18.12.07

PRIME TENDERLOIN. Grades are in and there's time for some intellectual development, including catching up on some reading. I'm doubtful of reaching the half-century this year, but, after a one-month layoff, I offer Jill Jonnes's Conquering Gotham as Book Review No. 33. There are several books focusing on the engineering aspects of Pennsylvania Station in New York, as well as a few art books making clear precisely what a "shameful act of vandalism" entails. Conquering Gotham is different. The machinations of The Pennsylvania Railroad and its rivals and the War Department (which had serious reservations about any bridge that would impede the passage of sailing ships upriver: a prudent military must anticipate another Burgoyne) and the Tammany machine (politicians used to be more up-front about perpetuating a mass of population dependent on government largesse) yield one plot line. The lifestyles of the rich and famous provide yet another plot line. The adventures of Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White and Harry Thaw make much of Hollywood seem tame. The work of digging the tunnels (with loss of life and numerous engineering puzzles) provide a third. That the objective was to run through trains from Boston to Florida does crop up on occasion, but the trains are subordinate to the stories. The work suggests Pennsylvania Station might have been destined for adaptive reuse from the start. The land Pennsylvania's real estate agents acquired was not in the best neighborhood of Manhattan, and the concept of urban renewal hadn't yet surfaced. Design constraints precluded the construction of substantial office space above the station (additional support columns would have meant fewer tracks and platform faces) and, with the station above tracks, the use of a great room as the atrium for an office block (as later realized in Chicago's Union Station) was not possible. So when the railroad sold the property to meet the next year's legal bill, they forfeited neither commercial opportunities in the existing structure nor much good will from the neighbors. As Ms Jonnes represents it, New Yorkers viewed the station as something from Philadelphia that crawled in under the river. And so the station, or rather, so the great spaces had to go, but the tunnels with their improvised screw piles handle the commuter trains and the Acela Expresses and the Florida trains and what remains of The Great Steel Fleet, including the only serious New York to Chicago train.

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