Rebuild Penn Station update

Relocated Madison Square Garden, center, near rebuilt Penn Station, beyond. (Cameron)

First voiced publicly by architect Richard Cameron, the plan to rebuild New York’s Pennsylvania Station as conceived by the firm of McKim, Mead & White remains in the chaotic mix of plans to renovate the existing station. The beauty and profundity of Cameron’s idea springs from the power of the memories and hopes of every American who ever passed through its classically grandiloquent waiting hall, or who has seen photos or Hollywood films displaying its grandeur, and who yearn to behold it once again.

Penn Station was completed in 1910 as designed by Charles Follen McKim, and demolished in 1963-67 in an act of cultural desecration unequaled before or since in the U.S. Millions of travelers suffer its tawdry, cramped replacement. “One entered the city like a god,” said the historian Vincent Scully, “now one scuttles in like a rat.” The historic preservation movement in America may be traced to the travesty of Penn Station’s demise.

Cameron was recently invited to update his project for guests and members of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. His lecture, entitled “Miracle on 34th St.,” after the old holiday movie, was hosted by chapter president David Andreozzi, delivered on Zoom, recorded, and is now available to be viewed, along with an extensive Q&A at its conclusion.

Madison Square Garden of 1890-1926. (MSG Networks)

The vision has expanded to deal with the vexing question of what to do with Madison Square Garden arena, which squats atop the station’s ticketing and waiting areas, beneath which are the boarding area, tracks and the infrastructure that remains from the original. Cameron has worked along with ReThinkNYC on a broad, systemic reconception to bring the train lines entering and leaving Penn Station into the 21st century. Part of that would be to relocate Madison Square Garden to one of three sites. The best is half a block from Penn Station. You would exit the station, cross Seventh Avenue, enter Hotel Pennsylvania to reach the Garden, all underground. Beyond the Garden would be Greeley and Herald squares. Today the site is occupied by a host of uninspired commercial buildings. The new Garden, with a retractable domed roof, could be rebuilt in a form inspired by the 1890 design of Stanford White, also of McKim, Mead & White, which was razed in 1926. (White was murdered by a former lover’s husband during a musical event at its roof garden in 1906.)

Imagine a district with the rebuilt Penn Station, the Moynihan Train Hall next door, a new Madison Square Garden (these last three all originally designed by McKim, Mead & White), a Bryant Park-style space across 35th Street from the station, flanked by a new pair of matched classical towers, the Hotel Pennsylvania and the many traditional and classically styled commercial buildings that survive in the immediate area, not to mention the Empire State Building. The scene would be set for a new Manhattan district, harking back to the popular World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, which drew 26 million visitors in a nation of 63 million (before air travel), and the City Beautiful movement sparked by the classical urbanism of that famous world’s fair. The new district might be christened Empire City or Empire Station – the greatest entertainment and transportation complex in the nation if not the world.

Cameron’s plan, if carried out, would be the project of the century, and could revolutionize American attitudes toward how cities are built for popular appeal. But powerful interests want to goof up the already regrettable train station with modern architecture – some of it so absurd that you can’t tell up from down – and line nearby streets with commercial glass towers that will throw shadows over the station and block views of the Empire State Building down 34th Street. That would transform even more of the city into sterile gulches of the inhumanitarian ugliness that would tilt Manhattan toward a metasticizing Hudson Yards of the future very few people would actually like to see.

It has been estimated that rebuilding Penn Station by itself would cost $3.5 billion, less than the $4 billion PATH station at Ground Zero – the dinosaur skeleton designed by Spanish architect Calatrava – that serves a tiny fraction of the riders that use Penn Station. Part of that money and the money to redevelop the district would be raised by selling the air rights in the vicinity. Property values would soar near Penn Station as if it were a new Central Park of land speculation. Surely the $3 trillion infrastructure bill in Congress would tip its hat to President Biden, a noted lover of trains and mass transit, including Amtrak. For a project that could very well unite a divided country, and reform the linchpin network of rail lines on the Eastern Seaboard from Boston to Washington: perhaps it’s time to set up a meeting with Biden’s transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg.

First, however, Cameron and his associates need to promote his plan to the hilt, pedal to the metal. He has already put it in front of many New York decision-makers. More of that will be required. Social media must play a role. It has been said that a tweet by someone with millions of followers such as Beyoncé or Oprah can strap booster rockets on any proposal, let alone one so obviously, intrinsically sensible as this. Who’d be best came up in the Q&A after Cameron’s lecture. Or, better yet, try them all. Anybody with one name. Barack, Michelle, maybe even the Donald, with his experience as a developer. To rebuild Penn Station is a global ambition. The sky’s the limit.

Speaking of the sky, did you know that the entire Grand Central Terminal could fit inside the waiting room of McKim’s Penn Station?

That one fact sold me.

Rebuild Penn Station. Rebuild New York City. Rebuild America.

Graphic of Grand Central Terminal fitting inside Penn Station waiting room. (Reddit)

Rendering of the proposed rebuilt Penn Station. (RPS/Jeff Stikeman)

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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10 Responses to Rebuild Penn Station update

  1. LazyReader says:

    While the destruction of Penn station is unfortunate, it was not a case of it outliving it’s usefullness, as NYC enters fiscal oblivion rebuilding a train station as it was is not a wise use of spending priorities no matter the aesthetic. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in a heap of financial trouble. It is more than $40 billion in debt; it has a $60 billion maintenance backlog; plus it has more than $20 billion in unfunded health care obligations. Maintenance backlogs are harder to find as government agencies don’t want to admit they’ve been neglecting their physical infrastructure. The bottom line is that rail transit is extremely expensive and the city should have replaced the subway with rubber tire metro years ago.

