oppose the hotel. The additional support columns needed, they told him, would necessitate the removal of two or more tracks. Cassatt quickly dropped the idea.
Albert Churella, Historian: He was intimately involved in the design of the structure of Penn Station. And Penn Station embodies Alexander Cassatt’s vision as much as it does Charles McKim’s vision.
Narrator: Tunnel construction under the Hudson had proved easier and faster than expected, and Charles Jacobs was exuberant over the progress. By the spring of 1906, New York and New Jersey Sandhog crews raced to be the first to reach the middle of the river. On the other side of Manhattan, however, tunneling under the East River was turning into a nightmare.
Albert Churella, Historian: The tunnels under the Hudson were easy compared to the tunnels under the East River. The East River overlay a complex strata of gravel, clay, sand, silt, bedrock even. And it was proving extraordinarily difficult for crews to tunnel through that.
Narrator: Every time the Sandhogs hit pockets of sand and gravel, they ran the risk of air leaking from the tunnels. “The geysers formed by the leaks,” reported the New York Times, “have made the water in the ferry slips look like boiling lakes.” Inside the tunnel, Sandhogs were constantly on the alert for a whistling sound -- the telltale sign that compressed air was escaping and might at any moment punch a hole through the riverbed -- what was known as a blowout.
Vincent Tirolo, Jr., Engineer: It’s like a ship being hit by a torpedo. When a ship gets hit by a torpedo everybody runs to the opening and they try to plug the leak. They’ll try using anything they have on hand. They’ll use blankets. They’ll use hay, whatever they can to stop the air. If a Sandhog is unlucky enough to be at that point where the air is leaking, and all of a sudden the air leaks at one time that man will be blown out into the river with the air.
Narrator: Constant blowouts put them desperately behind schedule, and costs were skyrocketing. In April 1906, the lead engineer told Cassatt that work had stopped on three of the four tunnels.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: They find it very, very hard to keep the compressed air in these tunnels. They’re blowing all the time. And there have been a lot of deaths, and a lot of cases of the bends.
Albert Churella, Historian: The situation under the East River was going from bad to worse. In the absence of firsthand information, reporters often exaggerated the number of deaths and injuries. And this created an intense public image problem for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Narrator: As dawn broke on June 20, 1906, ferry passengers heading across the East River to Manhattan heard a horrific roar. An enormous geyser suddenly erupted out of the water. Eighty-six feet below the surface, Sandhogs scrambled for safety as a massive blowout flooded much of the southernmost Pennsylvania Railroad tunnel. Two Sandhogs drowned.
Cassatt and Rea rushed to New York. Rea assured the press that the tunnels were only a few months behind schedule, and the delays were not alarming. A representative for the contracting firm admitted that 14 men had died from the bends, more than they expected, but half as many as the newspapers were claiming. To help reduce blowouts, he explained they would dump tons of clay into the river to seal the riverbed. Still, Cassatt realized he needed to counter the mounting bad press.
Four months earlier, he had hired Ivy Lee, a pioneer in the field of public relations. Now, Cassatt charged Lee with managing the stories swirling around the tunnels. Later that summer, for the first time since the start of the project, the Pennsylvania Railroad allowed a journalist to take a tour of the tunnels.
Albert Churella, Historian: Ivy Lee understood that the way to capture the public’s attention was not to release dry statistical data, but rather to make sure the public understands something about the romance, the excitement, and the adventure associated with this great endeavor. That this is a dark and mysterious subterranean world in which heroic men are carrying forth the progress of a nation.
Narrator: On the evening of September 11, 1906, after three years of tunneling and a full year ahead of schedule, the two halves of the north tunnel met under the Hudson River. Under Charles Jacobs’ careful eye, their alignment was off by only a 16th of an inch.
Vince Tirolo, Jr., Engineer: Even today an accuracy of a 16th of an inch in tunnels meeting is still excellent. So the fact that they were able to do it back then, it’s amazing.
Narrator: Jacobs led an inspection party through the tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan. The group cheered as the engineer became the first person to pass through from one side to the other. As others followed, a cry went out, “three cheers for the Sandhogs!”
