Scrap Cuomo’s plan, rebuild Pennsylvania Station

(CRAINS NY) Alexandros Washburn, September 13, 2021

Aftershocks from the implosion of the Cuomo administration will last for years. In at least one case, make that hundreds of years. 

We’re talking about the former governor’s plans to rebuild Pennsylvania Station as part of a 20 million-square-foot monster development called Empire Station Complex. With luck, his proposal to erect 10 bland office buildings—one as big as the Empire State Building—is now dead. No one, it seems, is sorry about that.

So now we have a chance to improve the lives of generations of New Yorkers.

Today’s Penn Station, as has often been said, is a dingy subterranean misery. The morale-crushing daily passage made by hundreds of thousands of travelers and commuters is all the more galling because the original Penn Station, built in 1910 by the storied firm of McKim, Mead and White, was one of the city’s grandest, most beautiful and efficient structures.

Its destruction has been considered since the early 1960s. 

So why not take this once-in-a-generation opportunity and rebuild it as it once was?  I’m serious. Why not undo one of the great crimes ever committed against architecture, urban development and the harried, day-to-day train passenger? 

This may sound crazy, but it’s the truth: Rebuilding the original Penn Station—complete with glorious soaring waiting rooms, Roman columns and glass-and-steel train sheds—is surprisingly doable. This bold but simple idea will fix myriad problems in one fell swoop.

To begin with, the station was not destroyed—it was decapitated. Gone are the soaring waiting rooms and the rows of columns, but all the guts remain. The entire foundation, every column supporting every piece of Penn Station, is still there, as is the configuration of the tracks. Most of the hard work of building a train station is done. In many ways, you could argue that the easiest thing to do is to rebuild the station because you could do it without altering or affecting operations.

McKim, Mead and White’s design was a marvel of modern architecture that harkened back to some of the most successful creations of ancient times. Namely, its series of entrances and passageways were based on the Roman Baths at Caracalla, which were surely glorious to behold but were actually designed to accomplish the rather prosaic goal of getting thousands of sweaty Romans into the city, bathed in warm, hot and then cold water, and out of the city as efficiently as possible. 

Penn Station was designed the same way: You entered through a grand portal on Seventh Avenue, you moved into the ticketing hall, and then you went into the train hall. Decades of additions and poorly thought-out renovations—including an increase in commercial space, and workspaces pushed down from the decapitated top half—have turned this elegant design with remarkable throughput into a sorrowful, low-ceilinged maze.

But it can be fixed.  And the result would be more than a train station.

Like other reimagined public spaces in Manhattan, such as the High Line and Bryant Park, a rebuilt Penn Station would be a grand space for New Yorkers, tourists and neighborhood residents to enjoy, a place to rest, reflect and be elevated. 

Yes, several major obstacles come to mind.

One is that circular monstrosity sitting atop Penn Station, Madison Square Garden. You’re going to have to move it somewhere if you want to rebuild Penn. James Dolan, who owns it along with the Knicks, is supposed to leave by 2023, but he is not required to go, and he has long resisted pressure to depart.

But his fortunes are somewhat tied to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with whom Dolan had a close relationship. The pandemic has hit his team’s revenue hard. After years of refusing to budge, Dolan might find a new Garden in a new location has considerable appeal. 

Next is money. Of course this is a concern for any development, but the federal transportation bill awaiting approval in Washington could provide considerable funds. The state Legislature has approved a loan of $1.3 billion to the Empire Station that can’t be used for those skyscrapers. So there is at least some money here. 

Finally is perhaps the greatest obstacle: the innate resistance in the collective psyche of the world’s architects to replicating anything from the past. Among them, the idea that we must always move forward persists. But there are many hugely successful examples of modern architecture that harken back or even directly replicate wonderful buildings that were lost or damaged. 

Entire neighborhoods in Germany, for example, were rebuilt exactly as they were before they were bombed; Dresden is one example. When the British burned down the White House in the War of 1812, did we see it as an opportunity to experiment with new forms?

No. We built the White House as it was.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame is a more recent example. Ravaged by a fire in 2019, it’s being rebuilt, and—guess what?—it’s going to look exactly as it did.

Of course, the final design of a new Penn Station will go through many stages. It need not be exactly like the original, although the proportions and the grandeur would certainly feel current today. (It might be impossible, for example, to find the legions of stoneworkers needed to rebuild the epic façade.) 

But look across Eighth Avenue at Moynihan Train Hall, the gorgeous transit hub that opened this year in the James A. Farley Building, formerly the city’s main post office. While the wonderful details of this seminal structure were preserved, art and other modifications were added that would have made McKim, Mead and White’s eyes water with envy. 

So too can it be on the east side of Eighth Avenue.

We had a great station. We were wrong to tear it down. Let’s build it back.