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Jill Jonnes Bucks Up the Moynihan Station Crowd

jill jonnes program talk penn station

On Wednesday at the MAS, historian Jill Jonnes delivered a fascinating presentation on the construction of Penn Station and its tunnels, the subject of her recent book: Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic.

With the aid of some amazing photographs rescued from the depths of the Pennsylvania Railroad archives, Jonnes recounted the “titanic battle with nature” that culminated in the construction of the original Penn Station.

“The received wisdom was that this whole project was a folly,” said Jonnes.

She contextualized the construction story within a political and human drama involving a determined PRR president, Alexander Cassatt, a corrupt politician, Boss Croker, who ran Tammany Hall by cable from the UK, and Samuel Rea, a brilliant young engineer and eventual PRR president who lost his own son in one of the project’s many horrific accidents. And of course she also told the bittersweet story of Charles McKim’s last major building in New York.

Jonnes did not hesitate to draw parallels between the subject of her book and the current attempts to “re-conquer Gotham,” Moynihan Station and ARC.

conquering gotham book

Apparently, she has even been offered a ride in the ARC tunnel machine when the project starts rolling!

In conclusion, Jonnes noted that Penn Station “was a work of many decades, not unlike Moynihan Station.” In fact, the full project, from its earliest conception in 1871 to its completion in 1917 with the opening of Hell Gate Bridge lasted over four decades.

“I do want to buck everyone up,” she said. “And remind you how enormously difficult it was to build the original station. Everyone always says, ‘Back then they knew how to get things done.’ No they didn’t! When Penn Station opened it took them another 8 years just to build the first subway connection. And the second subway stop took another 8 years!”