“The Rise and Fall of Penn Station”: Preservation’s Origin Story Now on PBS

Posted on: February 18th, 2014 by Priya Chhaya

If you love grand architecture on an epic scale, admire remarkable feats of engineering, and want to learn about the preservation tragedy that galvanized and kickstarted the modern preservation movement, watch “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station” on PBS tonight.

When you settle into your couches for the one-hour documentary (that spends more time on the rise than the fall) of Pennsylvania Station, you’ll need to steel yourself against the inevitable end of a once-grand building. But just like the first train passengers, you’ll be awestruck looking at images of a station which stood at the epicenter of 16 miles of tunnels over two rivers -- a project that changed the relationship between New York and the rest of the country, providing easy, public access to the city from New Jersey, Long Island, and New England.

Penn Station exterior, 1962. Credit: Library of Congress/Cervin Robinson, photographer
Penn Station exterior, 1962

The station’s story has many facets. On one hand, Penn Station’s story is about a man with a vision: Alexander Cassatt, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad who saw the Gare d'Orsay train station in Paris and saw possibility. On the other hand, it's a brief look at a country that was changing so rapidly that, fifty years after completion, Penn Station was competing against car and airplane travel.

The story is also about the power of innovation and strength -- hundreds of men, called sandhogs -- working under the East and Hudson Rivers building tunnels in three seven-hour shifts, seven days a week. And it’s about the relationship between progress and public/private enterprise.

Penn Station, empty concourse, 1905-1915. Credit: Library of Congress
Penn Station, empty concourse, 1905-1915

When the station opened in November 1910, a newspaper incredulously stated that “this beautiful affair was just a railway station.” Another visitor described its grandeur with a sense of pride that “[she] felt like a queen, because this was done for me.” The building was comprised of more than 17 million bricks, marble from Italy, and granite from Massachusetts, and while the grand enterprise was funded with private dollars, it was meant for public consumption.

It's hard to believe that just 53 years later it would be torn down. As the renowned architect Vincent Scully said, "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."

The Penn Station eagles are taken away after demolition. Credit: Norman McGrath
The Penn Station eagles are taken away after demolition.

Like so many of the other places we work to save, the legacy of Pennsylvania Station goes beyond the physical structure’s bricks and mortar. When demolition began in October 1963, the falling stones had an impact. Those who didn’t fight for the building before now understood the loss in its absence. This PBS documentary does a great job showing you what Madison Square Garden replaced -- along with giving you a sense of wonder at what we’ve lost forever.

“American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station" airs Tuesday, February 18, at 9 p.m. on your local PBS station.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

Architecture