New Train of Thought

First, I’d like to point out that the idea of moving Pennsylvania Station from its grubby basement beneath Madison Square Garden into the James A. Farley post office across the street is brilliant. I especially admire the politics of it – promising the second coming of New York’s most beloved lost landmark and getting the federal government to pay for it is a genius strategy.

I should add, however, that I think the business of building a train station for the twenty-first century by reincarnating a building 35 years dead is sad.

Maybe even pathetic.

These two points of view are not contradictory. As you’ve probably heard by now, the 1913 post office, designed by McKim, Mead, and White, the architects of the 1910 train station, is in some respects the twin of the monumental building that was demolished in the early sixties. And I can’t deny that it’s the perfect spot to build a new train station. At the same time, I think it symptomatic of this city’s almost pathological aversion to contemporary architecture that the only way we can get a much-needed new station is to disguise it as an old station.

Not that I’m indifferent to the loss of the old Penn Station. The photos of the astonishing steel-framed, glass-covered, 150-foot-high concourse and the gargantuan waiting room that looks as if it were built for a race of giants are incredibly seductive. I wish I could go there. I’m even a little resentful that I have no childhood memories of the place, that my parents, when they took me into the city by public transportation, favored the bus to the Port Authority.

But the thing I find disturbing is that as this century grinds to a close, we are so contemptuous of our own creative powers that we feel compelled to mimick the past.

Admittedly, it is an auspicious moment for the Beaux Arts. A few days ago, the lovingly restored Grand Central Terminal, prime beneficiary of the landmarks law engendered by the destruction of Penn Station, was rededicated. Grand Central and the original Penn Station both possess an audacity, a faith in their own power that we’re convinced we can’t match. In a bitter sixties editorial about the loss of Penn Station, the New York Times wrote, “We want and deserve tin can architecture in a tinhorn culture.” We’ve internalized this idea so well that we seem incapable of getting past it. But there are some new buildings – Will Bruder’s 1995 Phoenix public library comes to mind, as does Norman Foster’s 1986 Hong Kong Bank building – that feature public spaces as generous and dazzling as anything the Beaux Arts movement produced.

Once, there was a more brazen plan to bring Penn Station back from the underworld. Amid the delirium that preceded the stock-market crash of 1987, a design competition for two towers to be built on the present site of Madison Square Garden was held by Olympia & York. The winners were strange bedfellows, Frank Gehry and Skidmore Owings & Merrill. Each designed a tower. SOM’s, at 70 stories, was a kind of tribute to the old General Electric building, topped with filigreed crowns. Gehry’s, at 61 stories, was originally in the shape of a fish. Linking the towers was a canopy that was to form a “grand entrance hall” to a Penn Station newly opened to daylight.

Though the deal eventually fell apart, the idea of popping the lid off Penn Station was very appealing. While I have no regrets about the demise of the office towers, I’m still tantalized by the notion of a Penn Station rehabbed by Frank Gehry and SOM’s David Childs. In my weaker moments, I am as affected by the loss of that intriguing possibility as I am by the loss of the old Penn Station.

The idea of moving the train station into the post office emerged shortly after the O&Y project crashed. Amtrak and a real-estate developer called Penn Station Associates (PASA) published a brochure to garner support for the idea. “Immediately, the project team realized that they had the opportunity to, in effect, re-create the past by building a majestic gateway to New York City,” the brochure explains.

Senator Moynihan, an advocate of both trains and historic preservation, launched a tireless campaign to secure $315 million in federal funds for the project and establish the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation (PSRC) in 1995. It’s now headed by an enthusiastic young architect, Alexandros Washburn. Championed by Democrats and Republicans alike, the plan is apple pie and motherhood. The only opposition came from the U.S. Postal Service, which was unwilling to part with the one building with a frieze long enough to hold its whole motto about snow, rain, and gloom of night.

Pressured by President Clinton, the Postal Service agreed in late March to negotiate sharing the building. SOM partner Marilyn Taylor was made head of a design team that also includes a firm known for historic restoration, Hardy, Holzman and Pfeiffer Associates. The architects are now figuring out the technical aspects of the building split. Soon, actual design work on the station will begin, and the new old Penn Station should be open by 2002.

Brilliant, right? Except for one thing.

The project’s lifeblood is the fantasy of resurrection. “The existing Farley Building, the late great Penn Station, and the new Penn Station match exactly,” claims the booklet, “Rebuilding Penn Station,” which was published by the PSRC early this year. An overlay demonstrates that the three great spaces in the old train station, the concourse, the waiting room, and the arcade have equivalents in the floor plan of the post office. When New York’s senior senator was shown this relationship, Washburn recalls, “Moynihan said it was an epiphany.”

Epiphanies can be deceptive, however. While the square footage may exist to replicate those grand rooms, the architecture doesn’t.

The old station and the post office share a basic structural envelope. But, while much of the original Penn Station was magnificent public space, the post office has only a small public area, the 24-hour lobby that is to Tax Day as Times Square is to New Year’s Eve. The rest of the building is essentially industrial, a space for sorting mail, storing canvas bags, and repairing postal boxes.

So, if architects Taylor and Hardy take their mission literally – if they redesign the building in exactly the way it’s been pitched to Congress and to the public – they will build a Beaux Arts facsimile, an early-twenty-first-century imitation of an early-twentieth-century imitation of ancient Rome. Which would be every bit as delightful as, say, EPCOT’s version of Paris.

But I’m betting that Taylor and Hardy are smarter than that, and will design something more forward-looking to fit in the old box. I’m betting that they’ll opt for allusion rather than illusion. “You couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t try and re-create Penn Station as it was,” avows architect Hugh Hardy. Washburn himself allows that there are “portions” of the building that might be suitable for “a twenty-first-century piece of architecture.”

Perhaps I should be satisfied with portions. But the idea that to get a new train station funded, we have to pretend that we are returning to the past still makes me crazy. London, a city that is, in some ways, even more conflicted than New York about contemporary architecture, got a beautiful new station in 1993, Nicholas Grimshaw & Partner’s Waterloo International Terminal, a sinuous, high-tech shed. I could picture such a station, a luminous presence, atop the West Side rail yards, where the mayor would like to put the Yankees.

I believe that the real way to atone for the sin of tearing down Penn Station is to prove that we’ve learned how to make public spaces that are very much of our time but have the qualities – light, space, grandeur – that we cherish in older architecture. No matter how lovingly the old post office is treated, it will never be the old Penn Station. If we are very lucky, it will be an audacious hybrid, a daring blend of new and old. If we’re unlucky, it will be an exercise in nostalgia. But the real twenty-first-century project for New York is to learn how to build great public spaces again. From scratch. Which could happen if we borrowed the self-assurance of architects past, rather than the design of their buildings.

New Train of Thought