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C718
Penn Station: Fall From Grace

Jeffrey Syken

With the leasing of the United Railroads of New Jersey in 1871, the mighty “Pennsy” – the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PaRR), had brought their Exchange Place Terminal in Jersey City, NJ within site of “America’s Metropolis” – New York City, on the far (eastern) shore of the Hudson River. Plans for a bridge across the Hudson bringing PaRR and other railroads into the city fell by the wayside when several dropped out after a financial panic in the 1890s. PaRR president A.J. Cassatt knew the future growth of his company depended on bringing his trains directly into the city and linking up with the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), which the PaRR had acquired in 1900. A grand plan was thus conceived in Cassatt’s fertile imagination that would come to be known as: “The New York Improvement and Tunnel Extension.”

The plan included tunnels under both the Hudson and East River/s, a transfer station east of Newark, NJ for passengers to switch from steam to electric traction trains (for passage through the tunnels), a large maintenance and repair facility (Sunnyside) on Long Island and a “Connecting” railroad to link the Brooklyn shore with Port Morris in the Bronx. At the heart of it all would be a terminal station on the west side of Manhattan occupying two full city blocks and a train yard stretching nearly to the Hudson: Pennsylvania Station New York. To match the grandeur of the overall plan, the station building itself would have to be “A Monumental Gateway” into the western hemisphere’s greatest city. To do it right - in the Beaux-Arts neo-classic style of the day, there was only one architectural firm worthy of the commission: McKim, Mead & White.

Austere and imposing, those passing by knew immediately that such a great building in such a great city could only be the main train station. The exterior design celebrated the colonnades of ancient Greek temples and inside, the cavernous Main Waiting Room brought to life the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla. The final destination – the Main Concourse, was bathed in light through intersecting barrel vault glass and steel skylights. Like it or not, the building was impressive. In the post-WWII years railroad travel fell into decline and grand stations like Penn fell into disrepair. Worth more dead than alive, it fell to the wrecker’s ball in the fall of 1963. Out of its shameful demise came the historic preservation movement and a call for a new station worthy of what was lost. With the transformation of MM&W’s Farley Post Office Building of 1913 into a new Amtrak and New Jersey Transit (NJT) facility, the memory of Penn Station lives on.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.


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