The original Penn Station was a colossal Beaux-Arts temple of transportation innovation. It was commissioned at the turn of the 20th century by Alexander Johnston Cassatt, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and designed by McKim, Mead, and White, one of America’s biggest and greatest architectural firms at the time. Construction began amidst a technological boom – the Pennsylvania Railroad’s new station incorporated new tunnel-boring technology and then brand new electric locomotives.
Pennsylvania Station finally opened on November 17, 1910. Debarking from their trains, passengers would enter into a spacious concourse of marble and steel. Glass panels would let the sunlight in, naturally illuminating the station. Penn Station served as the primary point of entry into the city for the next 53 years, reaching its peak of passenger traffic during World War II.
Train ridership declined in the 1950s as America transitioned into the Jet Age, and the station fell into disrepair as it became more costly to maintain. The company auctioned the station’s air rights, and the original building was demolished in 1963. The renowned historian Vincent Sculley summed up the difference between the station’s two incarnations: ‘One entered the city like a God. One scuttles in now like a rat.’
Fortunately, a new project is underway to recapture some of the original station’s aesthetic glory. A new train hall is under construction at the James A. Farley Post Office, also created by McKim, Mead, and White. The project is an homage to U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who shined shoes for a living in the station during the Great Depression. The new station is set for completion in 2016.
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