The Rise and Fall of Penn Station     A one-hour documentary for television

by Michael Tramis


“There has never been a greater loss before or since.”  

- Philip Johnson

“One entered the city like a God. 

Now one scuttles in like a rat.”

-Vincent Scully

Pennsylvania Station was built to last forever, but due to greed and myopia,

the magnificent structure was put to the wrecking ball just over fifty years

after it was built.  Nonetheless, the once glorious station would never

be forgotten or become just another dispensable relic.  Instead, its ghost

would alter and haunt New York’s landscape to this day.


It was an era of big dreams and prosperity.  The Twentieth Century emerged in a Gilded Age that would change the face of American cities, and New York was clearly the center of attention.  The construction of New York’s original Penn Station was a magnet that brought together the leading forces of architecture, engineering and a vision of civic pride and purpose that had all but disintegrated when the station was destroyed a little over fifty years after it was built.

Penn Station was the vision of Alexander Cassatt, brother of the Impressionist painter, Mary Cassatt, who took over the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1910.  In collaboration with the esteemed architect, Charles McKim, (of the legendary firm, McKim, Mead & White), Cassatt took the inspiration of the great Baths of Caracalla in Rome to form the basis of the new station’s design.

For Cassatt, his driving motivation was the bringing of the Pennsylvania Railroad directly into Manhattan rather than end it at its current terminus in Jersey City, where passengers had to depart trains and take ferries across the Hudson River into the great city.

But reaching directly into the metropolis was a dangerous feat for the Pennsylvania Railroad – It required the costly and hazardous construction of tunnels under the river and the technology to electrify the underground tracks.  Underground workers were maimed and killed as they carved through rock and dug through silt and sand in grueling round-the-clock shifts.  Also, as the station itself was erected in Manhattan, scores of city blocks were destroyed with little regard for their inhabitants.  The sweeping devastation created doubts among many New Yorkers who feared the project was too big, perilous and out-of-control.

However, Cassatt was undaunted.  Working with McKim, the two became obsessed with creating the biggest and best railroad station the world had ever seen, an elegant gateway to a city teeming with expansion and power.  For McKim, the project was as much a homage to the human spirit as it was a masterpiece of design and engineering.  McKim’s design appealed to a philosophy that architecture was a means of achieving social dignity.  The design of Penn Station led train passengers from track platforms onto a palatial concourse of domed steel and glass.  From there, they entered the exquisite marble waiting area before exiting through the regal Doric colonnade of the building.  What better way to instill esteem and respect for the great city that lie ahead?

When the station opened in 1910, it was an event that attracted thousands of awestruck onlookers.  It soon became a legendary hub of comings and goings that would be immortalized in the writings of William Faulkner and the photographs of Alfred Eisenstaedt.  Numerous celebrities boarded its luxury lines to Chicago in its early heyday.   From the outset, Penn Station was an unprecedented symbol of Great Expectations, the Age of Innocence, and an urban Xanadu all wrapped into one – a massive pink granite monument that celebrated city life and the people who moved through its portals.


Penn Station’s soaring train shed


The two world wars transformed the station into a center of transport for soldiers, sailors and war supplies, taking over the formerly separated men’s and woman’s areas.  The late Victorian values that had once defined Penn Station gradually yielded to modern uncertainty and irreverence.  Hobos slept in the station, travel became more commonplace with the rapid expansion of highways and air travel, and Penn Station fell into despair and neglect.

Financial debt led to the building’s controversial demolition during the mid – 1960’s and the construction of a new Madison Square Garden sports arena that would take its place.

The lofty ideals that had created Penn Station could no longer compete with the bottom line pragmatics that replaced it.  When Penn Station was torn down, only a handful of elite intellectuals and architects protested its destruction, among them the social critic and historian, Lewis Mumford, who declared the plans “an act of irresponsible public vandalism.”

Born out of the ruins of Pennsylvania Station was the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  The Commission was established in 1965 when Mayor Robert Wagner signed the local law creating the Commission and giving it its power.  Ironically, the station’s greatest legacy is that its destruction saved many other important structures from the wrecking ball including its rival, Grand Central Terminal.

Madison Square Garden.  The banality that

replaced Penn Station.

“New York City has never got over tearing down Penn Station.” – Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan


The documentary’s final act will focus on the renewal and potential rebirth of Pennsylvania Station.  In the past decade, rail traffic has grown again and the old station is missed more than ever.  The yearning to restore Penn to its original grandeur manifested into a campaign led by New York’s late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. His plans include moving the station into the main post office building directly across from he original site on Eighth Avenue.  Also designed by the office of McKim, Mead and White, the post office was known as the station’s “sister building” and is conveniently located above the existing track lines.


McKim, Mead & White’s elegant and complimentary Post Office Building,

directly west of Penn Station

With the renewed efforts of New York Senator Charles Schumer, it is possible that in a few years a new Pennsylvania Station will rise out of the ghost of the old, honoring the memory of the lost station and returning to New York a monument that should never have been destroyed.


The production includes interviews with eminent architects and historians including  David Childs, Vincent Scully,  Philip Johnson,  Paul Goldberger  and Hillory Ballon, compelling stock film footage, three rare never-before-seen privately held collections of still images, scenes from movies that used Penn Station as their backdrop (Hitchcock’s “Strangers on the Train”, Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch” and Cary Grant in “An Affair to Remember”).

The editing style of the program is of major importance.  Departing from the traditional staid talking-head documentary, we will bring the story alive through a combination of of interviews, modern 3D graphic manipulation of photographs (i.e. the documentary, “The Kid Stays in the Picture”), and contemporary and period music and sound effects that evoke the various eras Penn Station has lived through. 

But the most intriguing and unique visual aspect of “The Rise and Fall of Pennsylvania Station” is our original use of 3Dl computer graphics that dynamically recreate and take us on a virtual walking tour through the old station, bringing it to life before your eyes.


Thank you!


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Main Waiting Room, modeled after the Roman baths of Caracalla