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New York's original, stately Penn Station: 'It was like going to church.'

Lorraine Diehl never took a train out of the original Penn Station, but she spent plenty of time there as a child. She'll never forget the feeling.

“The whole sense of it was almost hallowed,” says Diehl, who grew up one block west and one block down from Penn Station. “The way that the light came down, it was just like going to church.”

Hallowed. Light. Church.

Those are words that no 2020 commuter would use to describe what Diehl calls “the squalid successor” that took the original Penn’s place.

Author Lorraine B Diehl, a lifelong New Yorker, remembers the original Penn Station, which stood from 1910 until 1963.

Sit a spell with Lorraine Diehl — who wrote "The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station" — and she’ll whisk you away to a time when passengers could take a taxi down into a station filled with elevating architecture that fed the soul.

"That whole façade, if you can imagine, was a pink granite. It was pink. Like the Taj Mahal," she said.

Opened on Nov. 27, 1910, The Pennsylvania Station was built to last, but it didn't. 

The station was that rare case of private enterprise serving a public good, a monument to the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad — the Amazon of its day, with a budget second only to the federal government and 100,000 employees in 1900.

Designed by architect Charles McKim of the legendary firm McKim, Mead & White, when it opened, Penn Station was the fourth-largest building in the world, covering 8 acres and stretching two city blocks, between 31st and 33rd streets, from Seventh to Eighth avenues.

It was built as a series of massive rooms, each one distinct.

The vast General Waiting Room had a classical feel, with columns, a travertine tile floor and a coffered ceiling that soared to 168 feet, 53 feet higher than Grand Central Terminal's. In fact, Grand Central could fit inside the original Penn.

The train shed, or Concourse, had a modern feel with its bare-steel columns and a vaulted skylight ceiling. Its floor had thousands of glass blocks set into concrete, filtering the natural light all the way down to the tracks.

When you stepped off the train in the old Penn Station, you could look up and see sky.

There were separate waiting rooms for men and women and an arcade of shops that served as preparation for the commercial assault awaiting passengers upon exiting the station.

Carriageway ramps let passengers drive right down into the station.

THE VISIONARY

THE VISIONARY

Alexander Cassatt, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad
Alexander Cassatt, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad
Library of Congress

The man behind the original Penn was Pennsylvania Railroad President Alexander Cassatt, the elder brother of impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.

It was on a 1901 trip to Paris, during which he visited his sister, that Cassatt saw the French electric trains and tunnels into the just-completed Gare d'Orsay that held the promise of tackling his railroad's biggest headaches.

At the time, Cassatt could get his passengers thousands of miles by rail but not that last mile across the Hudson into the nation's largest city. Passengers, instead, had to take ferries across the clogged and choppy New York Harbor.   

In Paris, Cassat learned he could build tunnels and track and station, securing a monopoly on trans-Hudson traffic. He would build a stunning station to announce his company's arrival, an achievement that historian Jill Jonnes summed up in the title of her Penn Station book, "Conquering Gotham."

Cassatt did not live to see Penn completed. He died Dec. 28, 1906, at age 67. The station opened Nov. 27, 1910.

THE ENGINEERING FEAT

THE ENGINEERING FEAT

Pennsylvania Railroad Station, under construction in October 1908. The soaring Penn Station welcomed more than 100,000 visitors on its opening day: Nov. 27, 1910. The tunnels that linked Manhattan to the mainland -- and turned the new station into the gateway to New York -- are still in use today.
Library of Congress

Penn Station capped the project's real engineering feat: 16 miles of underground tunnels, including two under the Hudson and four under the East River.

The Hudson tunnels — at the turn of the 20th century they were seen as akin to sending a man to the moon — are still in use 114 years after they were built, by hand and shovel, by “sandhogs” who inched their way from New Jersey and New York to meet mid-river. 

The walls of the tunnel were built in 30-inch-wide cast-iron rings as crews worked in compressed air in the Hudson River silt, scooping out muck by hand. The tunnel inchwormed from New Jersey and Manhattan, 30 inches at a time, with measurements taken every few rings to make sure the tunnel wasn’t settling.

When, on Sept. 11, 1906, a year ahead of schedule, the two halves of the north tunnel met under the Hudson, their alignment was off by just one-sixteenth of an inch.

