Professor Steven Cassedy, originally of Great Neck New York, reflects on Penn Station, Grand Central, and the making of modern icons.
If you were to ask anyone to name a truly iconic example of an American train station—certainly a New York train station, I’m willing to bet—a lot—that most would volunteer “Grand Central Terminal” (or, more likely, erroneously say “Grand Central Station”). I’m pretty sure that, even if the once-magnificent Penn Station were still standing, that answer would be no different. Who would ever take “Meet me under the clock” to refer to a clock in Penn Station?
PBS’ recent, fascinating documentary, The Rise and Fall of Penn Station, reminded me of the countless Saturdays in my teen years when I took the Long Island Railroad into the city because I had music lessons—and because, let’s face it, I was a train freak and loved riding the train—and then riding the subways once I got into the city. Back then, my father once shared this little factoid with me: as you ride the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station, having passed Sunnyside Yards in Queens and having entered the tunnel under the East River, you know you’re about to enter the station, even before you see the lights over the platform, when you detect a rumbling sound overhead in the tunnel. OK, it’s a faint rumble—not everyone can detect it. I never did till my father pointed it all those years ago. A scientist to the bone, with a preternaturally acute sense of his surroundings, he noticed the sound and immediately figured out what it was: at that moment, you were passing underneath the 34th Street Station of the Seventh Avenue IRT line. Train passengers in the tunnel below would have heard this rumbling ever since the subway station above was built in 1917.
My father, the engineering professor, must surely have marveled at the technological genius it took to dig a network of tunnels that connected New Jersey and Queens to Manhattan’s Penn Station in the first decade of the 20th century and then, a few years later, to construct a subway line above it. For him, all these underground causeways converging below Penn Station must have stood as a symbol of turn-of-the-century ingenuity, of modernity, of progress.
A clip from The Rise and Fall of Penn Station, based in part on Jill Jonnes’ Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels
But back to Grand Central: if I’m right about Grand Central, the clock may very well be the explanation. In the PBS documentary, historian Albert Churella notes that railroads in the era when Penn Station was built were “symbols of progress, symbols of modernity.” Of course he’s right. But all the classic train stations you can think of from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are, in a very tangible sense, monuments to the modern conception of time—itself a product of railroad culture.
Starting way back in 1884, with the adoption of a worldwide standard of time using the observatory in Greenwich, England, as Prime Meridian, all railroad companies in the United States ran on the same time. That meant that stations of any size that serviced more than one company would no longer feature more than one clock displaying more than one time—it also meant that now there would be far fewer grisly train crashes. Now there could be a single clock in the waiting room or, if the room was big enough, many clocks but all displaying the same time. Penn Station certainly had its big clocks, as the PBS documentary clearly shows, both over the main entrance and in the cavernous waiting room. But none of these was the clock, the gorgeous four-faced one atop the kiosk in the waiting room of Grand Central, made by the “Self-Winding Clock Co., Inc., New York.”
It’s that four-faced clock inside the terminal that appears to have captured the American imagination. It’s under that clock that you’ll “meet me.” And, with apologies to the fans of the old Penn Station, let’s be honest: those images of the sunlight streaming down stairwells are definitely stunning, and what replaced the old station is a hideous abomination, but Grand Central Terminal on the inside was simply more beautiful. At least I think so. Whatever you think of the long-vanished station on 34th Street, evidence of its iconic import is hidden from all but a few discerning observers, like my father. But everybody knows the four-faced clock in Grand Central Terminal.
See images of Penn Station Then & Now via Buzzfeed
Steven Cassedy is Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at University of California, San Diego. He is the author of several books, including Dostoevsky’s Religion, Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory, and most recently, Connected: How Trains, Genes, Pineapples, Piano Keys, and A Few Disasters Transformed Americans at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century.