TCS Daily

Penn Station: Back To the Future

By Edward B. Driscoll - September 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Since 1968, Penn Station, one of New York City's two main railroad stations, has been widely hated by commuters for its dank atmosphere and minimalist accommodations.

It's also hated because of what it replaced: from 1910 until 1963, the station that originally stood there was one of the great passenger stations of the world. That is, until it was leveled by the Pennsylvania Railroad to sell its air rights to develop its stillborn modern, largely underground successor, and the current Madison Square Garden.

But in a case of synchronicity that would have made Carl Jung blush, there's a remarkably elegant solution in sight. Sometime early in the next decade, Moynihan Station (named after the deceased longtime New York senator who championed the idea) will open, directly across the street from Penn Station. The new station will use as its exterior the James A. Farley Post Office Building built in 1910, the same time as the original Penn Station, by the same architects, as a mirror building in the same neoclassical style, but with all new facilities inside, also inspired by the original station.

Market Forces And Overregulation Demolished Original Penn Station

Needless to say, when complete, Moynihan Station will be a welcome change for commuters, used to beginning and ending their workdays in the city at the current Penn Station. But what caused its elegant original version to be leveled in 1963?

By the early 1960s, the virtually simultaneous building of the interstate highway system and the development of jet passenger aircraft seemed like doom for the railroad industry. Both greatly reduced the number of passengers transported by rail, but also, much of the freight that had once moved in boxcars, which was now being shipped via tractor-trailers on interstate highways. "There was very much a sense back then", "that the railroad was obsolete as the horse-drawn carriage was in the 1930s or 1940s", Matt Van Hattem, an associate editor of Trains magazine recently told me. "I think that there were some people who thought that the railroads would simply go away; there didn't seem to be much use for them back then".

The exception was short-haul commuter trains coming in and out of major metropolitan areas, such as New York City. They weren't going away anytime soon -- and their passengers would have to disembark somewhere. "I think that the Pennsylvania Railroad at the time thought that some subterranean building would be just as suited to that purpose as anything else", Van Hattem says.

At the time, the PRR was hurting for cash, and looking for a suitor -- it eventually merged in 1968 with its longtime archrival, the New York Central, in a disastrous shotgun marriage that would eventually be bailed out by the federal government's creation of Conrail in 1976. But even prior to its merger, forced by government regulations (which wouldn't be eased until the Staggers Act of 1980) to maintain unprofitable lines, as well as its passenger trains, the PRR was hemorrhaging money. At some point in the mid-1950s, its management realized that they owned an enormous building with the most desirable air rights on the planet -- and began looking for a buyer who would exploit its space.

In the early 1960s, the Graham-Page Corporation announced their plans to build a new version of Madison Square Garden where Penn Station then stood. Ignoring protestors (picketing in suits and ties -- this was the early sixties, after all), the wrecking ball first struck on October 28, 1963, and would take three more years to demolish the station, while leaving the tracks underneath available to commuters.

The current subterranean Penn Station, and Madison Square Garden sports arena, with a 29-story office building on top of it, was built in its place, opening in 1968. Penn Central, the PRR's successor, would get out of the passenger business entirely in 1971, when Amtrak was formed by the federal government, to take long-haul passenger trains off the hands of the nation's railroads. Meanwhile, government-run entities such as New Jersey Transit and New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority took over commuter trains from Penn Central -- and also into the hands of taxpayers.

Loathed From The Start

Right from the start, the current Penn Station was loathed by the public -- and for good reason. As James Lileks recently wrote, "I hate Penn Station. I'd like to go back in time, drag the architects into the present, and ask them: what, you thought we would all be wearing George Jetson jumpsuits, queuing patiently for the Atomic Express? The reality is a waiting room with insufficient signage, a great hall that isn't, and a Hudson News thronged with balding guys, ties askew, furtively paging through battered porn mags."

This version of Penn Station represents the nadir of modern architecture. New York modernism was capable of great sophistication, as Mies van der Rohe's iconic Seagram Building of 1958 demonstrated, as did the earlier Lever Brothers building across the street. But as the late Philip Johnson, who assisted Mies on Seagram has noted, too often the austerity of modernism was frequently an excuse for architecture on the cheap.

