Art February 2021
On the new Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan.
The demolition of McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station proved to be the great architectural trauma of New York. It was arguably the worst destruction the city endured in the past hundred years before the attacks of 9/11; its effects altered the urban fabric just as much. At Penn, the promise of “progress” was, in fact, the terror that leveled that civic temple of 1910 and replaced its soaring classicism with the soul-crushing modernism of today’s station. In 1965, a sign on Seventh Avenue announced the “redeveloped” station with the cheery slogan, “on the way to you.” Just behind it, as commuters continued to board their trains, the station’s exterior colonnade and vaulted interior were bashed to bits and carted off as landfill to the New Jersey Meadowlands.
The tragedy signaled an ignominious end to New York’s classical era. The indignities it introduced have become a daily reminder of what was lost. That’s because, for the sake of expediency while developers disfigured what had to remain an active transportation center, the old station was leveled rather than excavated. To keep the trains running, on through if not on time, the tracks, the east–west submarine tunnels, and the platforms were all kept, even as they were covered over with an oppressively low new ceiling. Like a blister in the sun, the awful new Madison Square Garden rose above these ruins. (To add insult to injury, the sports complex was named after the original palace where Harry K. Thaw had murdered Stanford White.) Commuter and intercity rail passengers—up to 600,000 a day spread across Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the Long Island Rail Road—were crushed down into what remained of the increasingly urine-soaked passages beneath. The ingenious double-decker platforms of old Penn, originally created to distinguish the path of arriving and departing passengers, now just added to the underground mayhem.
From the Baths of Diocletian, one of the classical models for the original station, to a modern-day sewer, old Penn has haunted the city’s conscience just as its replacement has remained a blight on the urban landscape. “One entered the city like a god,” the architectural historian Vincent Scully famously observed. “One scuttles in now like a rat.” Over the years, even as much else in the city has improved, new Penn’s warren of dingy tunnels and onrushing crowds has remained astonishingly grim.
In my own underground transfers, I too have learned the many twists and turns it takes to walk from the Seventh Avenue subway to an Amtrak train. I pass through one sickly tile corridor after another, beneath the stained ceilings perfumed with stale pretzels, on up to Penn’s departure concourse, only to wait among a scrum of passengers jostling one another over the announcement of their departure track. The one solace of this subterranean passage is the glimpse of old Penn that occasionally flashes in the light like an artifact kicked up in the rubble. A old handrail here and a staircase there—a few remnants of the original station remarkably remain intact amid the latter-day squalor.
That the Moynihan Train Hall offers improvements over Penn’s existing facilities is a low bar to clear.
Some three decades ago, looking up from the back of Penn Station on Eighth Avenue, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the iconoclastic senator from New York who died in 2003, made a similar discovery on a much larger scale. What he saw was not exactly old Penn, where as a boy he had once shined shoes, but there to the west was a building with striking similarities to the original station. And indeed, occupying an equivalent two-block space, the General Post Office Building, now known as the James A. Farley Building, still rises as a shadow of old Penn. In fact, McKim, Mead & White designed the facility, which opened in 1914 and was expanded to its current size in 1935, to complement the station. The Olympian building ringed with Corinthian columns and pilasters at one time served the same central role for mail as Penn did for passengers. At the time that Moynihan gave it another look, changes in postal distribution were upending the rail-based facility, just as the car and airplane had done to old Penn.
Moynihan had a vision to reuse the old postal building as a new passenger station. Starting in the early 1990s, he began negotiating with a tangle of federal agencies to secure the permissions and funding to get the idea on track. Like much else at Penn, the arrival of this initiative, what is now called the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall, has been delayed. With New York still in partial lockdown, the hall’s January 1, 2021, opening came and went with little fanfare, even as the completion of the 255,000-square-foot transit hub has cost $1.6 billion and taken a generation to reveal.
That the Moynihan Train Hall offers improvements over Penn’s existing facilities is a low bar to clear. At its best, the new train hall indeed finds ways to echo the grandeur of the original station, just as the late senator had envisioned. As adapted by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the train hall hints at what was lost next door. In the original Penn, the station’s classical Seventh Avenue head house opened to the west onto a glass-enclosed train shed. Just as that station’s façade and waiting room took inspiration from the past, its crystal concourse looked ahead, revealing the splendor of the machine age. Exposed cross-braced steel piers kept massing to a minimum while terraces of glass maximized the light within. Around the open stairways, natural illumination filtered all the way down through the levels, even reaching the trains passing beneath.
