Before Pennsylvania Station opened in 1910, travelers headed for New York on the Pennsylvania Railroad, owned by the largest company in the world, had to debark in New Jersey and cross the Hudson River by ferry to Manhattan. It’s hard to imagine travelers brooking such inconvenience today. It’s just as hard nowadays to imagine the grandeur of the original Penn Station.
Inspired by the ancient Baths of Caracalla, in Rome, the project filled 28 acres (eight for the station itself) of the city’s Tenderloin: 500 buildings were purchased, one by one, in secrecy, to keep costs low before the depth of the pockets involved could become known. Designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White, the station consumed 500,000 cubic feet of granite, 27,000 tons of steel, 83,000 square feet of glass window panes and 17 million bricks. Its main waiting room compared in size and in splendor to the nave of St. Peter’s. The entire station was intended to voice the grandeur of the city, the nation and the railroad.
“The Rise and Fall of Penn Station,” a PBS documentary by Boston’s WGBH, will run at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 18. It was written, produced and directed by filmmaker Randall Mac-Lowery. The fascinating program focuses most of its attention on what arguably was the most dramatic aspect of the project: not the station but the tunnels, and especially the effort to dig them under the Hudson and East rivers.
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