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Penn Station, Reborn?

from the magazine

Penn Station, Reborn?

A visionary plan to restore the transit hub to its former glory as part of West Side redevelopment Summer 2016
New York
Infrastructure and energy

It was the vast waiting room, modeled on the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, that inspired novelist Thomas Wolfe’s evocation of the majestic railway station during the 1930s: “Men came and went, they passed and vanished. . . . [A]ll made small tickings in the sound of time—but the voice of time remained aloof and unperturbed, a drowsy and eternal murmur below the immense and distant roof.”

All too soon, the clangor of jackhammers and steam shovels would obliterate that murmur. In 1961, a mere half-century after Charles Follen McKim’s Pennsylvania Station opened, the once-mighty but now financially moribund Pennsylvania Railroad cut a deal with a private developer that led to its demolition, completed five years later.

The result was the worst trade-off in American architectural history, one that would make historic preservation a popular cause. The grandeur of the old station’s interior—never entirely effaced by the postwar invasion of advertising signage and displays of the latest-model automobiles, not to mention the crazy space-age ticket counter that somehow landed in the waiting room—was supplanted by a glassy office-tower slab, 2 Penn Plaza, and the cylindrical pile of Madison Square Garden. Each weekday, 650,000 people make their way through the entrails of this dystopian complex—“mashed,” just as Progressive Architecture magazine forewarned after the destruction of McKim’s station got under way, “into subterranean passageways like ancient Christians.”

The underground maze that is Penn Station is the busiest transportation facility in the country, swarmed by Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit commuters, subway riders, and Amtrak passengers. “Frankly, it’s a miserable experience, a terrible impression of New York,” Governor Andrew M. Cuomo declared recently. The surrounding neighborhood doesn’t look so hot, either.

But change is coming. Manhattan’s Far West Side is now undergoing an epochal transformation. The high-rise, mixed-use Hudson Yards and Manhattan West projects under way west of Penn Station far surpass Rockefeller Center in terms of acreage and quantity of planned construction. To the south, the High Line park, threading its way along a defunct elevated railway, has intensified a high-end construction and renovation boom in neighborhoods once filled with warehouses and meatpacking plants, longshoremen and factory workers. Sooner rather than later, redevelopment will transform Penn Station’s surroundings. The overcrowded station, which will need to accommodate an ongoing increase in passenger traffic in the years ahead, will change, too. But how?

In January, Cuomo, intent on leaving a statewide legacy of infrastructure improvements, unveiled a three-year, $3 billion plan for an Empire Station Complex featuring “significant passenger improvements, including first-class amenities, natural light, increased train capacity and decreased congestion, and improved signage to dramatically enhance the travel experience.”

The end product would be a renovated but still subterranean Penn Station, along with a reconfigured James A. Farley Post Office Building and Annex immediately to the west. Still home to a spacious, dignified, somewhat down-at-the-heels postal retail lobby at one end, this otherwise dormant, low-rise classical behemoth—also designed by McKim’s legendary firm, McKim, Mead and White—is now owned by the Empire State Development Corporation. In line with a plan dating back to the 1990s, Cuomo wants to insert a glass-canopied train hall about the size of Grand Central Terminal’s Main Concourse inside Farley. To be named the Moynihan Train Hall, in honor of longtime New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, it would be luxuriantly ringed by retail.

April 22 was the deadline for developers to submit proposals for carrying out Cuomo’s plan in exchange for the opportunity to profit from the complex’s upgraded retail component in addition to the development of 640,000 square feet elsewhere within Farley for commercial uses. Selection of a development team has yet to be announced.

Cuomo’s plan amounts to a quick fix that would yield what the late urbanist Henry Hope Reed would call a raisin cake with the raisins in one place and the cake in another. Penn Station, after all, would retain the bulk of the Empire Station Complex’s functions. There seems to be more glass and retail glitz in this scenario than civic vision and sound planning. It’s doubtful that Cuomo’s proposed improvements will yield the “iconic,” user-friendly station that he has in mind.

True, it was Senator Moynihan who originally advocated converting Farley into an Amtrak station, partly as an act of atonement for the destruction of McKim’s masterwork. What a pity he didn’t live to see Brooklyn architect Richard Cameron’s proposal to reconstruct the original Pennsylvania Station. A “new-old” Pennsylvania Station would be much more than an appropriately magnificent, internationally renowned gateway to New York. Its waiting room would be the new civic heart of an urban domain extending west to Hudson Yards, east to Herald Square and the Empire State Building, north to Times Square, and south to booming Chelsea. While the station would serve as a civic and formal counterpoint to the new wave of hypermodernist architecture in its vicinity, much of it would pulse with the commercial life of the city.