In the reuse of its original structural steel, now selectively left exposed, the new train hall reveals the dna it shared with the departed station while recalling some of the forms of that crystal-palace shed. The train hall’s new main concourse has been carved out of the post office’s former central work room. As originally designed by McKim, Mead & White, this large central sorting area, just behind the post office’s retail windows, was glazed with its own sunken skylight that spanned the entire space. Blacked out during World War II, this back-of-the-house open acre was modified and divided more than once, yet the roof retained its steel superstructure.
In the thirty years it took to develop the new train hall, many proposals were put forward for reglazing this space. Some called for new skylights at the building’s upper roofline. The final decision to keep the original trusses while cutting down the concourse to street grade has created a lofty new space that still reaches back to an important past. The core of the train hall makes the most of its original structural elements, opening up its massive trusses and cross-braced columns and walls that, in the original post office design, were left unseen. At its center, a new four-sided pendant clock, designed by Peter Pennoyer Architects in 20th-Century-Limited moderne, ties the space together with a nod to the analog Benrus clocks suspended inside the original station.
New skylights now fill in among the old trusses in barrel-vaulted form with some extra fizz. These custom-engineered glass baubles are the station’s nod to the future, but one wonders if simply restoring the original glazing would have had a similar illuminating effect while freeing up resources for other improvements. For while the train hall’s central concourse looks sharp in battleship gray, with nicely illuminated rivets, its integration with the trains running beneath—the whole purpose for its creation—seems to have been an afterthought.
Beyond its uplifting forms, it is still an astonishing fact that the function of a century-old train station should be better than anything created today. At the original Penn, glass tile brought illumination to all levels. Step on one of Moynihan’s slick new escalators down to the platform and you descend from light to near-total darkness. Here, the light is only skin deep. An earlier proposal calling for glass flooring, both inside and out, went nowhere. Now beyond signaling their newness, those fancy new skylights are all form and no function.
A colleague of mine calls this slick consumer finish the “international duty-free style.”
That’s not all the signaling here. Move beyond the historical features of the main concourse and this train hall most resembles a high-end mall. In attempting to create a new retail and commercial hub, the surfaces mistakenly look west, to the flailing emporium at Hudson Yards, rather than east, to the spirit of old Penn. A colleague of mine calls this slick consumer finish the “international duty-free style.” With a smart but tiny waiting area designed by the Rockwell Group tucked under a side of the concourse, one wonders where trains even ranked in the level of importance for this train hall. The answer may be near the bottom, just a half step above its original use as a post office, which continues but with little integration now with the rest of the complex. The recent leasing of much of the building to Facebook, with new retail and restaurants planned just beneath them, speaks more to the design’s underlying interests.
Unfortunately, as a hall for trains, the new Moynihan Train Hall more than once goes off track. The hall’s street-level avenue entrances, to the north and south of the grand post office stairwell, are the opposite of inviting. Positioned at the far western end of platforming trains, the new concourse also presents an added inconvenience for the majority of passengers coming to the station from the east. As I noticed the day I visited, the new concourse was deserted compared to those oppressive waiting areas across the street at Penn, which are still better positioned over the center of the trains. When I asked a Moynihan ticket-taker about this, he wondered why anyone would walk an extra block west just to have to walk back the other way on the platform. He also suggested that Amtrak was making a tally of those still boarding from Penn and those from Moynihan, and would eventually stop listing the trains in the old location, forcing passengers to use the new hall.
For the rail commuter, the addition of Moynihan merely adds an extra length of turns to get from the subway to the Amtrak train. A pleasant concourse at the extreme end of a rat maze merely compounds an unsavory overall experience. The poor integration of typography, wayfinding, and pathways with the rest of Penn Station remains a joke, now made cruel with this reminder of what there once was. It is all the more remarkable that som’s own new underground waiting area, the West End Concourse, with overworked signage by Pentagram, which opened in June 2017, shares no stylistic similarity with the austere Moynihan concourse directly above.
Beyond the trains, the last missing piece of the Moynihan Train Hall is Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Until recently, the new rail center was supposed to be known as Moynihan Station. Then in 2017, the first signs went up calling it Penn Station West. It could be that cancel culture finally caught up with the trailblazing studies of this senator who wrote “The Moynihan Report,” the 1965 paper concerning the high out-of-wedlock birthrate of black Americans and its negative economic consequences. A simpler answer is that the New York governor only ever wants to credit a civic project to a Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo now plans to build a new station, in a new style, over the entire Penn complex, and he would prefer to retain the naming rights.
As the National Civic Art Society and others have argued, the real solution for Penn Station is Pennsylvania Station: the demolition of Madison Square Garden and the rebuilding of McKim, Mead & White’s lost masterpiece over the extant tracks. Daniel Patrick Moynihan felt that loss deeply and dedicated his final years to finding it. By looking to the past, his new train hall should now inspire others not to make the same mistakes of fifty years ago all over again.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 6, on page 46
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