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The History of Penn Station Highlighted in New PBS Documentary

Penn for blog

On February 18th, PBS will premiere The Rise and Fall of Penn Station, part of the American Experience series. The documentary presents an engrossing look at the monumental feats of engineering 100 years ago that led to the construction of the tunnels, tracks and station house that made up the original Penn Station.  Tonight, the Museum of the City of New York is hosting a special screening of the film with filmmaker Randall MacLowry; executive producer Mark Samels; Lorraine Diehl, author of The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station; and historian Jill Jonnes, author of Conquering Gotham. Click through to watch a preview.

The film celebrates the enormous challenges that were overcome to build this key piece of infrastructure and important work of civic architecture. When they were built, the tunnels servicing Penn Station under the Hudson River, were rightfully viewed as engineering marvels, earning much positive press alongside the coverage of the celebrated station itself. The film ends by noting the demolition of the above-grade portions of the original Penn Station in the 1960’s as part of a plan to help prop-up the struggling Pennsylvania Railroad. In its place, the Madison Square Garden Center complex was built, with a new arena and office building on top of the tracks and platforms below.  The demolition of the station was widely condemned, and helped spark the modern historic preservation movement, including the MAS campaign to save Grand Central Terminal.

Today, Penn Station is the busiest train station in the western hemisphere, serving hundreds of thousands of passengers a day.  The station is over capacity and in desperate need of rethinking. Last summer, at the urging of MAS and our partners in the Alliance for a New Penn Station, New York City Council voted to limit Madison Square Garden’s permit to operate above Penn Station to just 10 more years. This presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink this critical piece of our region’s infrastructure. In October 2013, the Alliance for a New Penn Station released Penn 2023, outlining the case for a new Penn Station, describing principles to help guide development and illustrating the necessary elements for a new, improved transit hub.

In contemplating next steps for Penn Station, it’s helpful to keep in mind lessons learned from the construction of the original station. As seen in the film, that project was mired by numerous fits and starts, competing agendas and interests, and enormous and daunting engineering challenges. However, when completed, the station provided critical connections between New York and the region, which continue to serve the city and region today. Building a 21st century Penn Station – one with improved circulation and much-needed additional capacity – is not only a critical to addressing the needs of  today, but would serve future generations for years to come. To make this project work, we will need bold leadership and a big vision – just like what it took to complete the original Penn Station a century ago.

Click here to learn more about MAS’ campaign for a new Penn Station.