Albert Churella, Historian: Far from speculating about how this project might not work, or might be too dangerous, reporters gushed over the marvels of the tunnels. The sheer novelty of being able to walk underneath the Hudson River from New York to New Jersey.
Narrator: Noticeably absent from all the celebration were Alexander Cassatt and Samuel Rea. For the past five months, they had been preoccupied with troubling news. Measurements showed that the Hudson River tunnels were shifting up and down in the silty river bottom. Cassatt had the engineers increase the weight of the cast-iron linings to settle the tunnels, but the shifting continued.
Albert Churella, Historian: There is a very real fear that the tunnels would simply keep sinking, the tunnels might crack, they might lie forever broken, flooded, abandoned, underneath the Hudson River, a monument to the folly of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s efforts to reach Manhattan.
Narrator: Rea pressured his engineers to find an answer. Jacobs suggested attaching screw piles to the bedrock below to support the tunnels. Rea was not convinced. After months of measurements, experiments and debate, Jacobs finally figured out what suddenly seemed obvious: the tunnels were moving with the tide. When the tide came in, the increased volume of water pushed the tunnels down. Then they would spring back up as the tide receded. This explained the shifting, but a terrifying unknown remained.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: What does that mean for the ultimate fate of the tunnels? Are they going to keep sinking once they have very heavy trains going through them every day? And the truth is no one knows. So this is this terrible secret that hangs over Samuel Rea.
Narrator: Three days after Christmas in 1906, Alexander Cassatt was working from his home in Philadelphia, still weakened after a bout with whooping cough he had contracted the previous summer. Resting with his wife by his side, he suffered a heart attack, and died. He was 67. He had become the fourth Pennsylvania Railroad president to die in office.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: Cassatt was enormously admired. And he had this very unusual and unique position of being viewed almost as a public servant, and that his corporation had this larger more idealistic role to play, which was to help make America great.
Lorraine Diehl, Writer: Watching this building rise, watching these beautiful columns rise almost like the temple of Athena. People must’ve been awestruck by that.
Jill Jonnes, Author, Conquering Gotham: It really looks like some aspect of ancient Rome is rising in the middle of what’s left of the Tenderloin. And it began to sink in that something truly extraordinary was happening in Manhattan.
Narrator: By the time the masonry work started on Pennsylvania Station in 1908, Sandhogs had joined the tunnels under the East River, making it possible to travel underground from New Jersey to Long Island.
Albert Churella, Historian: At the time Penn Station was built most people believed that railroads were symbols of progress, symbols of modernity, symbols of what the United States could achieve.
Narrator: It had taken four years to build Pennsylvania Station. McKim’s colossal structure used 27,000 tons of steel, 500,000 cubic feet of granite, 83,000 square feet of skylights and 17 million bricks.
Keith Revell, Historian: When the station is completed in 1910 Samuel Rea says, “We started this project with a great deal of skepticism from onlookers.” They now see that we have built for the future. It’s part of a system that’s going to be here for years.
Narrator: On opening day, thousands of entranced spectators wandered through the station. “They flooded the acres of its floor space,” reported the New York Tribune, “gazed…at the vaulted ceilings far above them,…and pressed like caged creatures against the grill which looked down upon subterranean tracks, trains and platforms.”
Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic: Pennsylvania Station was a symbol not only of the greatness and power of the railroad, but also of the greatness and power of the city. It was a gift to the city as well as a creation of a corporation. And this notion that private enterprise and the public good didn’t contradict each other, they in fact reinforced each other.
Lorraine Diehl, Writer: My first memory of Penn Station is one that is indelible. I was about 10 years old. I walk into this train shed and I felt such a sense of wonder and motion. And the late morning sun is coming in and all the little particles of dust are frozen there. They’re just sort of dancing in the air and I’m just saying to myself, “This is a wondrous place.”
Narrator: Seven years after Penn Station opened, Samuel Rea, now president of the railroad, dedicated the last piece of Cassatt’s grand plan, the Hell Gate Bridge. The world’s longest steel arch bridge at the time, it finally connected the Pennsylvania Railroad to New England. By then, 18 million people travelled through Penn Station every year, and hundreds of trains rumbled through the tunnels day after day. Rea’s worst fears had been unfounded. The tunnels held up.
