How does the proposal to rebuild Penn Station relate to the plan to convert the Farley Post Office into a new train hall called Moynihan Station?
In August 2017, groundbreaking took place for a new train hall being built in the Farley Post Office building, which sits on the west side of 8th Avenue across the street from Penn Station. The hall, to be called Moynihan Station, will house Amtrak, a single Long Island Railroad concourse, retail stores, and office space. In his January 2018 State of the State address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo correctly said that the construction of Moynihan Station was insufficient to solve the fundamental problems at Penn Station—and he called for an overhaul of the depot.
In the wake of the recent terrorist attack in the city, the Governor emphasized the urgent need for better security in Penn Station. He also cited its terrible aesthetics, saying, “the architecture and configuration of Penn is substandard. I call it the seven levels of catacombs. They don’t like when I say that, but it’s true.” By contrast, the Governor previously said that the original station by McKim, Mead & White had “majesty” and was “the grand and triumphant entrance that New York deserved.”
The Governor could have also mentioned that Moynihan Station is also insufficient to solve the fundamental problems at Penn Station since only 20% of Penn commuters will use it. In particular, New Jersey Transit riders will barely benefit at all.
What happens to Two Penn Plaza?
Ideally, Two Penn Plaza, an aging mid-century high-rise that sits on the east side of the station, would come down. Its owners, Vornado Realty Trust, would be compensated with air rights or by some other means. If Two Penn Plaza does stay in place, there is ample space around it on which to build the exterior of the station. Thus, the Seventh Avenue portico would be rebuilt as it was. At the same time, Two Penn Plaza would be re-clad with stone to make it architecturally harmonious with the classical station.
Can the historic design handle today’s transportation needs?
Train stations still in use that were built around the same time as the original Penn Station have proven to be especially adept at meeting modern transit needs. Grand Central Terminal (the second leading tourist destination in New York City), Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, and Denver’s Union Station, among many others, demonstrate the continuing transportation, architectural, cultural, and urban planning benefits of such stations.
Just as those stations have been updated over time, so too will a rebuilt Penn Station be updated and improved for today’s needs. Among other things, wider track platforms will improve vertical circulation, while the 31st and 33rd Street taxi lanes will be converted into outdoor arcades that will increase the original design’s porosity to the street.
Why should we copy an old design? Shouldn’t we be build something new for our time?
The original Penn Station was built not just for its time, but for all time. Like other great works of art such as Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, it was a masterpiece of its kind that cannot be surpassed. There is widespread agreement that demolishing the station was an enormous blunder. Rebuilding it will right a historic wrong, connect us to the best of our past, and provide millions of visitors and travelers with magnificent architectural experience for generations to come.
Is it really possible to reconstruct a design from over 100 years ago? Can we reproduce the craftmanship?
As recent precedent in Europe shows, reconstruction of monumental historic buildings is quite feasible. The bombed-out 18th-century Frauenkirche church in Dresden was rebuilt in the 1990s, as was the 19th-century Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which was torn down by Stalin. Both reconstructions have been great successes with the public.
Where is the urgency in building a new station?
Penn Station is an infrastructure disaster, as well as a cultural disaster. It is more crowded than ever, with projected ridership to increase still further in the coming years. Every day the present station exists is another day of misery for hundreds of thousands of commuters. It is imperative that we improve both passenger circulation and air circulation—not just as essential modern amenities but also for fire safety and public security reasons. We simply cannot afford to delay building the new station New York City, the tri-state region, and the nation deserve.
What happens to Madison Square Garden, the arena that currently sits on top of the station?
Madison Square Garden, which has moved three times in its history, will need to be relocated. This is in its owners’ best interests since the aging arena, whose special zoning permit ends in 2023, would greatly benefit from a new, state-of-the-art structure. The Garden is the oldest arena in the NHL and the second-oldest arena in the NBA. The design suffers from numerous problems, including a lack of premium seating, difficulty loading and unloading trucks, and an arena floor that is five stories above ground. Most importantly, a new arena will provide an improved fan experience.
Unless the Garden moves, any new Penn Station will be necessarily cramped with little air and natural light. It will also be inefficient and dangerous since the arena’s numerous support columns interfere with passenger circulation. For these reasons, there is a growing consensus that the Garden must move—a position supported by The New York Times, Regional Plan Association, and Municipal Art Society, among others. There are a number of proposals for a new location, including the new Port Authority Bus Terminal in West Midtown, and the Morgan Post Office Annex (located between 9th and 10th Avenues, and 28th and 30th Streets).
Won’t rebuilding the station be exorbitantly expensive? With so many other pressing problems in the region and country, isn’t it irresponsible to build such an opulent station?
Rebuilding the station will cost an estimated $3 billion to $3.5 billion. This is a small price to pay given that more people pass through the station daily than LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark Airports combined. Its daily traffic equals the population of Boston. Consider that the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, home to the Oculus, cost $4 billion even though it serves just 50,000 PATH train passengers a day.
Given its overwhelming attractiveness as a place to use and visit, the rebuilt station will pay for itself through the dramatic positive economic impact it will have on the neighborhood, city, and tri-state area. It will be a catalyst for economic development, and will make the region a more desirable place to live, work, and travel to.
But the issue is about more than economics. As the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in 1963 about the destruction of the station, “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture.” Instead, of a cheap, tin-horn fix, rebuilding Penn Station will result in a cherished, priceless design. It will show our society does not suffer from a poverty of ideals.
It is also important to note that construction technology has also become far more efficient since the construction of McKim’s station. For instance, the columns in the rebuilt station will be cut by CNC (computer numerical control) machines before being hand-finished. Also, modern panelization technology will allow the station to be built with just one-fifth of the original stone. This technique was used to recreate the classical architectural features at 90 West Street after the September 11 attacks. 3D printing, currently being used in London’s Crossrail project, would also be used to bring the cost of the station down.
Didn’t the original Penn Station present an imperial architecture that will not resonate with the diversity of America today?
The design of the original Penn Station was inspired by the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla, which were not for the exclusive use of the emperor but were a public space open to all. The design of McKim’s station was no less democratic than the design of the U.S. Capitol, Jefferson Memorial, and New York Public Library, all of which were also inspired by Roman models.
Classical architecture is arguably the architecture most associated with American democracy, just as the classical Statue of Liberty is the work of art most associated with New York City and the immigrant experience. The statue, beloved by all Americans, represents the Roman goddess Libertas. The original Penn Station has been celebrated by authors and poets of diverse backgrounds. For instance, in his ode to the station, Langston Hughes wrote:
The Pennsylvania Station in New York
Is like some vast basilica of old
That towers above the terror of the dark
As bulwark and protection to the soul.
McKim’s station was the people’s station, and it will be again.