The Original -- And Still Best

Architecture on the cheap was the antithesis of the original Penn Station, designed in neoclassical style at the turn of the 20th century by McKim, Mead and White. Modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in ancient Rome, Van Hattem describes some of the sense commuters must have felt wandering through it. Penn Station "was two city blocks north and south between 31st and 33rd street, occupying the entire block between Seventh and Eighth Avenue. It's tough to conceive how huge it must have seemed, walking into that giant concourse, especially with those rounded, soaring glass skylights".

While many daily commuters probably eventually took it for granted, for someone arriving from far away, it made arrival in midtown Manhattan an event. "I can only imagine what it must have been like to climb up one of those stairs from one of those platforms in the old building, and just walk into this space", Van Hattem says, "where the light was probably shifting constantly, and people were moving back and forth, but you probably didn't feel crowded, despite the number of people, given the vastness of that interior space", which can be recaptured in several movies including Hitchcock's Spellbound. "Versus now, where the station is just something to get through. It's not a place to languor, it's not a place to appreciate; it's the worst of an airport and a ferry terminal, combined. You're just there to move through it as quickly as possible."

Back To The Future

Van Hattem is confident that Moynihan Station will recapture some of the original Penn Station's glory. "They're definitely trying to play off what was there with the interior, especially with the skylights, and from what I've seen about how they want to allow natural light to come filtering down through various levels of the station. That was one of the architectural hallmarks of the old station, and it looks like, in these new plans, there are definitely some efforts to replicate that there, and I think that's really cool."

What makes the project conceivable is that both buildings share common railroad tracks in their basements. There are 11 platforms and 21 tracks in the current Penn Station. Most of those platforms jut further west than the skeleton of the subterranean Penn Station. "If you're standing at end of some of the very long platforms in Penn Station, you're actually under the post office", Van Hattem notes. For much of the twentieth century, the US postal service and the nation's railroads shared a symbiotic relationship, and to this day, Amtrak moves a fair amount of mail via specially constructed boxcars on the ends of many of their passenger trains.

"I think what's going to be the challenge is getting concourses in, escalators down to that area, because that's at the very far end of a lot of the platforms. So that stuff all has to be installed" into what is currently the post office, Van Hattem says.

Current Penn Station Sadly Not Going Away

James Lileks asked rhetorically in his "Bleat", "What to do with Penn Station after the new one's done? "Roll up the concrete trucks, boys. Lower the chutes. Open the sluice gates. Fill it in."

Sad to say, that's probably not going to happen. Currently, plans call for New Jersey Transit to be Moynihan Station's primary tenant, but not Amtrak.

When the concept was first proposed in the mid-1990s, it was logically assumed that the federal government's passenger railroad would become one of the station's chief tenants. But New York City demanded that Amtrak pay rent if they were to use the facilities. As Van Hattem puts it, Amtrak responded by telling the city, "We own the current Penn Station, we're strapped for cash, there's no possible way we can move into this new structure and start paying you rent, when our budgets are getting slashed left and right, and our funds from the federal government are shrinking."

If that's what ultimately happens, the result will be a seemingly perverse situation, where short haul commuter lines will have infinitely classier facilities than Amtrak, which specializes in longer distances -- and (usually) faster trains.

But ironically, that's nothing new for Amtrak. As a result of Penn Station's demolition in 1963, the city's Landmarks Commission was formed, saving (amongst many other buildings) Grand Central Station, another great movie locale, which serves New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- but not Amtrak.

Between Amtrak and state-run commuter lines such as New Jersey Transit, passenger railroading is now almost solely a taxpayer-funded enterprise, a far cry from the glory days of the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose business health (and the health of long-haul passenger railroading in general) were reflected in the two Penn Stations: the original, pre-World War I station, Roman in its inspiration and completed grandeur, and the 1968 incarnation, dank, drab and entirely uninviting. Arguably, its inhospitable architecture foreshadowed life in general for Manhattan in the 1970s, the city's most brutal recent decade.

If taxpayers are going to continue to fund commuter trains into New York City, at least Moynihan Station will give them someplace, like it's earlier predecessor, worth arriving at -- a station that might almost be a worthy entry into the greatest city on earth.


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