A New Penn Station May Be Coming.
I have only a dim memory of the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City. It was probably sometime around 1950 over Spring break and we were on the way to visit my grandparents on Captiva Island in Florida. We started in Hartford with a three-hour train ride on the New Haven Railroad into New York City. That train took us to Grand Central Terminal where we caught a taxi for the short cross town ride to Penn Station. From there, it was overnight in a sleeping car on the Seaboard railroad to Fort Myers. Dinner in the dining car and crawling into an upper berth was a grand adventure. And I remember waking up the next morning and seeing palm trees flashing by. But I digress . . .
Both Grand Central and Penn Station were magnificent edifices. Grand Central still is, although these days it only serves commuter trains and most of the vast interior has been ceded to high-end shops and restaurants. Pennsylvania Station (photo above) was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad and first opened for business in 1910. It was a masterpiece of Beaux Arts architecture, inside and out. But “the Pennsy” fell on hard times and the railroad sold the air rights above the station in 1963. All the underground platforms and tracks were retained, but everything magnificent was demolished and replaced with the “new” Madison Square Garden sports arena (which is apparently destined to be torn down soon) and a high-rise office building.
Today, more than a dozen of Amtrak’s daily long-distance trains originate at Penn Station along with the Northeast Regionals and the Acela high-speed trains. In addition, it serves commuter trains operated by the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit. It’s a very busy station … and it’s dark and dank and crowded and oppressive. Penn Station is, in a word, a disgrace.
I mention this today because the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has just announced plans for a new Penn station on that same site. Let’s hope it turns out to be both a building evocative of a time when transportation was civilized and a belated but worthy replacement of the original Penn Station. I have my doubts, however. We don’t seem to build magnificent things any more. Why is that?
Here are highlights of the plan:
Empire State Development, Amtrak, MTA and LIRR will form a joint entity to redo Penn Station.
The James A. Farley Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue to be redone as a train hall with shops, restaurants, new elevators and escalators and an energy-efficient design.
An underground concourse will link the two complexes.
Closing 33rd Street and using skylights to bring natural light below.
Creating new access points, such as a grand entrance at Seventh Avenue.
Recapturing the original feel of Penn by condemning the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
I’m not entirely with you, there. I like the magnificent station buildings from the past (and the present, like Lisbon’s Oriente Station), but I can see a more sober building doing just as well the trick. Too much fancy stuff only eats away on maintenance, like our grand Liège-Guillemins station in Belgium, a wonderful 21st century marvel with a magnificent trainshed in glass, steal and white concrete, which is collecting dust since about the time it was finished, in 2009, because you need a specialised company to clean the canopy…
A good train station to me is flexible, well maintained, light and functional, if it’s flashy and an attraction on it’s own, than that’s a welcome extra, but no necessity.