Build McKim’s Penn Station

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 10.22.41 AMTraditional Building has published an important essay, “Rebuilding McKim’s Penn Station,” by the magazine’s eminence gris, Clem Labine, announcing a major plan to reverse one of America’s most egregious civic mistakes. The plan, by architect Richard Cameron, of Atelier & Co., in Brooklyn, would reconstruct Pennsylvania Station according the design of Charles Follen McKim, based on voluminous documentation of the original building, completed in 1910 and demolished in 1963. The article begins:

[The] visionary new plan not only rectifies an appalling act of architectural vandalism, but also radically improves passenger circulation at a critical transit hub, and creates badly needed civic space in a dreary part of New York City.

At an estimated $2.5 billion, the Cameron Plan would be far less expensive than the newly completed PATH transit hub at the World Trade Center, by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava, and do far more. Calatrava’s facility cost $4 billion and serves 50,000 passengers a day, compared with the 560,000 that a new Penn Station would serve.

Some might wonder how a project as ambitious as that can be built. Labine writes:

Cameron makes a convincing case that rebuilding McKim’s Penn Station is both technically and economically feasible. For starters, architectural design development costs would be dramatically less than for a “blank slate” Modernist exercise in abstract geometry that is the current fashion. Archives at the New York Historical Society contain 353 original McKim Mead & White drawings of Penn Station that can be digitized and used to jump-start the design process. Unlike so many of today’s new sculpture-buildings, there would be no complex engineering issues to be resolved because the building is based on time-tested principles. Additional construction savings would be realized since the original excavations and foundations are already in place.

The project would also save by taking advantage of advanced material, fabrication and construction techniques unavailable in McKim’s time. Cameron adds that much of the $2.5 billion could be “covered by air-rights transfers and municipal bond sales.”

The plan also envisions vast new commercial opportunities inside and outside of the rebuilt station, which Cameron sees as “the centerpiece of a spectacular City Beautiful project” originally conceived by McKim, who died before it could be realized. Today that district is dismal indeed. “‘The time is right,’ Cameron declares, ‘to complete McKim’s glorious urban vision.'” This vision, in Cameron’s splendid rendition, would include a plaza north of the Penn comparable to Rome’s Piazza Navona.

The success of the High Line Park on Manhattan’s west side – with its subsequent spectacular increase in real estate values – has demonstrated how beautiful public spaces can trigger economic development. And the High Line Park has virtually no convenient public transit access as compared with the vast transportation network at the Penn Station transit hub.

A couple of years ago, New York’s Municipal Art Society hosted a ridiculous dog-and-pony show in which a few modernist proposals to replace today’s Penn Station strutted their stuff. They were uniformly unimaginative, unrealistic and uninteresting.That they were gathered under the auspices of the MAS shows how far that once great civic institution has fallen, along with so many others – including such former venerables as the New York Landmark Commission, which a few years ago had to be dragged kicking and screaming to approve a beautiful new Beaux Arts building on Park Avenue for Ralph Lauren.

Any new Penn Station would join a proposal by Amtrak to move its services down to the tracks and under the neighboring Farley Post Office (1912), also by McKim Mead & White. It would be renamed for the late U.S. Sen. Patrick Moynihan, an ardent advocate of trains. The massive colonnaded building would be restored to handle Amtrak’s 40,000 daily passengers at today’s dank, discombobulating station. But that plan would strand more than 500,000 passengers of the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit who use the existing facility. A new Penn Station would bring those passengers needed relief, and would fit into the infrastructure of the Moynihan plan. Incentives to relocate today’s ugly topper, Madison Square Garden, would also need to be enacted by the city.

Clem Labine closes his essay by referring to our civic duty:

We owe it to future generations to fill the hole in the physical and spiritual fabric of the city created by the barbaric acts of 1963. The plans are in place; all that’s needed is political will.

It should not be difficult, let alone impossible, to get this done once the public in New York and around the country comes to realize it can be done. If it can be done it should be done. To finally dismiss Vincent Scully’s famous aphorism – “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat” – would be a major step toward returning the nation to the path of greatness. As Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” This applies majestically to Richard Cameron’s extraordinarily bold plan to rebuild Pennsylvania Station.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Henry Hope Reed, whose life’s work was to revive the classical architecture that did much to make America a great place. To begin a great project like this would be a great memorial to his memory.

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About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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7 Responses to Build McKim’s Penn Station

  1. Pingback: Hint, hint: Rebuild Penn Sta. | Architecture Here and There

  2. Glenn Turner says:

    What a lovely idea! This is one of the most thought provoking post I’ve read here. Dave, is this just pie-in-the-sky, or something that might actually be considered by the powers that be?

    Like

    • Not absolutely certain it’s feasible, Glenn, but the campaign to bring it up for serious consideration is now under way. A piece has just appeared on nycurbed.com after which most of the comments were positive. One comment suggested that it would be impossible to stagger the phases given that 600,000 people a day use the facility now. Yet she seemed to be hopeful that the powers that be would eventually want to try.

      Like

  3. Ron Evitts says:

    The late Herbert Muschamp, in his recently-resurfaced (on Facebook) article on the Huntington Hartford museum, had no good words for the demolished Penn Station, saying it was like entering Philadelphia two hours early.

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  4. Jim Venturi says:

    After World War II Warsaw was rebuilt. Penn Station was destroyed by a different kind of war. I agree with this idea to rebuild PSNY.

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  5. This quote usually indicates that the writer has never thought about architecture before and went with the first or second entry in Bartlett’s: As Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” It spoils an otherwise intriguing article.

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