Based in part on Jill Jonnes’ 2008 book Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels, the film is at its best when documenting the doomed transportation hub as “not only a place of journeys, but a place of memories,” in the words of architecture critic Paul Goldberger. MacLowry digs into the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad and Alexander Cassatt, the line’s president who hatched the idea of the terminal and commissioned McKim, Mead & White to design it. The filmmaker draws heavily on archival materials, like photos and contemporaneous news accounts, as well as talking heads, to track the transformation of Manhattan’s now-extinct Tenderloin neighborhood from a den of vice and corruption into a massive crater then into the Beaux Arts masterpiece that allowed travellers to enter New York like kings.
The documentation of the vanished Tenderloin alone makes Rise and Fall worth watching—as does the focus on Penn Station’s human story. MacLowry spends an admirable amount of time on the dangerous, heroic work of the sandhogs who blasted and braced the new train tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers, most of the time under constant threat of major injury or death. He also interviews people with personal connections to the terminal.