Building Penn Station: Would Putin Have Been Right At Home?

The Original Penn Station, NYC: The Building of an Icon (Train Station Photo ca 1945)

The Original Penn Station, NYC

Once upon a time there was a man, a visionary man who, having lots of power and connections, wanted to build a legacy and give the public a grand space.

In a quirky twist, almost like a karmic slap on the wrist of judgment, I happened to catch this story on a public broadcasting special, The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.

I love history and architecture, and thought this would be full of cool bits of trivia.

However, I was quite surprised as I listened to the story of how New York’s Penn Station actually came to be.

In light of the much scrutinized (and criticised) Sochi projects, the parallels between the vision of Alexander Cassat, then president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the monumental building projects undertaken by Vladimir Putin to enable Sochi to host these current Winter Olympic Games is uncanny.

And I have to say, it puts some of my earlier thoughts into a rather different light. I’m having to re-examine what it means to have vision and carry out grand plans.

 The Rise and Fall of Penn Station,” conveys just how brash was the vision of Alexander Cassatt, when he decided late in the 19th century that he was no longer content to have the company’s lines stop in New Jersey. He would, he decided, extend them into Manhattan and out to Long Island via tunnels under the rivers. And he would have those lines converge in a lavish station.”
Beaux Arts Styling Made Penn Station An Icon of Public Spaces

Beaux Arts Styling Made Penn Station An Icon of Public Spaces

This clip is a great opening to the story: Penn Station Video Clip 1 PBS.

The Penn Station project came about because in 1900 the Pennsylvania Railroad company, then the largest corporation in the world, was unable to link its 10,000 miles of track to Manhattan.

According to the program, Cassat had been in Paris visiting his sister, American painter Mary Cassat, and had seen a great electrified station (Gare D’Orsay, later to become the well-known Musee D’Orsay on the banks of the Seine River in Paris) built for the Paris Expo in 1900.

Cassat had long sought to resolve the issue of coal trains in tunnels and the perfect solution lay in Paris. That Paris was also the inspiration for much of the beauty in the Russian Empirical city of Saint Petersburg and elsewhere only added to the similarities between these two men’s stories.

Cassat hired one of the world’s best tunnel engineers to take on the enormous job of boring 16 miles of tunnels, under the Hudson River to connect New Jersey to New York, and under the East River connecting Long Island. It took a decade.

To address the need for clearing the physical space, three men went door to door between 31st and 33rd streets, from Seventh to Ninth avenues, and bought up the ramshackle neighborhood, displacing hundreds of families.

Penn Station NYC- Quality For Life: Beaux Art Beauty and Efficiency

Quality For Life: Beaux Art Beauty and Efficiency

That the derelict neighborhood needed improving was no question. New York Police Department Captain Alexander S. “Clubber” Williams gave the area its nickname (New York City’s Tenderloin District) in 1876, when he was transferred to a police precinct in the heart of this district. Referring to the increased amount of bribes he would receive for police protection of both legitimate and illegitimate businesses there – especially the many brothels – Williams said, “I’ve been having chuck steak ever since I’ve been on the force, and now I’m going to have a bit of tenderloin.”

Though the project no doubt involved elements of coercion or corruption, dislocation of scores of families, and rebuilding an entire neighborhood from the ground up, the building itself truly was grand, using 500,000 cubic feet of granite and 83,000 square feet of skylights.

By the end of World War II, more than 100 million passengers traveled through Penn Station each year.

Does any of this story sound familiar?

I was struck by the parallels of these projects and their visionary leaders.  Perhaps the ends do justify the means?

Maybe in the end, Vladimir Putin will be considered a visionary leader instead of being portrayed as a cold-hearted politician. Maybe he does have a good heart? Or, perhaps he just knows how to fool the right people?

President Putin said,

People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain. We do not regret this, we simply state the fact and know that we need to look ahead, not backwards. We will not allow the past to drag us down and stop us from moving ahead. We understand where we should move. But we must act based on a clear understanding of what happened.”

We still have a great amount of work to do in social development, including resolving one of the biggest challenges we face in this area, namely, reducing the gap between high-income earners and people, citizens of our country, who are still living on very modest means indeed. But we cannot, of course, adopt the solution used 80 years ago and simply confiscate the riches of some to redistribute among others. We will use completely different means to resolve this problem, namely, we will ensure good economic growth.”

Former President George Bush is often quoted as saying when they first met in 2001 and Bush said he got “a sense of [Putin’s] soul.” The extent to which Bush had misjudged Putin became clearest in August 2008 when Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet bloc country on its southern border.

The two leaders had an intense exchange in the stands of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium during the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony.

Bush told Putin he had warned him that the Georgian leader, President Mikhail Saakashvili, was “hot-blooded.”

“I’m hot-blooded too,” Putin said.

“I stared back at him,” Bush writes in his book. “‘No Vladimir,’ I said. ‘You’re cold-blooded.”

Which of these two leaders is the real Vladimir Putin? The Visionary who guided this project below?

Train Station Construction Photo: Sochi New Train Station construction

Visionary or Schemer?

Or, the one whose corrupt system is held responsible for failed projects like this house?

What's Wrong With This Picture?  Lack of quality control and accountability

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

There is a point in “The Rise & Fall of Penn Station” where the east and west tunnels are about to meet in the middle of the East River. Because the quality had been tightly controlled, remarkably, the tunnels were off by less than 1/16″ (0.15875 cm). It has been called absolutely amazing even by today’s technical standards.

One wonders how the quality of the Sochi projects will ultimately be judged.

More than this though, the parallel of these two men makes me wonder. Is this the way visionary projects always are? Do we have to have mega-events that require forcing progress in this way?

I would like to think not.

Rather, I want to believe that, much like Alexander Cassat’s building of a grand public space that made the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens easier, mega-events like the Sochi Olympic Games have the power to change lives for the better.

So far, however, what we are hearing doesn’t sound hopeful. An article by Fast Company (Co.Design) stated that the road to Krasnaya Polyana, the biggest Olympics-related construction project, “cost a total of $8.7 billion–comparable to the total cost of the Vancouver Olympics. “They may as well have paved it in platinum or caviar,” Boris Nemtsov told the Wall Street Journal. The sum of this 90% overspending could buy each resident of Krasnodar region a new refrigerator, the Anti-Corruption Foundation claims. It could probably buy a lot of new doorknobs, too.” (Read more about that in Countdown to Sochi: The Good, The Bad, And The Downright Weird)

I’m still waiting for the reports to filter out giving us the rest of the story… It would make a really nice story to think Vladimir Putin would feel right at home with Alexander Cassat, at home among visionaries.

Let’s hope journalists still on the ground can find positive stories to fill the gap.




Sources: CBS Smithsonian with narration  old    current "Grand Transport, as Envisioned" by NEIL GENZLINGER FEB. 14, 2014 Penn Station developed in NY's Tenderloin district

2 thoughts on “Building Penn Station: Would Putin Have Been Right At Home?

  1. Interesting story of Penn Station and of the parallels between two grand building projects. We can only hope that the Russian Olympics will leave behind some improvements that will benefit the Russian citizens.


    • My thoughts exactly, Margo. I was really surprised to hear that the Penn station project was a privately funded project.

      By contrast, it is commonly suspected that the Sochi projects, which are touted as privately funded, are actually vehicles for siphoning government funds to cronies of the president. .. that is just sad if true.

      It’s hard to be an optimist in this story…


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