HISTORY IS NOT ALWAYS kind to great design. What seems like sure-footed progress in one era can often look more like series of missteps with additional hindsight and changing values. We’ve all seen renovations that only made things worse, robbing a property of its original charm, mistreating historical materials, or simply ruining the romance of a space.
However, what happened to New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 stands alone as a crime against architecture. Its decapitation to make way for the new Madison Square Garden overhead—was so regrettable that it launched the historical preservation movement in the United States.
After more than five decades, New York is still reckoning with the legacy of the loss. However, in January 2021, the city partially healed an architectural wound with the opening of the Moynihan Train Hall. The result of a $1.6 billion conversion of a historic post office facility, the project finally returned a worthy threshold to one of the city’s busiest transit hubs through a little creative problem-solving and a commitment to civic grandeur.
Many young New Yorkers would be shocked to learn that Pennsylvania Station—a rundown and cramped punchline of a place with its low ceilings and confusing underground tunnels—once rivaled Grand Central Terminal in majesty. But when it was completed in 1910, Pennsylvania Station was an absolute marvel, spreading over two city blocks and flanked by dozens of elegant columns.
Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, the Beaux-Arts icon, when it opened it was the largest indoor space in the city, rivaling St. Peter’s Basilica in scale. Modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, the station’s immense, light-filled main waiting room had a 150-foot ceiling, welcoming travelers to the city with a generous and impressive flourish.
However, as rail travel fell out of favor and the city’s priorities shifted, Pennsylvania Station gradually lost its luster. The building’s pink granite had taken on the grime of the city and haphazard maintenance left the building a shadow of its former self. By the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was seeking a buyer for the building’s air rights, citing upkeep costs for the massive complex.
But when the wrecking balls came in 1963, the citizens found themselves shocked by the station’s perfunctory destruction. When a New York Times photographer captured one of the building’s sculptures in a New Jersey landfill, regret came quickly. Within two years, the city passed a landmarks preservation act, which would save Grand Central Terminal and prevent the destruction of countless other historic buildings.
For decades, New Yorkers bemoaned Pennsylvania Station’s lost glory. But serendipitously, Pennsylvania Station wasn’t the only massive Beaux-Arts building in the neighborhood. McKim, Mead, and White had also designed the James A. Farley Building, which still stands on Eighth Avenue. Originally meant to adjoin and complement the station, the complex served as a mail-sorting hall with direct access to some of the tracks.
Throughout the 1990s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Senator from New York, began lobbying to repurpose a section of the Farley Building as a new train hall. In 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo seized the reins of the project and deputized Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to perform the conversion. Despite the pandemic, the project came across the finish line early and under budget, opening on the first day of 2021
The result is breathtaking—an optimistic and audacious combination of historical splendor and smart modern design. With its ample public space, retail tenants, and handsome waiting areas with walnut benches, it’s sure to become a destination for Instagram tourists looking to capture the New York of tomorrow.
The train hall’s stunning glass ceiling boasts exposed steel trusses and four bulbous vault sections that jut dramatically into the sky. And in the heart of it all is a beautiful Art Deco clock, reminiscent of an era when we looked up for the time instead of squirreling for our phone in our pockets and purses.
While the Moynihan Train Hall isn’t a full replacement for Pennsylvania Station, it gestures in the right direction: ahead. Talks are already underway to connect the building with the High Line pedestrian park and a long-planned initiative promises to extend the regional Metro-North railway system to the west side of Manhattan.
While Pennsylvania Station will never match its former glory, it could still return to its former prominence as old ideas—like rail travel and prominent civic spaces—come back into style once again.
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