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Jill Jonnes

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MAS Video: The Struggle to Build Penn Station

On April 23, historian Jill Jonnes delivered a fascinating presentation on the construction of Penn Station and its tunnels, the subject of her recent book: Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic. The event was part of the MAS’s spring program series: Can New York Build Another Great Station?

With the aid of some amazing photographs rescued from the depths of the Pennsylvania Railroad archives, Jonnes recounted the “titanic battle with nature” that culminated in the construction of the original Penn Station.

Now you can watch a brief video of the highlights:



Learning From The Past: The Struggle to Build Penn Station from MAS on Vimeo

Join us on Wednesday, May 28 for our next event: "The Heart of the City: Grand Central Terminal & the Urban Railroad Station."

And check out our walking tour on May 31: "Finding Your Way: Penn Station vs. Grand Central."

Watch “Re-Discovering Rail,” a video from our April 9th panel

Read “Jill Jonnes Bucks Up the Moynihan Station Crowd”

Read “The Struggle to Build (New) Penn Station”

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

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Jill Jonnes Bucks Up the Moynihan Station Crowd

On Wednesday at the MAS, historian Jill Jonnes delivered a fascinating presentation on the construction of Penn Station and its tunnels, the subject of her recent book: Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic.

With the aid of some amazing photographs rescued from the depths of the Pennsylvania Railroad archives, Jonnes recounted the “titanic battle with nature” that culminated in the construction of the original Penn Station.

“The received wisdom was that this whole project was a folly,” said Jonnes.

She contextualized the construction story within a political and human drama involving a determined PRR president, Alexander Cassatt, a corrupt politician, Boss Croker, who ran Tammany Hall by cable from the UK, and Samuel Rea, a brilliant young engineer and eventual PRR president who lost his own son in one of the project’s many horrific accidents. And of course she also told the bittersweet story of Charles McKim’s last major building in New York.

Jonnes did not hesitate to draw parallels between the subject of her book and the current attempts to “re-conquer Gotham,” Moynihan Station and ARC. Conquering Gotham book coverApparently, she has even been offered a ride in the ARC tunnel machine when the project starts rolling!

In conclusion, Jonnes noted that Penn Station “was a work of many decades, not unlike Moynihan Station.” In fact, the full project, from its earliest conception in 1871 to its completion in 1917 with the opening of Hell Gate Bridge lasted over four decades.

“I do want to buck everyone up,” she said. “And remind you how enormously difficult it was to build the original station. Everyone always says, ‘Back then they knew how to get things done.’ No they didn’t! When Penn Station opened it took them another 8 years just to build the first subway connection. And the second subway stop took another 8 years!”

Please join us next Wednesday for a panel discussion about “World-Class Train Stations.” Click here for more info

Click here to purchase Conquering Gotham

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Your Mind on Moynihan: Win Free Tickets to Wednesday’s Event

Question: What was the nickname of the neighborhood surrounding Penn Station at the turn of the century?

The first five people to email the answer to [email protected] will each win a pair of tickets to see a presentation from Jill Jonnes, the author of Conquering Gotham, at the MAS on Wednesday evening.

Below is a description from Conquering Gotham – fill in the blank!

“As [LIRR president William] Baldwin well knew, the great Pennsylvania Depot – if it ever came to be – would be rising not just in a rundown, marginal neighborhood, but in one of Gotham’s most notorious vice districts. Their four blocks were part of an area infamous far and wide: [_______], an area bounded by Fifth Avenue, West Twenty-third Street, Forty-second Street and Ninth Avenue.

Many respectable and hard-working folk lived and toiled here, as the recent census recorded, and by day it appeared to be just another shabby city enclave. Yet Baldwin’s Committee of Fifteen’s own inquiries had pin-pointed more than a hundred know whorehouses in the blocks due north and dozens more in the blocks toward Fifth Avenue. When night enveloped Gotham, and Manhattan’s skyscrapers and grand hotels glowed with the wondrous electric light, the streets here became a hotbed of vice. Conveniently close to the Broadway theaters and better hotels and restaurants, [_______] catered not just to the rougher elements, but also to slumming (married) middle-class men and daring out-of-towners. Nighttime Sixth Avenue, with the brightly lit elevated trains rumbling overhead, was often jammed with pleasure seekers. [________] was, odd to say, a neighborhood that the well-to-do Baldwin knew far better than most, for he had reviewed hundred of the committee’s private detailed vice reports for his reform work…

Anyone abroad in [________] late at night had to beware. In the tenebrous side streets, the hardened criminal classes sway, and brazen streetwalkers lured unwary rubes to panel houses where sliding bedroom walls made stealing watches and wallets easy. Murder was not unknown either. Just as Wall Street gloried in its fearful financial power, so [________] gloried in its lurid menu of vice and corruption – luxurious French brothels with “cinema nights,” high-stakes gaming halls, “badger” games, and opulent opium joints. Every professional gambler, saloonkeeper, white slaver, and madame in [_______] dutifully bribed the police and worked to fleece the unwary. The Democrats of Tammany Hall turned a blind eye to what reformers had long denounced as Satan’s Circus. And just as many a tourist had to see Wall Street, so many of the men among them had to see [________].”

[image courtesy of the New York Public Library]

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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”


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