The destruction of McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 was a crime not just against a beloved piece of architecture, but against the idea of the city itself. Described by author Lorraine B. Diehl as “one of those rare architectural masterpieces that are able to touch man’s soul,” the luminous, heroically scaled Beaux-Arts building—inspired by Rome’s sprawling baths of Caracalla and the great train halls of Europe—didn’t just serve as a stirring gateway to the city and an anchor of bustling Midtown. It was a monument to the civic spirit. Yet somehow it was discarded in favor of the epically mundane Madison Square Garden complex after barely 50 years.
Walking into Moynihan Train Hall—the new extension to Penn Station located inside McKim’s Beaux-Arts James A. Farley Post Office, right across Eighth Avenue—feels, after all this time, as though urbanity itself, in a neighborhood that more than any in Manhattan could be considered a failure, is once again being exalted. Like an outrageous wrong is finally, to some extent, being righted. The feeling is even more acute given that we find ourselves, once again, in a time when people are questioning the viability of the city.
Overseen by Empire State Development and designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (a firm that in many ways, including its name, is a sort of successor to the prolific McKim, Mead & White), what Moynihan Hall does, like the best of spaces and cities, is lift your eyes, and your spirits. It brings a sense of awe to urban life. It’s a space that I, for one, am excited to go back to.
When you walk into Moynihan’s main hall—now the chief point of entry for AMTRAK and some Long Island Railroad trains—your attention is drawn immediately to its fluidly vaulted catenary skylights; parametrically sculpted blasts of the future, connected to the timeless appeal of the sun and sky, not to mention the memory of the former station’s arched, gridded-glass concourse. All of this lightness is grounded in the city’s muscular fabric by Farley’s newly exposed girded steel trusses, spanning majestically across the interior; by steel columns, both weighty and graceful, recalling the lofty, latticed supports for Penn’s ceilings; and by the velvety, glowing Tennessee marble flooring, another echo of McKim’s masterpiece.
McKim’s cavernous station, its frontages graced with towering Doric columns, was once elegantly enlivened with coffered vaults, classical stone gods, goddesses ,and eagles (most now entombed under New Jersey’s Meadowlands), 60-foot-tall wall maps, and on and on. Moynihan similarly employs art to layer on coats of meaning. It’s elegantly integrated into the building: There’s a graceful, stripped down grey clock by architect Peter Pennoyer, suspended from the ceiling, its fluted edges channeling all the East Coast’s Beaux Arts and Art Deco stations. Elmgreen & Dragset’s glowing, three-dimensional city skyline hangs improbably from the top of the south entryway. Colorful, genre-bending stained-glass murals by Kehinde Wiley—contemporary young people assuming the ethereal presence of classical gods— dominate the ceiling of the north. The Rockwell Group’s tightly curved wood benches (accompanied by transfixing photocollages of the old station by Stan Douglas) translate the old station’s seating into modern form. Moment Factory’s large-scale digital sign boards of the city deliver a sliding collage of the city, from Lower East Side tenements to the Brooklyn Bridge.
By this fall the new Moynihan will, like the original Penn, with its airy arcade full of shops and eateries, bring the hubbub of the city inside through an extensive food hall, filling out its western half. This corridor, employing yet another vaulted skylight, will connect to the SOM-planned Manhattan West Development, just to its west, and, by extension, to Hudson Yards, helping fuse a previously fractured, hardscrabble area, now rebranded the Penn District, that is, for better or worse, becoming the future of Midtown.
I never got to set foot inside the original Penn Station. But while I think Moynihan is an unmitigated triumph, I can’t imagine that it reaches that building’s breathtaking artistry. Whatever could? Like much of SOM’s work, it is (often to its credit) exceptionally practical, prioritizing efficiency over grandiosity. But it is perhaps a little too slick and straightforward; this firm is famously allergic to messiness and swagger. Due to the hall’s constrained site, still incorporating the front of the old post office (come on, USPS, couldn’t you just move the thing?) there is no immediate “wow” entryway, and the public waiting rooms, while surprisingly elegant, feel a little claustrophobic, particularly in our new virus-obsessed reality. The food hall’s skylight is a powerful touch, but that less-expansive space appears to lack the gravitas of the main hall. We’ll see when it opens, but so far this section feels more like a typical, formula-driven retail space. (Surveilled, ironically, by the employees of Facebook, who will eventually occupy the offices above.)
But the compilation is a gazillion times better than the disgrace across the street. What happens to that edifice, and the neighborhood around both Moynihan and Penn, is the true question mark in this urban narrative.
Already, SOM is working to gut and renovate Penn Station’s barrel-vaulted Long Island Railroad concourse, a dreary space that I used to traverse every day on my way to work at Two Penn Plaza. (Experiencing the opposite of inspiration.) They’re off to an excellent start with a new entry on 33rd Street and 7th Avenue, whose sleek, inverted glass canopy perfectly frames the Empire State Building. (Talk about glorifying the city!) But outside of that concourse, the rest of Penn Station is still in limbo. No plans have offered to remedy its cramped, soulless, tawdry expanses serving LIRR, New Jersey Transit, NYC subways, and more.
Also still up in the air is the Gateway Program, a series of measures that would, among other things, deliver new and updated tunnels under the Hudson River to expand tracks, improve problematic service, and help facilitate the creation of Penn South, an entire new facility below 31st Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues. The Trump administration, reportedly thumbing its nose at New York Senator Chuck Schumer, had put this plan’s funding on hold, and Governor Cuomo has recently signaled he might partially abandon it, so many in the city are now hoping President “Amtrak Joe” Biden could turn its luck around.
Funding for both undertakings could come, in part, from what might be the lynchpin of the neighborhood’s return: New York State and Vornado Realty’s Empire Station Complex, a proposed plan that would bring 10 new buildings (including office, retail, and hotel) to the vicinity around Penn and Moynihan, along with enhancements to transit, streetscapes, parks, walkways, and more. Yes, you heard right: 10 buildings. That’s larger even than Hudson Yards, potentially making it the biggest megadevelopment in the whole city. But this plan was proposed in a much flusher, less virus-plagued time, and its fate is now far from certain. It’s hard to see anything revolving primarily around commercial real estate being viable anymore. Plans like this need to be very flexible—welcoming new types of program and design— to adapt to an urban landscape that is changing rapidly every day. Whether this one can make that pivot remains to be seen.
So what comes next—if the political and financial stars align—is the neighborhood. Moynihan could set the tone, with an inspired, artful balance of history and modernity, civic and commercial. But so, too, could Hudson Yards, which favors insular commercial development (aka a giant mall) and corporate architecture (aka cold, glassy towers) to a more integrated urban experience. Or even the old Penn Station—which, for all its splendor and deserved love, was unable to adapt when railroads were usurped by the car as the nation’s transportation king.
The state’s proposal to connect a spur of the High Line to Moynihan is a good start toward further energizing this area, but only time (and a whole lot of money) will tell what follows. So we’re left to wonder if and how all these efforts could add to the city, and how they will adapt to our new, rapidly-morphing times. Moynihan, indeed, represents a kind of redemption. A triumph of civic nobility over ruthless corporate expedience. But it is just the first chapter of that story. It’s up to all of us to follow—and when possible to help shape—where it leads.
Featured image by Lucas Blair-Simpson, courtesy of SOM.