'A GATEWAY TO NEW YORK'

'A GATEWAY TO NEW YORK'

Filmmaker Randall MacLowry's 2014 PBS documentary "The Rise and Fall of Penn Station" captures the project, its impact and Penn's eventual demise.

“It’s taken for granted that the tunnels are there, although maybe people take them less for granted now,” MacLowry said, as the tubes, compromised by Hurricane Sandy, are in need of repair.

(Efforts to increase the number of tunnels under the Hudson have not borne fruit. In 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie scuttled the two-tube ARC tunnel. The region's transit hopes are now held in the promise of the Gateway Program, which would also add two tunnels. That project has been stalled, awaiting approval from the Trump administration.)

MacLowry said Penn Station, built by a private company as a monument to itself, was also a gift to the city, "the idea of creating a huge public space, a gateway to New York — that put the city on par with Paris and London.”

It became a symbol of American ingenuity at the turn of the 20th century, MacLowry said, a sense of America creating itself and becoming a world power.

Penn was a symbol of that arrival, meant to stand in perpetuity. But it stood for only 53 years, done in, in part, by the sagging fortunes of its parent company as rail traffic slackened and the interstate highway network grew.

‘LIGHT FOLLOWED YOU’

‘LIGHT FOLLOWED YOU’

Lorraine B. Diehl, author of "The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station," is no fan of its replacement. "There's a sense of expediency here that just robs your soul," she said. "You find solace in good architecture that works with nature and gives you a sense of yourself right back again."
Lorraine B. Diehl, author of "The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station," is no fan of its replacement. "There's a sense of expediency here that just robs... Lorraine B. Diehl, author of "The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station," is no fan of its replacement. "There's a sense of expediency here that just robs your soul," she said. "You find solace in good architecture that works with nature and gives you a sense of yourself right back again."
Seth Harrison/The Journal News

Diehl remembers being almost 12, on summer vacation, and using Penn as a shortcut to get to Macy’s on 34th Street with her friend Betty. Even as a preteen, she felt the power of the space, and the subconscious lessons it held.

"You had this tracery of history. Even if you're not that aware of history, you can feel it," Diehl said. 

The concourse: “The floor of the concourse was glass, and there was a very practical reason for that, to bring light down, because incandescent light was not yet what it is now. You just felt that light followed you. Light would come down and all the little particles of dust would be dancing in the air. She described the concourse as "a room of motion.  "It's a room of blacks and grays and shadows and the only color are these bright red signs on the stanchions to go down to the track."

The General Waiting Room: "The main waiting room was modeled after Rome's Baths of Caracalla," she continued. "I knew nothing about the Baths of Caracalla, but I knew I was in this theater that was so warm and gorgeous. The room was all beiges and the floor was a pale pink."

The arcade: "The arcade was modeled after the arcades in Milan and Naples, a line of shops. This was the time before airplane travel. People coming from the Midwest to this 'Baghdad on the Hudson' were going to be impressed and intimidated. Cassatt put himself in the body and the sensibility of that traveler and gave them a kind of preparation for the city that lay outside. You were kind of fortified for that."

The carriageways: "The carriageways were just wonderful," Diehl said. "There were two of them, one that fed the Pennsylvania Railroad, one that fed the Long Island Railroad. That's where the taxis went down and then it went around a little thing and they waited. It was a very smart thing, very civilized."

'THEY BUILT THIS JUST FOR ME'

'THEY BUILT THIS JUST FOR ME'

If Diehl felt special in that space, and she did, she wasn't alone.

"My aunt walked into the station and she said to me, 'I can't believe they built this just for me,'" Diehl recalled. "She really clearly got that sense that all this work went into something that would give her pleasure."

By the time she encountered Penn as that little Macy's-bound shopper in the early 1950s, Diehl said, "the patina of age was all over it, but that did not bother me."

Lorraine Diehl
"The Pennsylvania Railroad owned it. The Pennsylvania Railroad could therefore destroy it. We didn’t own it. We just used it."

By the early '60s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was cash-strapped and began to shop the land on which stood its biggest asset. On July 21, 1961, the railroad announced that developer Irving Felt would buy the air rights to the site and build a new Madison Square Garden there, along with an office tower.

"The Pennsylvania Railroad owned it. The Pennsylvania Railroad could therefore destroy it," Diehl said. "We didn’t own it. We just used it."

In October 1963, a three-year project to raze Penn Station began. A massive concrete plug over the concourse level permitted the trains to continue running below while the great station was torn down above. Madison Square Garden opened in February 1968.

