On the Moynihan Train Hall

Moynihan Train Hall is inside the 1912 James A. Farley Post Office Building. (Bloomberg)

News of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall opening across 8th Avenue from Penn Station in Manhattan is rivaled only by news about the closure of The Vessel, the ridiculous tower of art at nearby Hudson Yards, because of its allure to suicide wannabes. Speaking of death wishes, Penn Station doubtless generates its share. I can never resist historian Vincent Scully’s quote after the original Penn Station’s tragic demolition in 1963. He wrote: “One entered the city like a god; … one scuttles in now like a rat.”

The passageway from Penn Station to the new train hall is akin to a rat scuttle (if there is such a thing). Still, entering from the street beneath the colonnade of the James A. Farley Post Office Building, designed by McKim Mead & White, and completed in 1912 – three years after Charles Follen McKim’s death and two years after the opening his equally classical Penn Station – is as god-like an experience as one could wish.

Moynihan Train Hall, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the latter-day MM&W. (SOM)

Once inside the hall, the vast former postal-sorting room sits beneath a vaulted glass roof supported by original mammoth iron trusses decried as “beefy” and “intrusive” by architecture critic James S. Russell in “Can the Moynihan Train Hall Redeem Penn Station?” for Bloomberg CityLab. Russell doesn’t really answer the question. Nevertheless, the answer is no.

Ian Volner’s “The Moynihan Train Hall’s Glorious Arrival” in the New Yorker begs, somewhat, to disagree. It may combine “early-twentieth-century grandeur with early-twenty-first-century sophistication,” but the hall is also “ineluctably airporty.” Yet, thinking more broadly, Volner finds it distasteful that Facebook has leased the office spaces above the undulating glazed roof of the courtyard:

At all hours of the night and day, passengers gliding into the airy elegance of the concourse might be looked down upon by the employees of Mark Zuckerberg, whose windows sit directly above the skylight, surrounding it. As a metaphor for America’s society of digital surveillance, it’s pretty on the nose.”

Indeed! Still, as an aesthetic experience the train hall beats the rabbit— oops, the rat warren of Penn Station. That is a very low bar. To call the Moynihan Train Hall a step in the right direction is to damn it by faint praise, which is precisely my intention. The fact that it is now open does not in the least do away with the need for the proposal, by architect Richard Cameron and the National Civic Art Society, to rebuild Penn Station using the original design of Charles Follen McKim. Volner almost seems to allude to that when he writes:

The realization of the Moynihan Train Hall’s potential — and with it the redemption of New York’s greatest architectural mistake — can’t be truly complete until the late-sixties complex meets the same wrecking ball that clobbered its predecessor.

He stops short of citing the Cameron/NCAS proposal. He quotes Moynihan in a way that seems to pick up and even recast Volner’s thought of “clobbering” today’s Penn Station: “Where else but in New York could you tear down a beautiful Beaux Arts building and find another one right across the street?”

Moynihan is often referred to as the man who, as an aide to President Kennedy, wrote the apparently unintentional mandate for modern architecture for federal buildings. That was 1962. Eight years later, Moynihan said, “Twentieth-century America has seen a steady, persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of the public order.”

That is another quote that I cannot resist, and with the one offered by Volner, it suggests (to me) that Moynihan came to regret the boost he’d given to modern architecture. So, yes, I think Moynihan Train Hall is a perfectly appropriate for a U.S. senator who made it his mission to promote public rail. I am sure that while neither of the two articles quoted above mentions the best current proposal by far for Penn Station, the proposal to rebuild it in the image of McKim’s design is one that Moynihan, who died almost two decades before the opening of his train hall, would lovingly support.

And it may just be that a fellow train buff famous for taking Amtrak between Delaware and Washington, D.C., will also find it to his liking.

Upper concourse of old 1910 Pennsylvania Station in 1950. (Getty)

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, 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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6 Responses to On the Moynihan Train Hall

  1. Pingback: On the Moynihan Prepare Corridor - Zbout

  2. Jeff Sheppard says:

    Once again your readers are spewing false information about covid. Yearly US deaths from the flu average 34,000-48,000 with a high of approximately 61,000. Covid deaths in the US are on tract to be in excess of 3,000/day. Do the math and do your homework next time you want to portray yourself as knowledgeable.
    You mighty find a little empathy and humility will make you a better person. Try it. Enjoy.


  3. LazyReader says:

    Transit agencies have had nearly a YEAR to adapt to the new reality of lower revenues and declining ridership. Instead of downscaling; or getting their financial houses in order with the bailouts the feds gave them. Transit agencies, meanwhile, continued to trundle their empty buses and trains around because they don’t wanna pack them. Those that were planning new construction projects have made little or no efforts to revise their plans in response to an almost certain downturn in business. When the pandemic shut down pubs, many breweries went into the business of making hand sanitizer. Ford used one of its auto parts plants to make ventilators. Various drugmakers were able to create vaccines in just nine months.Transit agencies don’t need to do that because their “customers” are politicians who enjoy spending other people’s money on construction projects that yield them hefty campaign contributions. Just one more reason why transportation subsidies are destroying our transportation systems.

    At $1.6 billion, don’t blame Congress for not spending money the federal government doesn’t have to rescue transit agencies that have already had a $25 billion bailout months ago, a 14 billion bailout now and nearly a year to adjust to the new reality of much lower ridership, that’s Never coming back because they perpetually cast germaphobia onto a populace over a disease no more lethal than the flu; a disease that’s been killing old and sickly people since the dawn of human history.

    Moynihan Hall is a White Elephant. A pricey object who’s costs will exceed it’s usefullness.


    • Much of what you say is correct, but your prediction that Moynihan is a white elephant relies on current transit ridership remaining in its present low numbers. I think when the pandemic is over people will rush back into doing what they’ve always done. That does not mean your concerns about debt are off base – they are not. But ridership will skyrocket in all forms of transit, sooner rather than later, and we’ll see what happens then.


    • barry schiller says:

      Are you really OK with cutting public transport, packing in and increasing risk for the low wage essential workers (in groceries, pharmacies, health care institutions etc) who still need public transport to get to work plus those who depend on it to get around because they cannot drive or afford to? And are you also OK with the resulting pollution, congestion, sprawl etc if we significantly cut back public transport even as the economy recovers? How about vast subsidies given to airlines even as demand for their service has dropped too?
      Not just right-wingers, I’ve noticed plenty of progressives also have no interest in passenger rail transport, even as Amtrak is already electrified in our region and the electric cars they promote is still a work in progress – maybe because like most they drive everywhere!
      By the way, RIPTA has used some of its surplus capacity for Meals on Wheels and other community services.
      For me, Moynihan is mixed as architecture and as an investment, but I do think those who care about preserving what is left of our beautiful natural and built environment should support and use train travel whenever feasible rather than contribute to the spreading ugliness and dangers of the car culture


  4. Jeff Sheppard says:

    Glad you’re spewing any more of your worthless lies and conspiracy theories about your beloved ego maniac x president trump.


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