Penn Station is named for the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), its builder and original tenant. There could have been no Penn Station in New York City until the Pennsylvania Railroad's rails reached Manhattan. The 19th century PRR did not; it terminated across the Hudson River in Jersey City's Exchange Place terminal, where passengers bound for Manhattan boarded ferries for the final stretch of their journey. The rival New York Central Railroad's rails ran down Manhattan from the north, ending in its Grand Central Terminal right in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.
The Pennsylvania Railroad, unsatisfied with this state of affairs, considered bridging the Hudson River (too expensive) or tunneling under it (too long to work with steam locomotives and too difficult to ventilate). The development of the electric locomotive and electrified railroad systems by the early 20th century provided a practicable solution to the latter problem.
On December 12, 1901, PRR president Alexander Cassatt announced the railroad's plan to enter New York City, to tunnel under the Hudson and to build a grand station on the West Side of Manhattan, south of Thirty-Fourth Street.
ConstructionThe current facility is the substantially remodelled underground remnant of a much grander structure built between 1905 and 1910 (Previous Main Structure, waiting room). Designed by Charles McKim of the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, the original Pennsylvania Station of legend was an outstanding masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style and one of the architectural jewels of New York City. The above-ground portion of the original structure was demolished in the mid 1960s to make room for the current Pennsylvania Plaza/Madison Square Garden complex.
The original structure was a pink-granite exercise in a gigantic and sober colonnaded Doric order embodying the sophisticated integration of multiple functions and circulation of people and goods that is an under-appreciated achievement of the outwardly glamorous and occasionally pompous Beaux-Arts movement. McKim, Mead and White's Pennsylvania Station combined frank glass-and-steel train sheds and a magnificently-proportioned concourse with a breath-taking monumental entrance to New York City, immortalized in films. From the street, twin carriageways, modelled after Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, led to the two railroads that the building served, the Pennsylvania and the Long Island Rail Road. The main waiting room, inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, approximated the scale of St. Peter's nave in Rome, expressed here in a steel framework clad in travertine.
The destruction of the original structure left a deep and lasting wound in the architectural consciousness of the city. A famous photograph of a smashed caryatid in the landfill of the Meadowlands struck a guilty chord. Pennsylvania Station's destruction is considered to have been the catalyst for the enactment of the city's first architectural preservation statutes. The sculpture on the building, including the angel in the landfill, was created by Adolph Alexander Weinman. One of the sculpted clock surrounds, whose figures were modeled using model Audrey Munson, still survives as the Eagle Scout Memorial Fountain in Kansas City, Missouri, there is also a caryatid at the sculpture garden at the Brooklyn Museum, and all of the Penn Station eagles are still in existence.
Ironically, Charles McKim may have doomed his own structure by not allowing Alexander Cassatt to include multi-story office buildings as part of the Penn Station complex. By the 1960's, the air rights of Penn Station were too valuable to be left idle and the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was losing money at the time, would have had one less incentive to tear down the beautiful building. McKim opposed high rises because he considered them anti-urban.