August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
A trackside album of celebrities from the days when the world went by train
A person used to enter New York City “like a god,” said the art critic Vincent Scully, but “one scuttles in now like a rat.”
The rathole is Pennsylvania Station, a dispiriting warren built beneath Madison Square Garden, which, in turn, occupies the place of the real Penn Station. That was the monumental gateway designed by Charles Folien McKim in the early years of the century when the railroad was at the zenith of its power and influence on this continent. Alexander Cassatt, president of the mighty Pennsylvania, was determined to tunnel beneath the Hudson River to bring passengers into the heart of Manhattan, and he wanted a station worthy of the achievement.
An immense building that wedded the Baths of Caracalla with a soaring steel-and-glass concourse, the station was a destination satisfactory to the vainest of the demigods who entered it: Presidents and movie stars, dukes and duchesses.
Greeting the celebrities who passed through Cassatt’s palace was the job of William Egan, the Stationmaster, and George Flatow, a former stenographer hired in 1909 to serve as the station’s press agent. Flatow made sure that important arrivals and departures were recorded on film. His career at Penn Station spanned the terminal’s fifty-year history; for several years he actually lived in a room above the concourse. Now ninety-eight, he has collected the photographs shown on these pages. He still savors his memories of the terminal at its peak, when crisply appointed ushers lined up to await the arrival of the Broadway Limited and buglers heralded its approach.