PBS Documentary Examines “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station”

February 12, 2014 at 1:32 pm

Only 53 years after it was built, the monumental marvel Pennsylvania Station was torn down. PBS American Experience documentary “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station” celebrates the transit hub’s extraordinary past, and is both tribute to the original station as well as a reminder of its downfall.

The grand vision of Pennsylvania Railroad president, Alexander Cassatt, and architect Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White, Penn Station was unveiled in 1910, an architectural monument meant to last through the ages.  But the financially-strapped Pennsylvania Railroad sold the station’s air rights and demolished its beautiful Beaux Arts headhouse in 1953, making way for the construction of Madison Square Garden.

“…We are talking about something much more than a building.  We’re talking about the connective tissue that links New York to the whole region,” Hilary Ballon, one of several voices from the documentary, told MetroFocus’ Rafael Pi Roman.  Ballon is a professor of Urban Studies and Architecture at New York University, and author of “New York’s Pennsylvania Stations“.

Today Penn Station still operates with its original system of tunnels and tracks under the city’s Hudson and East Rivers.  It is the nation’s busiest transit hub, supporting approximately 600,000 daily passengers and visitors, and accommodating three major train lines and two subway lines.  As ridership demands continue grow in the city, so does the need to improve Penn Station’s transit capacity.

“It has fallen beyond recognition and beyond any civil environment that the public can appreciate.  The platforms are crowded; the station simply doesn’t support what the 21st century city and people who live in it need,” said Ballon.

Last year, the Municipal Art Society and the Regional Plan Association created the “Alliance for a New Penn Station“. The campaign advocated for the removal of Madison Square Garden to make way for a new Penn Station, a process that would cost billions of dollars and require cooperation between the federal government and numerous state agencies.  In July of 2013, the New York City Council voted to extend the Garden’s permit to operate above Penn Station to just 10 more years.

“We don’t have the capacity to serve the demand of transit riders.  And if we’re going to rebuild the infrastructure, expand the capacity, we need to equip the station in a way that will serve the population that’s using it. So we would miss a great civic opportunity, a great opportunity for New York to advance itself if we don’t build a new station,” said Ballon.

You can watch the PBS documentary online at: “American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station