It strains belief, but Penn Station, a soul-sapping misery of a building, with a dropped ceiling, rats and cracked staircases, had once been a cathedral of transportation.
Today the object of commuters is to flee the shabby building as quickly as possible.
Yet on Nov. 27, 1910, Pennsylvania Station opened, and people flocked to it because it was so exquisite.
“The Rise and Fall of Penn Station: American Experience,” airing Tuesday, Feb. 18, on PBS (check local listings), does a superb job of charting the history of this train terminal. Using footage, photos and interviews, filmmaker Randall MacLowry weaves its remarkable story.
It came about because in 1900, the Pennsylvania Railroad, then the largest corporation in the world, was not able to link its 10,000 miles of track to Manhattan.
Alexander Cassatt, brother of painter Mary, was the company’s president and a visionary. Inspired by Paris’ Gare d’Orsay, he hired one of the world’s best tunnel engineers to take on the enormous job of boring 16 miles of tunnels, under the Hudson to connect New Jersey to New York and under the East River connecting Long Island.
It took a decade. Three men went door to door between 31st and 33rd streets, from Seventh to Ninth avenues, and bought up the ramshackle neighborhood, displacing hundreds of families.
The building itself was truly grand, using 500,000 cubic feet of granite and 83,000 square feet of skylights. By the end of World War II, more than 100 million passengers traveled through Penn Station each year.
When cars and planes changed transportation, and the railroad needed the money, it sold the airspace on top of the tunnels.
Just 53 years after the magnificent structure opened, it was destroyed to make way for a modern, utilitarian and decidedly unmagnificent replacement. The tunnels remain, and they are an engineering marvel. But that palace, which should have withstood the centuries, became a subject for a book, a reason to have landmark designations and fodder for an excellent film.