On a train ride to Maine two weekends ago, my girlfriend, Susan, and I thought a lot about Penn Station, the once grand station whose destruction ranks alongside the building of the Cross Bronx and Gowanus Expressways as one of the worst urban planning misfortunes to befall New York City during the 20th century. But the expressways at least serve a purpose: They allow motorists to drive through the city with greater ease than existed before. In hindsight, the demolition of Penn Station in 1963 seems to have happened for no good reason. To lament the loss of Penn Station is a cliche of the first order. Every New Yorker who thinks about it mourns the loss of the old station at some point, and I will do it now.
Susan and I always seem to find ourselves in Penn Station, and for good reason. Due to the fortunate east-west alignment of the tracks underneath it, Penn Station today remains far and away the busiest train station in the United States. The Long Island Rail Road is the busiest passenger railroad in the country, and Penn Station is its busiest station — and the LIRR is just one of three of the nation’s leading railroad to use the station. It is also Amtrak’s busiest station, and New Jersey Transit’s, especially now that NJT has added Midtown Direct service and the Secaucus Junction station. The busiest station ought to be the greatest. In fact, it’s the worst. “A pit,” in the words of Maura Moynihan, an advocate for a new Penn Station. “A disgrace. The worst we could possibly have.” Hoboken and Cincinnati have better train stations, not to mention Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.
So given the enormous use of this particular spot in the world, why was Penn Station torn down? What were they thinking? The question returned to us again and again as we rode to Boston.
What were they thinking?
Did they seriously think that it was possible to run a city the size and density of New York without trains? Were they so certain, in those heady days of cheap, domestic oil, that the automobile and the airplane were going to make trains obsolete? Did they look at that building and see something that seemed to be a vestiage of the past? Did they look at it and think it was ugly? Surely many can answer these question better than I can. So if you can lend insight into this, please leave a note in the comments.
Penn Station was torn down 12 years before I was born, and 16 years before Susan was born. We simply cannot understand the mindset that led to the station’s destruction. But that train ride and the discussion of the old station led us to be grateful that there is a serious effort to restore a dignified and grand Penn Station. One has to marvel at the good luck we have that the Farley Post Office (seen above, getting a facelift in October), the gorgeous classical building designed by the same architects and built at nearly the same time, is just a block away from the old (and present) station, and served by the same underground platforms.
We have here in New York, the rarest of opportunities: A second chance. The construction of the new station will, in the words of Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for the New Yorker, who spoke at a forum on this subject Wednesday evening, “not literally correct” the demolition of the station, “but compensate for it, and at least engage in a noble act of public repentance for it.”
|Peter Stangl holds up renderings of the new Penn Station as Alex Washburn and Kent L. Barwick discuss them.|
The purpose of the Penn Station forum, held at the Municipal Art Society, was to raise awareness of the project’s status. In order to move forward, all projects, it was noted, need stars to be aligned in three categories: Politics, finance and design. In terms of politics, this project is a winner unlike any other in recent memory. Unlike just about every other project to be built in the city now or in the memorable past, there is no public opposition to it. Finance is also farily solid. The great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan worked for 15 years to secure many millions of federal dollars on this project, and, while that money could be yanked away during these dark days of budget deficits in Washington, it is there for the time being. A modest amount of additional private or City financing needs to be found, said Ms. Moynihan, the late senator’s daughter, and who is leading the movement to create the new Penn Station. This leads to design issues, which consumed most of last night’s talk. In particular, the question now is how to incorporate the public space with the retail and do justice to the original station. Without going into detail, I’ll just say that there are some issues that remain to be resolved. But the design is in the hands of Vornado Realty Trust and the Related Companies, who are working to develop the station and create retail space that is profitable for the future tenants while not in any way diminishing the station’s central civic space.
The next meeting of the Friends of Moynihan Station will take place at 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 22 at the Regional Plan Association. Anyone who can’t attend the meeting should support the group’s efforts in other ways.