With the heat and humidity rising, many New Yorkers are continuing a time-honored summer ritual: getting out of town. At the same time, while tourism is still far its pre-pandemic levels, a trickle of vacationing visitors has begun to reanimate the city. As a result, the scene at Penn Station has lately begun to resemble the eclectic mix of people that once thronged the city’s busiest transit hub: local commuters, urbanites making a weekend escape, and tourists from near and far.
Now instead of the old, dingy underground waiting areas at Penn Station, these travelers gather beneath a soaring skylight that has already become a source of civic pride, even a symbol for the optimism of this moment. As Amtrak trains approach the station, conductors make a new announcement:
“Next and last stop: New York City, Moynihan Train Hall.”
What did it take to complete this journey?
Conceived decades ago as a solution to ease overcrowding and to help correct a monumental urban planning mistake, Moynihan Train Hall is transforming the travel experience for thousands of Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak riders. The demolition of McKim, Mead & White’s original Pennsylvania Station in the mid-1960s was experienced as a tragic loss for the city — so much so that it helped garner widespread support for the New York City Landmarks Law. Thankfully, another massive McKim, Mead & White building sat underused across the street: the James A. Farley Post Office Building.
In the 1990s, with the new Penn Station struggling to accommodate (let alone inspire) its users, United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put forward the vision to convert the post office into a spacious train hall that would evoke the grandeur of the original station. At the end of the decade, President Bill Clinton helped unveil SOM’s first crack at reconfiguring the historic building. After that proposal failed to materialize, SOM provided an updated concept as part of a public-private partnership led by Empire State Development in 2006. And then in 2016, SOM was part of the team that submitted a winning proposal, together with Skanska, The Related Companies, and Vornado Realty Trust.
The third time, as they say, is the charm. Senator Moynihan did not live to see his vision fulfilled, but with this reimagined landmark building now named after him, his contributions will not be forgotten. And there’s even more for New York’s train commuters to celebrate: Penn Station’s new East End Gateway, also designed by SOM, is now open as well. While less publicized than Moynihan Train Hall, it is nonetheless a big deal — delivering a dramatic and modern front-door identity along Seventh Avenue for the much-maligned station. Higher ceilings, new wayfinding signage, and improved access and circulation will give commuters easier access to the LIRR and subway.
It has taken multiple presidential and gubernatorial administrations, design concepts, economic cycles, and development plans to get here. And yet, even in the middle of a pandemic, the new train hall opened on New Year’s Day in 2021. We’ve put together a timeline to trace the journey of this ambitious and complex project — how New Yorkers went from boarding at one McKim, Mead & White building to another.
The original Penn Station, a Beaux-Arts style edifice designed by McKim, Mead & White, opens. The New York Times described the facade upon its completion as being designed “to suggest the imposing character of the ancient Roman temples and baths,” with “huge, semi-circular windows.” It was declared “one of the leading railway stations of the world… a monumental gateway and entrance to a great metropolis.”
The James A. Farley Post Office Building, also designed by McKim, Mead & White, opens across the street from Penn Station. As the largest postal facility in the United States, it is designed to evoke the same sense of civic grandeur as the station across the street, and used its tracks to collect and distribute mail.
The Farley Building is extended to Ninth Avenue with a McKim, Mead & White-designed expansion that doubles the size of the structure.
Penn Station, after falling into disrepair, is demolished, and the concourses remain in operation underground. Architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable describes the station in its final days as “a better expression of ancient Rome than of 20th-century America,” and its uninspiring replacement as “not Roman Imperial, but Investment Modern.”
Mayor Robert Wagner signs the New York City Landmarks Law, setting up a permanent commission with the power to protect historic buildings and entire neighborhoods.
The Farley Building is designated a New York City landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The current Madison Square Garden opens on the site of Penn Station.
United States Postal Service begins to ship all mail to the Farley Building by truck rather than by train, and starts to move most of its operations out of the building.
United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan champions a plan to transform the Farley Building, which had become mostly vacant, into a brand new train station that would recapture the lost grandeur of the original Penn Station. Amtrak reveals an initial design for the new train hall.
SOM is commissioned to design the new train hall in the Farley Building.
President Bill Clinton releases SOM’s first proposal for the new train hall. The concept included repurposing part of the Farley Building for a passenger rail hall with a signature glass canopy that cut through the middle of McKim, Mead and White’s two-part configuration between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, rising 75 feet above the Farley Building’s roof line. It also included an immersive “media wall” for a 21st century that would crave immediate and far-reaching information but did not yet have wifi or smartphones.
Empire State Development forms public-private partnership with The Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust to build the station and repurpose the building for additional uses. The station is named in honor of the visionary senator.
SOM releases its second design proposal for Moynihan Train Hall, with the proposed canopy now contained inside the original boundaries of the Farley Building and a modified sloped glass ceiling in the future passenger hall.
New York State completes its purchase of the Farley Building from the Postal Service.
SOM designs Phase I of Moynihan Train Hall: the New West End Concourse, along with new entrances to Penn Station through the Farley Building on Eighth Avenue.
Construction begins on Phase I.
Governor Andrew Cuomo calls for proposals to redesign the Farley Building as Moynihan Train Hall, and selects Skanska, The Related Companies, and Vornado Realty Trust later in the year to form a public-private partnership (Phase II) led by Empire State Development, with SOM as the architect. SOM releases the final design for Moynihan Train Hall, as well as for the adaptive reuse of the entire Farley Building annex. Construction begins on this second phase.
Skanska, The Related Companies, and Vornado Realty Trust sign the design-build contract with New York State for Phase II; Phase I is completed.
Governor Cuomo reveals plans for the East End Gateway, a new entrance to Penn Station on Seventh Avenue, as well as significant concourse improvements in Penn Station’s 33rd Street LIRR concourse that will add space and ceiling height. Both the East End Gateway and the concourse improvements are designed by SOM.
January 1, 2021
The second phase of Moynihan Train Hall is completed and opens to the public; the East End Gateway also opens. New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman describes the new catenary skylights as “aerial feats of sculptural engineering and parametric design,” while its “marble recalls the stone quarried for Grand Central,” and “arched windows allude to the Baths of Caracalla, one of McKim’s inspirations.”
And there’s more to come. New York is proceeding with a $16 billion plan to reconstruct Penn Station, expanding the complex to 40 percent more train capacity, adding at least eight additional underground tracks in order to reduce delays and better serve the 700,000-plus passengers that go through it every day during non-pandemic times. The demolition of Penn Station can’t be undone, but better days are ahead for anyone who goes in and out of Manhattan’s West Side by rail.
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