Lead Me Not Into Penn Station

06:21 | 04.06.2014
Autors: Kaspars Sarmulis

Penn Station is probably the most lamented of all the landmarks lost in New York.

The vaulted steel and glass sheds that covered the train platforms lent drama and mystique to the routine act of arriving in a city by train. The stately, soaring interior of the McKim, Mead, and White terminal was an ode to civic architecture, conferring a kind of kingliness on the weary traveler and the workaday commuter. "It ennobles the act of daily life," critic Paul Goldberger notes in one his frequent appearances in the new documentary "American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station", which airs tonight on PBS.


But if the terminal building was the soul of the project, its heart was an ambitious, massive infrastructure engineering effort that survives to this day—depositing  millions of New York–bound travelers into a dingy, comparatively cramped underground warren of tunnels that retains its old name despite its loss of grandeur. The project included 16 miles of tunnels, connecting New Jersey, Manhattan, and Long Island, as well as the Hell Gate Bridge to the Bronx, which provided links to New England. As construction commenced, Engineering News called the projects, "[t]he most extensive and difficult piece of submarine tunnel work ever undertaken."


Alexander Cassatt, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the visionary behind the development of Penn Station, was an engineer by training. His primary goal was to bring his company's rail traffic across the Hudson River into Manhattan, rather that requiring northbound travelers to take ferries in from New Jersey. A bridge was unworkable, because rival train lines couldn’t cooperate to fund a single structure. But a trip to Paris around the turn of the 20th century to visit his sister—artist Mary Cassatt—showed the railroad magnate that his dream was achievable. The newly-built railroad station and hotel Gare d'Orsay took advantage of electric engines to haul heavy trains through mile-long tunnels into the urban terminal. Across the Atlantic, America's coal-fired locomotives couldn't travel long distances through tunnels because of the noxious smoke they produced. An electric solution made a cross-Hudson tunnel possible.


Alexander Cassatt was also taken with the soaring, Beaux-Arts interior of the Gare d'Orsay, and desired a glorious edifice to serve as a portal to the mammoth infrastructure project he envisioned. Resources were not a problem. At the time Penn Station was conceived, the Pennsylvania Railroad had the largest operating budget of any enterprise in the United States, other than the federal government.

"The Rise and Fall of Penn Station"written, produced and directed by Randall MacLowery—tells the story of this massive undertaking, lingering on its conception and the details of its construction more than its ignominious end. While it is appropriately reverential of the architecture, the story of the engineering marvels is the more lively part of the tale. Images of the construction of the tunnels and the massive 32-acre trench on the West Side of Manhattan vividly demonstrates the scale of the enterprise. At the time it opened in November 1910, the eight-acre Penn Station was the fourth largest in the world. An entire Manhattan neighborhood—the seamy Tenderloin district—was demolished to make way for the building, and for the neighboring James Farley Post Office, which faces Penn Station across Eighth Avenue.


Interestingly, the Farley Building does not rate a mention in the documentary, even though it was also designed by Charles McKim's firm, and started construction just two years after Penn Station opened. Once home to a 24-hour mail-sorting hub, this site is now due to be remodeled as an elegant rail terminus, and named after the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who pushed for a new West Side station to rival the cross-town Grand Central Terminal. Funding for the multi-billion dollar project isn't finalized, and ambitious rail projects have proved politically toxic in recent years, so it's possible that Moynihan's vision may never come to pass.


Even if Penn Station isn't replaced on a grand scale—a project that is the subject of a fierce and ongoing debate today—its architectural legacy may reside in how New York cares for its landmarks. Goldberger calls it, "the great martyr of historic preservation, the building that died so that we might save others in the future."

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