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'The Rise and Fall of Penn Station' tell of a great American monument lost

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American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

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If you've seen "The Monuments Men" and monuments are on your mind, consider catching "American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station" tonight, Tuesday, 18 February 2014, on PBS 9 p.m. ET. (Check local listings)

Pennsylvania Station was a train station that covered eight acres and was the fourth largest building in the world extending the length of two city blocks and 150 feet high. It was first opened to the public on 27 November 1910.

This was a building the size of St. Peter's in Rome and meant to be just as splendid with marble imported from Tivoli, Italy. Planning began in 1900 and in 1901, quietly men were sent into the area to buy up land. Hundreds of poor families were displaced as five hundred buildings were torn down.

Yet below Penn Station was something just as magnificent: 16 miles of underground tunnels had been built--seven miles of which were under the Hudson and East Rivers. Penn Station was brought architecture and civil engineering together. The station was meant to be a major hub for commuters, and during the 1940s more than 100 million passengers passed through the station. Yet two decades later, the company that built the monument, Pennsylvania Railroad was in financial trouble and in 1963, the privately owned architectural gem was demolished.

This documentary is a sad commentary on cultural heritage that was lost. Written and directed by Randall MacLowry, we see archival materials and hear from historians and writers and a civil engineer (Vincent Tirolo, Jr.) as well as a real contemporary tunnel digger (Scott Chesman) to give us an idea of the scope of the project and the loss that New York and America suffered when the monument was taken down. Among the writers is Jill Jonnes, author of "Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels" the book upon which this documentary is partially based.

The loss wasn't without a silver lining. New York City would establish a Landmarks Preservation Commission. The station that would replace it was completed in 1968. Grand Central Terminal would be designated a historic landmark and not be subject to the same fate.

If you've loved and lost a beautiful building and thinking about fighting to keep one in your community, this documentary is sure to inspire you. Sometimes, we need our own monuments men and women.

"The Rise and Fall of Penn Station" airs tonight on PBS, Tuesday, 18 February 2014, at 9 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.)

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