    Going out on a limb as a kid I had (still have) a fascination with Monorails and wondered why build a monorail for New York City using it’s Avenues. Using straddle beams, derailment is virtually impossible. Since it’s elevated, accidents with surface traffic and pedestrians are impossible (unless the train derailed and landed on the road; again a highly unlikely scenario). Translates to less system down time, less liability suits and most importantly, a safer public. Street rail systems with grade crossings (light rail, trams, commuter rail or trollies) can’t approach this level of safety since foolhardy people often try to beat speeding train at the crossing with disastrous results. Also underground rail is prohibitively expensive (tunneling through solid rock) Running on rubber tires makes monorails relatively quiet compared to the loud clickety clack of metal on metal.

    Polls show monorails are the most aesthetically pleasing of all elevated rail systems. Their sleek design blends in with modern urban environments. But if need be, the pylons and track; which made of precast concrete can be made to accommodate whatever architectural style the system is meant to coexist with, including more classical ones…

    Quick construction time results in less disruption to the surrounding environments, whether business or residential. Building heavy rail in the city means rerouting cables/lines and pipes, digging and businesses forfeiting revenue for the disruption caused by years of construction, light rail is no different. Customers can’t access their establishments during the long period of construction. Entire streets and underground utilities must be rebuilt to put in light rail. During light rail construction, there are always businesses that go under because customers can’t get to them. Simply put…dig a hole, drop in a pre-built support pylon, truck in the track which was manufactured offsite, lift into place! Monorail beamway can be installed far faster than the alternatives. The Las Vegas Mono only took Seven months to build (granted LV Monorail isn’t exactly financially good, but when Casinos offer it’s own alternative). Contractors and rail consultants love heavy rail. It keeps them busy for years and brings in the big bucks. You pay for it Mr. Taxpayer. As if that isn’t enough, operational costs of heavy rail are so high that Mr. Taxpayer (you again) have to subsidize it heavily for as long as it operates; monorails the world over were actually profitable in Tokyo. Being electrically driven by a power provided from the rail, monorails don’t require the spider web of above ground power lines.

    Steel wheels on steel rail grind and wear. Therefore, both wheels and rail require far more care than monorail. This alone makes cost efficient impossible with heavy rail. Frequent vehicle breakdowns during operation also make heavy rail much less reliable than monorail. Monorails regularly operate amazingly at over 90% reliability. No other form of transit can touch that number. The rubber tires get little wear running on smooth guideways. Typically, each load tire gets over 100,000 miles of travel before being replaced and changing it’s tires is as simple as…..changing a tire.

    Asian megacities are building monorails systems because digging thru urban infrastructure is a nightmare both in terms of cost and time. Never the less, New Yorks 2nd Avenue Subway has been on again, off again under construction since 1930’s. Las Vegas monorail took Seven months.

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  2. TBH says:

    The thing I currently foresee in this is that it will most likely result in an intense culture war in which those in favor of rebuilding the station á la McKim, Mead, and White will find themselves fighting a very hard uphill battle. The elites of the design world will fight this with every ounce of sway they have.

    When Trump signed his EO on federal architecture it cast light onto just how many people have been trained to despise classical design, and unfortunately social media allowed such venomous nonsense to trickle down into the common cultural basin.

    Just the same, in these days of “cancel culture” celebrities and political figures like Beyoncé and Barack are going to set the stage for what their petty base wants to hear; rather than challenging people and encouraging critical thinking they are going to prostrate themselves at the feet of the people who, more often than not, see America as evil and unworthy of greatness or triumph. Hating America is currently en Vogue. Trump may be a better option; the best one in fact, and he still has the money, resources, and popularity to sway influence. He’s the Hercules who can probably fight the Hydra.

    I’m certainly onboard for this project. However Cameron and his associates need to go about this carefully and calculatedly. I don’t mean they should be scared or reserved; rather they need to plunge headlong – pedal to the metal, as you said – to make sure this gains momentum and success. Pick the right people and the right resources. Market to people who will knowingly support this, and above all, don’t underestimate the forces who will fight this tooth and nail.

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    • I trust you are correct, TBH, but in fact I would look forward to that battle in the culture war, which is already well under way on other fronts. The argument that classical and traditional architecture are racist or reflect white supremacy is silly on many different levels. Such arguments are, I think, more likely to advance prospects for the MMW rebuild option than anything else – that is, if it truly becomes a battle in the culture war. If the proposal makes any significant headway, people will pay attention to it and many people will yearn for it to be accomplished, compared with the other options. If SJWs then feel compelled to attack the proposal, it will become a battle between the many and the few, the people vs. the elites, which might be won. If cancel culture, BLM and critical race theory do not weigh in against the project, then the fortunes of this or that option are likely to be decided behind closed doors, which means your basic architectural elitists will have the upper hand. Maybe the social justice warriors among them will keep their traps shut and resist temptation, in order to help block the proposal. I hope not.

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  3. The loss of beauty is awful. The creation of beauty is wonderful. The replication of destroyed beauty is better than its destruction, but begs the question of its creation: This is (very) old news: https://commonedge.org/sprinting-to-the-past/

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    • Duo, none of the proponents of rebuilding Penn Station are talking about a 3D replication of the exactitude you suggest. There is much creativity in rebuilding the station to serve the needs of today. Classical architecture is not “of its time” but for eternity. You would prefer a modernist response to the tediums of the current station. Just what is it about today’s “era” do you think should be reflected in such a design? I read your piece when it ran in 2016, and it is just as silly now as it was then.

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  4. mrouchell says:

    Unfortunately, I recently read that the Hotel Pennsylvania is to be demolished and replaced by a (yawn) glass skyscraper.

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