Documentary Review: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station directed and written by Randall MacLowry
Based in part on the book Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels by Jill Jonnes
PBS/American Experience, 2014

For an architect the two most facinating things about New York's Penn Station – the one from 1910, not today's incarnation – are the grand spaces of iron and stone and the unsuccesful fight to save the building from demolition only 53 years after it was built. In the design of Charles McKim of McKim, Mead and White, the former were influenced by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, and the main space was on par with the nave of St. Peters Basilica in scale and some might even say beauty, at least for such a utilitarian building. The latter involved Jane Jacobs, Philip Johnson and other people with otherwise divergent views who came together over the obvious architectural merits of the two-block-large edifice.

But in this one-hour documentary premiering Tuesday, February 18, on PBS, clearly the filmmakers are fascinated with overcoming the natural feature that made it take so long to bring national train service into Manhattan: the Hudson River. The design and construction of the tunnels under the river comprises a large chunk of the documentary, not surprising considering that writer/director MacLowry looked to the book whose subtitle is Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels.

With so many minutes given to the still appealing tunnels, as well as to the equally compelling story of how Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt (who died before the station was completed) made the station a reality, there is little time left to delve into the efforts of pre-Landmarks preservationists ("A few people protested, but to no avail" is all the narrator says about it), the station's demolition or recent efforts to make Penn Station once again a proud entry into New York City.

If MacLowry would have looked instead to Hilary Ballon's New York's Pennsylvania Station, which features the historian's thorough account of the building's rise and fall as well as "The Destruction of Penn Station," a photo essay by Norman McGrath, and "The New Penn Station" by Marilyn Taylor of SOM (then overseeing the transformation of the Post Office across the street into a new station for Amtrak), the documentary would have an emphasis on what Ballon calls an "unnecessary" marvel, the majestic above-ground station itself.

The tunnels, platforms and other pieces of the puzzle that make the railroad function are still in place over 100 years later, but the public face that Penn Railroad built to express its power did not need to survive in order for the railroad to keep going. This fact makes the demolition understandable but no less excusable. New York City is still grappling with this history 50 years later, and this documentary shows that a clear-cut narrative on the project is both difficult and worth more than a one-hour time slot.

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