Gone was the light, the glass, the elevating architecture.

GODS AND RATS

GODS AND RATS

Yale University art historian Vincent Scully Jr., who influenced generations of architects, bemoaned what has been called "an appalling act of civic vandalism."

“Through Pennsylvania Station one entered the city like a god. Perhaps it was really too much," he said. "One scuttles in now like a rat.”

— Daniel Czitrom, Mount Holyoke College history professor
“Penn Station was really the great martyr of historic preservation, the building that died so that we might save others in the future."

In 1965, even before Penn was fully razed, the city passed a landmarks law, heralding the historic preservation movement.

In MacLowry's PBS film, Mount Holyoke College history professor Daniel Czitrom sums up that legacy.

“Penn Station was really the great martyr of historic preservation, the building that died so that we might save others in the future," he said. "What Penn Station was was the tipping point, something that people simply wouldn’t accept anymore. Then there was the political will to do something about it.”

That will was on display in 1975, when former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis led a successful campaign to save Grand Central Terminal when its landmark status was imperiled.

RECREATING PENN

RECREATING PENN

While the original Penn is gone, it is by no means forgotten. Among the plans floated to fix Penn Station is one that would restore the original, just as it stood 57 years ago.

Jim Venturi, of ReThinkNYC, said: "A new Penn Station, symbolically, would say, 'We made a terrible mistake in 1963 and we're big enough to admit that.' The best way to admit that is by undoing that mistake, rebuild Penn Station as it was, because there's no greater station that can be built for the value of the future of the city."

Penn Station lives on, in photographs and on film.

Alfred Hitchcock loved it as a setting; he shot scenes from "Strangers on a Train" and "Spellbound" there. 

Filmmaker Edward Norton had a tougher time when he directed last year's “Motherless Brooklyn,” a 1950s drama that had a pivotal scene set in Penn Station.

It was production designer Beth Mickle’s job to recreate Penn for the four-minute scene, when Norton’s character comes down the stairs, crosses the concourse and heads to the lockers. 

Unable to rebuild Penn, Mickle and her teams did the next best thing: combining physical sets on a Long Island soundstage with computer-graphic wizardry.

“We really wanted to be as historically accurate as we could be,” Mickle said. Cinematographer Dick Pope wanted light pouring through the skylights to give it "the Penn feel," she said.

For the floor that Norton's character walked on, Mickle’s team made a digital copy of the original concourse floor — glass blocks set in concrete — and printed it onto a roll of vinyl 15 feet wide by 80 feet long. That part was real. The actors were real. The lockers were real. Even the pigeon was real. 

The rest of the floor, walls and ceiling were filled in via computer by the visual effects team, work that earned them a nomination for a Visual Effects Society award.

Mickle "rebuilt" Penn Station. She also shared the screen with it.

As Norton crosses to the lockers, pay attention to the bride kissing her soldier. That's Mickle, kissing her husband, Russell Barnes.

The nostalgia for the original Penn even figures into a current New York Lottery ad campaign for its "New York Series" limited-edition scratch-off game.

A still image from the "All Aboard" commercial for the New York Lottery "New York Series" of scratch-off games plays on nostalgia for the original Penn Station, where passengers could step on or off a train and be bathed in sunlight from the vaulted glass ceiling.
A still image from the "All Aboard" commercial for the New York Lottery "New York Series" of scratch-off games plays on nostalgia for the original... A still image from the "All Aboard" commercial for the New York Lottery "New York Series" of scratch-off games plays on nostalgia for the original Penn Station, where passengers could step on or off a train and be bathed in sunlight from the vaulted glass ceiling.
New York Lottery

While the game cards feature line-art drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, the Finger Lakes, and Niagara Falls, the game's TV commercial, titled "All Aboard," plays off that "Penn feel."

A woman approaches a newsstand and buys her lottery ticket. When she looks up, her ticket has been punched and she's in the gleaming original Penn, under that vaulted glass ceiling. A conductor waves her onto an empty train and she is whisked away on a flying ride across the Empire State, to the strains of "Autumn in New York."

While the ad plays on Penn nostalgia, there is no doubt it is of its time: the newsstand guy, the customer and the conductor are all wearing face masks.

Peter D. Kramer is a 32-year staffer at The Journal News. He can be reached at pkramer@lohud.com or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. Read his latest stories. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription.