More on Penn Sta. rebuild

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The Gothamist yesterday ran a long article by Jake Offenhartz, “A Dramatic Plan to Rebuild Penn Station & Restore its Lost Grandeur,” that explains the several initiatives involved in the proposal to rebuild Penn Station in its original Beaux Arts style.

The first would be to bring the idea to the attention of the political, bureaucratic, design and corporate elites who control the station’s future (if anyone does). The second would be to incorporate rebuilding the McKim, Mead & White masterpiece (opened in 1910 and demolished in 1963) into evolving plans to upgrade Penn’s transportation system, which is literally falling apart. A vital and creative proposal to solve cascading problems with the rails and platforms would involve turning Penn from the terminus of the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey commuter rail into a through station. A third would be to flesh out the MM&W design, preserved in a set of all 353 blueprints at the New York Historical Society. It must be meshed with new materials and technologies, with modern needs, and commercial facilities that would revitalize the area around the station, said to be undervalued by 30 percent compared to the area around Grand Central Terminal.

Architect Richard Cameron of Atelier & Co. proposed this plan a couple of years ago after having thought it through for more than a decade. He has been joined by the National Civic Art Society, led by Justin Shubow, which, one hopes, might be able to put a bug in the ear of President Trump as part of his infrastructure program. Newly enlisted behind the Rebuild Penn plan is an urban policy center, RethinkStudio, whose director, Jim Venturi, was first to reimagine Penn as a through station.

So far, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not acknowledged the Rebuild Penn plan. His proposal for a lame renovation that would address none of the station’s or the system’s main problems has been opposed editorially by the New York Times, but the newspaper has come out strongly in favor of a proposal to move the Garden to the Farley Post Office next door and replace its circular structure with a glass drum. Better than the current situation but … yawn! Moving the Garden is a necessary step in any useful plan for Penn; the Farley is now envisioned, however, as an extension of Penn for Amtrak, an elegant step that still would not solve the system’s mounting crises.

The general awfulness of Penn Station today is made all the more painful by the grandeur of the first version. Inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, the original McKim, Mead and White masterpiece featured 150 foot glass ceilings, pink granite walls, and 84 Doric columns.The general waiting room, large enough to fit the entirety of Grand Central Station, possessed nine acres of travertine and granite. Summarizing the difference between that station and the one that came after it, architecture critic Vincent Scully famously said: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

I had been unaware the Grand Central Terminal could be fit entirely into the waiting room of the original Pennsylvania Station. It seems evident that rebuilding Penn Station in its old style within a broader revitalization of the area for commerce would transform the neighborhood, raising revenue in such a way as to minimize the cost to taxpayers of the entire project. More important, it would retrieve part of the city’s lost soul. It would, one might dare to say, make New York City great again. If only someone could be got to listen and hear the argument for Rebuild Penn.

The drawing above and those below are by Jeff Stikeman for Rebuild Penn.

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About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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5 Responses to More on Penn Sta. rebuild

  1. Cynthia Nicholson says:

    How would you propose a plan like this would gain traction? I fear the a public campaign, that leads with renderings and focuses on the classical architecture, might fall on disinterested eyes. These younger eyes are used to (and feel comforted by) Calatrava, glass and LCD screens. It seems that in order for the restoration to happen, we might instead focus on bigger transportation picture and let that inform and discussion about the actual aesthetics of a new station.


    • I don’t think you are correct about the tastes of young people. They are awash and can be pushed either way, although it is true that many are already enchanted by the wow factor; likewise, many prefer to be enchanted by beauty. I don’t think you can pigeonhole them. I doubt that “comforted” is the best word for how they are affected by Calatrava! Most people are disturbed and distressed – not to mention bored – by our built environment than otherwise, and they are, I think, open to a return of beauty to the world they live in.

      I’m sure you’re right that the transportation picture is a good way to approach a campaign to do this, but many approaches are possible, and I tend to focus on the one about which I know a thing or two.


  2. Mike DiLauro says:

    I took Amtrak to PA Station last Wednesday to see a Yankee day game (they lost). Much to my surprise when I got off the train and took stairs up to the street I came out next to the steps of the post office on the western side of 8th Avenue. Is this a harbinger that the Moynihan Train Station is actually going to happen? The sign over the entrance says, “LIRR Trains”.


  3. No, Charlie, I’m not holding my breath either. But as the place continues to deteriorate, something assuredly will be done, whether half-assed (as now planned) or better. And if the latter, maybe some long thinker will say, hey, let’s rebuild the old Penn! Well, we can still dream.


  4. M. Charles Bakst says:

    Interesting piece. I’m not holding my breath waiting for this to happen. In advance of the 2004 Republican National Convention at MSG, I wrote a column about plans for Moynihan Station in the PO. The idea already had been kicking around for years. And now here we are, and nothing has happened. Meanwhile, I don’t know if you ever noticed, but in addition to travelers being insulted by the awfulness of the current Penn Station, they are mocked further by pictures that abound there of the old station. Mcb


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