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.


  1. The original book about Pennsylvania station (sadly no longer in print) "The Late Great Pennsylvania Station," was by Lorraine B. Diehl. Lorraine is among those featured in
    the new PBS documentary, airing Feb.18. Some photos from the book can be
    seen on her website,

  2. The film was funded by the Sloan Foundation which is interested in science and technology so the film's emphasis is on the engineering. The great beauty about historical films, there is always room to make the film you wished someone else had made.

  3. As I took notes and watched the documentary, I kept wondering where was the documentary I expected to see -- especially given the title. So I agree entirely with your film review. As of 38 minutes into the 51-minute film (watching it online), the documentary begins to delve into one of the grandest spaces ever built in human history. The whole ending felt very rushed.

    This film was mistakenly titled and strangely promoted as a focused story about Pennsylvania Station's rise and fall (for example, read the cover paragraph on the home page of the American Experience film Web site). A good film, but I agree that it follows a lot of Jill Jonnes' book, Conquering Gotham, which was about the project in totality.

    It's true that one cannot tell the story of the building of Pennsylvania Station without devoting some time to the story of the engineering feat of the tunnels, but it's the proportion that is off if the film purports to be about Pennsylvania Station. I'm a journalist, and on Tuesday, Feb. 18, I actually promoted the film on my New York-based blog about mindful experiences of architecture and history, in a brief photo essay that shows the wonder of Pennsylvania Station and then the horror of its demolition. The film was a missed opportunity to tell the story of a place built for the ages that we all lost after just barely over a half-century, one whose demolition still strikes at the heart and collective memory of the city and stirs grief among many New Yorkers, myself included.


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