The Moynihan Train Hall–An Appraisal (Part I)

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Does the new Moynihan Train Hall design by Skidmore Owings & Merrill mitigate the vitriol that always seems to accompany any discussion of Penn Station? In the minds of many older New Yorkers—and in the writings of many architectural historians and architectural critics—the Penn Station that we know today is linked forever to the McKim, Mead and White Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station masterpiece that was demolished beginning in 1963. Many New Yorkers and visitors to the city know nothing of this history. All that we are left with is an historical “meme.” What was lost, though, was more than a magnificent building. It was the idea—attributed to Lewis Mumford and still important today—that a city’s railroad station should serve as “the point of attachment of the umbilical cord connecting the city to the region,” [1] a concept with its origins in the City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century. The Beaux-Arts style of classical architecture for which McKim, Mead and White are known became the language of the City Beautiful movement, and the “prototype” befitting it’s place in the City Beautiful movement was the railroad station. [2]

James A. Farley Post Office Building, East Elevation (Eighth Avenue)

Moynihan Train Hall, Entrance at Southwest Corner of Eighth Avenue and 31st Street

Bifurcated by Eighth Avenue, the expanded railroad complex is now comprised of Penn Station that sits below Madison Square Garden and serves Amtrak, NJ Transit and the Long Island Railroad, and the Moynihan Train Hall, carved out of the McKim, Mead and White General Post Office Building’s former mail sorting center  (today known as the James A. Farley Building) that serves additional Amtrak and Long Island Railroad platforms. A connecting pedestrian tunnel under Eighth Avenue links the two, and tracks run east-west for the full length of the complex. Both areas are accessible by New York City’s subway. Construction of the Moynihan Train Hall is the first step in a more than 25 year effort by New York State to transform this transportation hub to accommodate an increasing number of Amtrak and NJ Transit riders.

The lasting impact of the City Beautiful movement on American urban design stemmed from the idea that the street–and by extension, the public–is the catalyst for creating great urban spaces. This can still be seen today in the Post Office building. Built to complement their Pennsylvania Station across the wide avenue and expansive sidewalks, we still get a sense of what was envisioned as a boulevard. The almost block long parade of gently rising steps, culminating in identical bronze pediment capped entry doors protected by a soaring colonnade conveys to the visitor that the act of entering a public building is to be celebrated.

The Post Office building is undoubtedly an iconic New York City landmark. It was one of the first buildings to receive landmark status in 1966 by New York City’s nascent Landmarks Preservation Commission. As a Federal property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act renovation required approval from the New York State Historic Preservation Office, among other agencies.

 

Moynihan Train Hall Entrance–Northwest Corner of Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street

However, the design team’s respect for the historic significance of the building comes at the expense of the urban impact that the Moynihan Train Hall should have had. It has been subsumed by the Post Office building in such a way that it has little public presence. From Eighth Avenue, the visitor enters the building from either the south or north end of the Post Office building, at the point where the steps and colonnade stop and the flanking bays come directly to grade at the corners. Where the entry to the Post Office building is expressed by the steps that project out from the façade, the entrances to the Train Hall are instead dark voids carved into the base of the building. Signage marks each entrance. Thin metal letters spelling out “To Trains” float over the entrance openings at grade. The original pilasters rising from the building’s base on each side are covered below each capital with a banner printed with either “Pennsylvania Station” and “Moynihan Train Hall” in large white letters on a gray background; much smaller lettering above and below on blue backgrounds announce “Long Island Railroad,” “Amtrak,” and “Empire Station Complex.” A prominent niche directly centered over the building base that may once have held classical sculpture is now largely hidden with another banner that loudly displays the New York State Seal. Directly above this, a “Moynihan Train Hall” sign on a gray-green background has been mounted to the beige limestone façade. This plethora of signage is no substitute for what should be an architectural gesture announcing a notable public building.

The mid-block entrances on 31st and 33rd street are little better. Over each, a sleek horizontal glass canopy trimmed in black metal projects out over the sidewalk, interrupting the repetitiveness of the colonnades that wrap the building. There are similar pilaster mounted banners flanking both entrances. The projecting plane of the canopies at each facade is the only clue to the visitor arriving either on foot or by car that there are entrances here. The visitor is left with the impression that neither entrance is intended to be significant, perhaps an implicit acknowledgement on the part of the design team that at least until the Hudson Yards development at the western end really takes off, there will be little need for these.

Sadly, the diminutive entrances to the Moynihan Train Hall are indicative of a lack of will, a lost opportunity to architecturally showcase how critically important this transportation center is to the life of the city. The design team successfully married the new with the old with the design of the sinewy glass structure that billows between existing steel trusses over the main interior space of the Hall—perhaps this vocabulary could have been adapted for the exterior entrances.  Unfortunately, the recognition that the vitality of New York City comes from good architecture that engages the public and the street is again relegated to the margins of urban planning. It seems that this lesson is still to be learned. There could be no better example of this disconnect than the recent announcement by New York State’s Governor Cuomo that he wants to rebuild the old Penn Station with revenue from 10 new skyscrapers, an enormous office complex that will leave the carbuncle of Madison Square Garden in place and dwarf even the mammoth Hudson Yards. [3]

[1] Giorgio Ciucci, Francesco Dal Co, Mario Manieri-Elia and Manfredo Tafuri, The American City, From the Civil War to the New Deal (London, Granada Publishing 1980), p. 60.

[2] Ibid, p. 60.

[3] Matthew Haag and Luis Ferre-Sadurni, To Save Penn Station, New York Wants to Build 10 SkyscrapersThe New York Times, May 5, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/05/nyregion/penn-station-redevelopment.html

All photographs by the author.

Matthew Barhydt
Matthew Barhydt

is a New York City based architect.

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