From the Gilded Age, a monument to transit

The Baltimore Sun

The destruction in 1964 of New York City's Pennsylvania Station, by its cash-strapped owner, the Pennsylvania Railroad, created international outrage.

"Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished," said an editorial in The New York Times, "or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.

"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and ultimately deserves," the editorial continued. "Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn't afford to keep it clean. We want and deserved tincan architecture in a tinhorn culture."

The editorial concluded: "And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."

Penn Station has been gone almost as many years as it was in use, and it takes an astute observer to find fragments of the old station still in use today. However, still going strong after nearly a century are the North and East River tunnels that carry thousands of passengers in and out of the city each day.

Penn Station's depressing bus station-like replacement -- it bears more than a passing resemblance to a sort of urban catacombs -- was built in the 1960s, beneath the Madison Square Garden Center complex that rose on the former site of Charles Follen McKim's "great Doric temple to transportation," writes Jill Jonnes, a Roland Park author and historian.

Her latest book, Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and its Tunnels, will be published by Viking Press this week.

Building the station was just one part of the project announced in 1901 by Alexander J. Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The railroad's ambitious plans for replacing its Exchange Place Station in Jersey City, which forced Manhattan-bound passengers to transfer to ferries to complete the final leg of their journey, included digging two tunnels -- a treacherous undertaking -- beneath the ancient muck of the Hudson River and building a monumental station in New York City.

Its enormous waiting room, which took its inspiration from the Roman baths of Caracalla, no less -- would be one of the largest public spaces in the world.

Another set of four single-track tunnels would carry the line into Queens, a huge yard at Sunnyside, and a connection with the Long Island Railroad.

The bold project wouldn't be completed until 1917, when the Hell Gate Bridge over the East River was finished and a direct rail link between New England and the South was finally achieved.

"Covering seven and a half acres, Penn Station was going to be not just the world's largest train station, but the world's fourth-largest building, with the three bigger ones -- St. Peter's Basilica, the Tuileries, and the Winter Garden -- all ancient monuments that had been built and expanded over the centuries," Jonnes writes.

It was as grand a corporate statement in stone, glass and sculpture as one could imagine. It was ordered up by one of the nation's wealthiest and most powerful companies, and it was rendered by the Beaux-Arts architect McKim of the firm of McKim, Mead & White.

Lucius Beebe, the journalist and rail historian, described Pennsylvania Station as that "massive affront to the Vanderbilts," whose more modest and pillbox-like Grand Central Terminal was uptown on 42nd Street.

Neither Cassatt nor McKim would live to see their dream completed. Cassatt died in 1906; McKim died three years later.

"Alexander J. Cassatt and Charles Follen McKim had bequeathed to Gotham a magnificent monument in Pennsylvania Station, drawing inspiration from one great and ancient empire to create a modern temple of transportation worthy of their own ascendant American Empire," Jonnes writes.

Jonnes, a 1974 graduate of Barnard College who earned a master's degree in 1977 from Columbia Journalism School, worked as a reporter before moving to Baltimore in 1983. She later earned a doctorate in American history from the Johns Hopkins University.

Her most recent book, Empires of Light: Edison, Telsa, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World, was published by Random House in 2003.

Jonnes is not a rail fan, which is a plus in this case. She is a superb researcher who was drawn to the Penn Station story mainly because its Gilded Age characters, including the nearly forgotten Cassatt and McKim, as well as Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, William Randolph Hearst and Andrew Carnegie.

"I wanted to find some Gilded Age story that would encompass a project we all know, and that was Penn Station," Jonnes said in an interview the other day from her book-lined living room. "Also, I've never done a book that had several secrets. For years, the Pennsylvania Railroad didn't know if the tunnels were safe."

The other secret Jonnes uncovered was the death of civil engineer George Black Rea, whose father, Samuel Rea, was chief engineer of the North River tunnels and later president of the Pennsy.

"Samuel Rea's only son died from working in his father's tunnels. He had gotten pneumonia and died in 1908. I never could find any written allusion to the fact that he had died as a direct result from working in the tunnels," Jonnes said. "I finally got my answer by talking to Rea's great-grandson."

She is now working on a book about Gustave Eiffel and the World's Fair of 1889.

"It's the last of my Gilded Age trilogy," she said with a laugh.

Jonnes will be giving a talk and book signing at 6:30 p.m. May 1 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St.

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