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The Struggle to Build (New) Penn Station: Jill Jonnes at MAS on Wednesday


Conquering Gotham book cover

Conquering Gotham, Jill Jonnes’s entertaining history of the building of the original Penn Station and its tunnels, concludes: "All these decades later -- as our love affair with cars and airplanes has soured -- there is hope that New York can once again reclaim the grandeur of arriving by train in Gotham.”

Indeed, around one hundred years later New York is attempting to re-conquer Gotham with a new station (Moynihan Station) and set of tunnels (ARC). Whereas the original Penn Station project was driven forward by a single private company – the Pennsylvania Railroad, the current projects involve a multitude of public agencies and private interests.

Recently, the New York Times summarized the state of the city’s “grand development plans in an editorial entitled “Construction and Hard Times.” “Work is slowing, stalling or stopped altogether on too many of the projects we hoped would transform some of the bleakest sections of the city,” it said, crediting a faltering economy and a lack of leadership as the main causes.

In this environment, it is important to remember that the original Penn Station was a roughly twenty year project and a triumph over incalculable odds. Alexander Cassatt, president of the Penn RR, rejected the corruption of Tammany Hall, faced off against the city’s most powerful robber barons, remained unshaken by the persistent attacks of the Hearst media empire, and emerged - along with the sandhogs - to give New York “a monument worthy of his railroad and their city.”

On Wednesday evening, find comfort in the story of the construction of Penn Station and its tunnels. Jill Jonnes will appear at the MAS for a lecture and discussion about how the construction of the first Penn Station can inform the building of Moynihan Station, ARC, and other major civic projects. Here are the details:

Learning From The Past: The Struggle to Build Penn Station

Wednesday, April 23, 6:30–8:00 p.m., at the Municipal Art Society
Jill Jonnes, author of Conquering Gotham: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels, wanted to write about “an American success, about a monumental project that everyone would be familiar with.” That she has done. As Gilbert Taylor wrote in a Book List review, “…New York City’s Pennsylvania Station was the visible manifestation of a titanic subterranean project. Its sweeping story…comes together marvelously in Jonnes’s admiring history of the undertaking.” Jonnes’s presentation will include compelling historic images not featured in her book, which closes with the hope that Moynihan Station will be “…a return to the grandeur of the past.

Presented in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society’s Urban Center Books. Signed copies will be available at the bookstore following the presentation.
$15, $12 MAS members. Reservations and prepayment required. Purchase tickets online or call 212 935 2075

Here are some links:

Listen to Jill Jonnes talk about Conquering Gotham on NPR

View an interactive graphic and listen to an audio explanation of the tunnel boring techniques 100 years vs. today from the New York Times.

Read “100 Years Later, An Attempt to Re-Conquer Gotham”