Traffic particularly exploded on the Long Island Rail Road, which brought an increasing number of commuters into Manhattan through the East River tunnels. Within a decade, two-thirds of the passengers arriving in Penn Station were coming from the suburbs.
Daniel Czitrom, Historian: The creation of Penn Station in some ways had a greater impact not on the city, but on the suburbs. The opening up of Queens, and Long Island, and New Jersey was in some ways, I think, an unintended consequence of all this.
Narrator: By 1945, more than 100 million passengers a year travelled through Penn Station, exceeding Cassatt’s wildest dreams.
Lorraine Diehl, Writer: Penn Station was a place not only of journeys but a place of memories. Those walls actually held the history of the country in a way. It held time in that it held memory.
Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic: Great architecture can imbue daily life with a sense of wonder, and majesty, and joy. Penn Station was perhaps the greatest single public space of all.
Albert Churella, Historian: There’s a great irony that Penn Station was finally used to capacity during World War II, but at that moment of triumph the Pennsylvania Railroad was on the verge of decline. And the next year, 1946, the company lost money for the first time in its history. Cassatt planned his program of improvements perfectly for the world he believed would exist 50 years in the future. But he never envisioned a world in which more people would travel by car or by plane than by train.
Narrator: Within the lifetime of many who had seen it open came the end of Pennsylvania Station. What was supposed to last forever, to herald and represent the American empire, was slated for destruction.
Hilary Ballon, Historian: The Pennsylvania Railroad was struggling, and it’s in desperate financial condition. It could no longer forfeit the real estate revenues of its site in Manhattan, something it had forgone when the railroad was originally built, but which now is impossible. Their job was not to preserve the architectural landscape of New York City. Their job was to protect their company.
Lorraine Diehl, Writer: The Pennsylvania Railroad owned it. The Pennsylvania Railroad could therefore destroy it. It was a very, very tough thing to understand because it was a public space. Even though it was built for us we didn’t own it. We just used it.
Narrator: In 1961, the financially strapped Pennsylvania Railroad announced 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. A few people protested, but to no avail.
On the rainy morning of October 28, 1963, the demolition began. “Until the first blow fell no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished,” wrote the New York Times, “or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the finest landmarks of its age.”
Hilary Ballon, Historian: The demolition of Pennsylvania Station represented a tremendous loss of hope for the city -- that it has surrendered one of its great pieces of public architecture.
Lorraine Diehl, Writer: For most people it wasn’t until that station was torn down that they understood what was taken from them. Vincent Scully said, “Where once we entered like kings we exit like rats.” You never get over the fact that such a wonderful place is gone.
Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic: Penn Station was really the great martyr of historic preservation, the building that died so that we might save others in the future. What Penn Station was, was the tipping point. Something that people simply wouldn’t accept any more. And so then there was the political will to do something about it.
Narrator: In the wake of the destruction, New York City established the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Grand Central Terminal was designated a historic landmark in 1967, sparing it from the fate of Penn Station.
Daniel Czitrom, Historian: It does help inspire a whole new consciousness about the importance of saving great buildings. But anybody who knows New York understands that that’s always an uphill battle: that the power of commerce, the devotion to change, the fetish of what’s coming next really worked against what McKim and Cassatt had created.
Albert Churella, Historian: The architectural edifice of Penn Station may be gone, but the tracks and the tunnels remain and carry millions of people in and out of Manhattan every year. That was the most valuable part of the entire project and that survives.
Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic: Penn Station represents the aspiration of doing something monumental and noble, of private enterprise creating something extraordinary for the benefit of the public. It was an investment that generations that followed would benefit from. The challenge is how you balance the need to preserve what’s best, what’s most important, and the need to continually invent, and change, and grow -- because that’s what living places have to do.
My American Experience
From the carvings on Mount Rushmore to Penn Station, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Space Needle, the U.S. has dozens of impressive, important, and iconic structures. Which ones have you been to? Which has had the biggest impact?