Main entrance, 1930 (COLLECTION OF THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY, USA / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES (2))

Early in the last century, the Pennsylvania Railroad eliminated the inconvenience of ferries for passengers headed to and from Gotham by running a tunnel with two single-track tubes—now in deteriorated condition and bearing a burden of up to 24 trains per hour—through the Hudson’s soft, silty riverbed. McKim’s station crowned this technological triumph, which also involved tunneling under Manhattan and the East River to provide, for the first time, an uninterrupted rail connection between New Jersey and Queens. Built on eight acres between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 31st and 33rd Streets, the station combined modern structural engineering with the artistic wisdom of the ages. Innovative in its provision of separate circulation routes for incoming and outgoing passengers as well as baggage, the station, like the tunnel, was made possible by the new technology of rail electrification, which eliminated blinding effusions of steam.

In his history of the Port of New York, architecture historian Carl Condit declared Pennsylvania Station the “greatest of all creations of the American building art.” A classical mantle of granite enveloped a steel frame that avoided obstruction of the station’s 21 underground tracks. The exterior’s sober, monumental treatment was inspired by Bernini’s colonnades in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome and the main façade of John Soane’s Bank of England. Largely clad in travertine, the breathtaking waiting room was 300 feet long and 110 feet wide—larger than the nave of Saint Peter’s and “vast enough to hold the sound of time.” Light flooded in from eight lofty, semicircular windows. Handsome painted maps of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s domains adorned the upper walls. Coffered groin vaults, springing from huge Corinthian columns, rose as high as 150 feet. The waiting room rivaled the rotunda of the United States Capitol as the nation’s greatest civic interior, and it easily held its own against Grand Central’s smaller, superb main concourse, which opened a few years after Pennsylvania Station.

People entering McKim’s edifice through its principal Seventh Avenue portal proceeded along an elegant shopping and dining arcade inspired by the grand gallerias in Milan and Naples, walked down a magnificent staircase to the waiting room, with its information desk and ticket booths, and then continued on to the strikingly modern concourse. The concourse’s varied array of steel-and-glass vaults was a far cry from the conventional barrel-vaulted glass train shed of the day. From the concourse, passengers descended to the train platforms, sunk well below ground to accommodate the railway tunnels. The platforms were spatially enhanced and dramatically sky-lit, thanks to generous cutaways for stairs—eventually covered over—in the concourse floor as well as its translucent glass-block construction.

Instead of this processional experience of a powerful sequence of spaces, which the French call la marche, the public now experiences a sense of disjointedness and disorientation on Penn Station’s two subterranean levels that is hardly attributable to a lack of directional signage. Ticket lobbies, concourses, and waiting areas are undistinguished and jammed with people at rush hour. Commuters are subjected to low-ceilinged, claustrophobic circulation routes resembling basement corridors in a Kafkaesque hospital. Amtrak’s oval entrance lobby, glass-encased waiting room, and amorphous concourse, with its dull, grayish palette and dreary lighting, are remarkable only for their dinginess. Cuomo is certainly right to regard the Penn Station catacombs as a disgrace.

Farley, which itself covers two full city blocks between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, was built over the railway tracks, too. The governor wants to locate Amtrak and a portion of the LIRR’s facilities there. (Though it owns Penn Station, Amtrak accounts for only about 5 percent of its traffic.) Aside from the train hall, Cuomo’s Empire Station Complex plan includes options like glassy new corner and mid-block entrances for the existing facility as well as a long, glassy façade and cavernous sunken lobby along Eighth Avenue, which would require demolition of the 5,600-seat theater fronting the Garden. Thirty-third Street could be closed to vehicular traffic and glassed over to top-light the way for passengers traveling underground between Penn Station and the train hall. While upgrading pedestrian routes within Penn Station itself is a key objective, it’s uncertain how much circulation can be opened up, given the multitude of structural columns supporting the Garden and 2 Penn Plaza.

The Garden, where Cuomo presented his plan, would stay where it is. But in 2013, New York’s city council voted 47–1 to extend the Garden’s operating permit for just a decade. The message to Madison Square Garden Company executive chairman James L. Dolan, who had sought an extension in perpetuity, was explicit: you need to build a new Garden elsewhere to make way for a new Penn Station. By the time of the city council vote, Dolan was wrapping up a $950 million interior renovation. But he has had a good ride at the Garden, where events attract 4 million people annually. Thanks to friends in Albany, the Dolan family hasn’t paid a dime in real-estate taxes on the property over the two decades it has owned it.

The Garden really does need to move—and building the new one within Farley’s capacious masonry envelope is an attractive option—because Penn Station needs to expand vertically to be a station worthy of New York City. Reconstruction of McKim’s station is the best way for that to happen. It is far from certain that a new annex across 31st Street from the existing station will be needed to handle additional rail traffic from a new Hudson railway tunnel, as Amtrak contends. To be constructed over the next two decades, the new tunnel is the centerpiece of Amtrak’s big-ticket Gateway Program, which includes construction of this Penn South annex to accommodate seven new underground tracks.

