Though Penn Station is [now] a drab, low-ceilinged rat maze of a station, it used to be the opposite. It was vast, light-filled, and gorgeous.
The building was the fourth largest building in the world when it was finished.
The original Penn Station in New York City opened in 1910. It was majestic. Travelers would enter through an exterior façade of massive Doric columns. Inside was a grand staircase into a waiting room not unlike a Roman temple. It was a Parthenon for trains.
The old Penn Station was the brainchild of Alexander Cassatt, head of the Pennsylvania Railroad. For Cassatt, Penn Station would fix a problem that had plagued New York for years—getting between Manhattan from New Jersey. At the time, passengers could only get across the Hudson River via ferry. Cassatt built the first ever train tunnel to run underneath the Hudson River, which was considered one of the greatest engineering feats of all time.
The grandeur of Penn Station would thus crown his monumental achievement.
Newspapers called Penn Station the 8th wonder of the world. Everyone loved it.
Everyone, that is, except for one other railroad family that owned another station across town.
The Vanderbilt family owned Grand Central Station, which was not anywhere near as “grand” as it is now. Not wanting to be outdone by the beauty and grandiosity of Penn Station, the Vanderbilts tore down their Grand Central and built a newer, shiner, Beaux Arts-style Grand Central Terminal. This is the one we know today.
Penn Station was only 40 years old at this point, but already its days were already numbered. After World War II, passenger trains just weren’t as popular anymore. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company couldn’t afford the upkeep of Penn Station’s grandeur. Its glory gave way to grime.
And so it goes. Listen and read more about the story here. As the episode says, Penn Station is the only building in New York that should have been saved from the wrecking ball. Here are a few of the others.