The old Hudson train tunnel was already showing its age when Superstorm Sandy flooded it with saltwater in 2012. The resulting damage from corrosive sulfides and chlorides to the tunnel’s concrete and electrical systems is ongoing, according to Amtrak. If even one of its two tubes had to be shut down for extended repair, the impact on commuters would be severe. The tunnel needs to be rebuilt, but that can’t happen without the new tunnel. Gateway is the largest infrastructure program in the country, and no firm estimate of its cost exists, though it could exceed $20 billion. How the new tunnel will be paid for has not been worked out, either, but it almost certainly will come down to a combination of federal and state funds and riders’ fees. The near certainty of a New Yorker being elected president in November makes it a good bet that it will be funded.

A decision to rebuild McKim’s station makes excellent sense on its own terms, but it also would provide the visionary, symbolic impetus that Gateway needs. Like Dresden’s glorious Frauenkirche, the faithful reconstruction of which was completed 60 years after the building’s destruction by Allied bombs, the old Penn Station was not architecture “of its time” but architecture for all time. Cameron puts the cost of rebuilding it at $2.5 billion. Demolition of 2 Penn Plaza as well as the Garden could move the price tag up to $3 billion. But thanks to Hudson Yards and the High Line, property values in this neighborhood have risen dramatically. Even under existing zoning, the station’s reconstruction would yield millions of square feet of transferable air rights that would make a big dent in that price tag. Assuming that the Penn South annex won’t happen and that the largely run-down block earmarked for it will thus escape demolition en masse, it’s still not hard to spot sites in the existing station’s immediate vicinity where those air rights could be exploited, though rezoning would be necessary. Moreover, reconstruction of McKim’s low-rise station would provide welcome relief from the wave of high-rise construction in the neighborhood.

The foundations and train platforms of the old station are in place, and an enormous trove of drawings for the original station—plans, sections, elevations, exterior and interior details, even shop drawings—is archived along with construction specifications at the New-York Historical Society. Apart from McKim’s august façades, entrance arcade, waiting room, and concourse, the new-old station would not be a replication. Secondary spaces and circulation patterns would be reconfigured. In a proposed amendment to the Gateway Program, urban planner Jim Venturi would both reduce the number of existing Pennsylvania Station platforms and widen them by making Penn a through-station rather than a logjammed terminal for NJT and LIRR trains—which would continue on to new final destinations in the Bronx and at Secaucus, New Jersey, respectively. Venturi’s plan eliminates the need for the costly Penn South annex and its seven new tracks. And extending the widened platforms under Farley, as Venturi proposes, would be a boon to a relocated Garden. It would be as if the old station had undergone a natural process of adaptation to changing circumstances over time—and not just to accommodate new mechanical systems and the Americans with Disabilities Act while making it as easy as possible for passengers to get to their trains. The new-old station would be a place to hang out instead of just passing through, a place where you might find a yoga studio, art gallery, or wine bar as well as a Starbucks, newsstand, or pizza joint. The result would be a stupendous public resort like Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, with a major transportation component built in.

McKim’s gently sloped, cavernous internal driveways along 31st and 33rd Streets, punctuated by pedestrian bridges into the waiting room, were superb open-air spaces, though pairs of columns at the entrances made automobile access a bit tricky. Cameron thinks that it would be impractical to retain them as driveways in the rebuilt station. Could their monumental articulation and scale be retained in repurposing them for commerce? Similarly, a pair of spacious, sky-lit underground courts, originally used as baggage stations, would hold intriguing commercial potential. An international food court would be one possibility.

The old Pennsylvania Station’s reconstruction, then, could be the crown jewel of an immensely challenging transportation and urban redevelopment agenda involving a new Hudson rail tunnel—and a new Madison Square Garden. Rebuilding McKim’s station starts with a political decision, not a business decision. Its reconstruction would reflect a political consensus that New York City has a vital, long-term cultural as well as economic interest in recovering this masterpiece and that the public sector has an important but subordinate role to play—for instance, in facilitating the Garden’s move with some kind of incentives package. This cannot be a replay of the taxpayer-funded $3.9 billion blowout that yielded the notorious white elephant—OK, white stegosaurus—of the new World Trade Center transit hub, a facility of small importance compared with Penn Station.

Time-consuming environmental-impact reviews for the Moynihan train hall are complete; after a development team has been selected, Cuomo can be expected to push his quick fix aggressively. He will encounter plenty of opposition because his plan is unworthy of America’s greatest city.

What’s missing is vision among movers and shakers in New York, Albany, and Washington—starting with key Gateway proponent Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and key stakeholder Vornado Realty Trust, whose portfolio includes 2 Penn Plaza, the 1,700-room Pennsylvania Hotel across Seventh Avenue (another McKim, Mead and White landmark), and the enormous 1 Penn Plaza skyscraper across 33rd Street. Let’s hope that that changes during the seven years remaining on Dolan’s operating permit, with Cameron’s proposal culminating in a newly great Pennsylvania Station.

Top Photo: A smashed decorative statue from the original Pennsylvania Station’s façade in a Secaucus, New Jersey, junkyard (EDDIE HAUSNER/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX)

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