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New York Penn: Up from Under


Where Gumbo Was #409

New York's Penn Station, North America's busiest rail station, got some fancy new spaces last week, and for the first time in nearly sixty years, it also got some daylight, with the opening of the new Moynihan Train Hall and its skylights.


The new station spaces, created in the shell of the former Manhattan General Post Office, have been described as an attempt to rectify an error, to atone for one of the architectural crimes of the 20th century: the razing of the above-ground portions of the classic railroad station to make way for offices and Madison Square Garden.

imagesThe long campaign to save the station is widely regarded as the beginning of the start of the architectural preservation movement that a few years later saved Grand Central Terminal.

The Penn Station waiting room, 1910-1963, modeled on the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

The Post Office building, named for former Postmaster General James A. Farley, lies across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station; it was designed by McKim, Mead and White, who also designed the station. They were built at the same time, with the station opening in 1910 and the Post Office in 1912.


Since the 1963 demolition, Penn Station has been entirely underground, often shabby and never beautiful. Over the years, as commuter traffic grew to more than make up for the drop in long-distance rail, more stores, ticket offices and the like were shoe-horned in, and less open waiting space was available.


Stairway to Heaven? No, escalator to Madison Square Garden. Below it, one of the new add-on entrances recently added to reduce crowding.


That escalator from that entrance served as one of this week's clues, along with a New York map mural that decorates it.


The station didn't even have a grand entrance; on one side the entrance is hidden under the Madison Square Garden marquee, and on the other a nondescript door set.


Meanwhile, plan after plan for a new station or new space, most using Farley, were floated and sunk, only briefly offering hope. Finally, in a true 'devil's bargain,' engineered by New York Gov. Cuomo, a plan was approved, giving real estate developers, principally Vornado, pretty much exclusive control of retail and other spaces in the project in return for quickly designing and building the project.


Perhaps that's why, to me, the vibe in the Moynihan Train Hall is more shopping mall than classic railroad terminal. But perhaps that's the fate of most new stations and airports these days. At least there's light at the end of the tunnel (sorry!)


Decor aside, the bones of the new structure are impressive. Perhaps looking up is the best strategy, especially with an impressive clock and an unusual artwork, skyscraper shapes mounted to a mirror to appear doubled.


I visited the station on New Year's Day, when it opened to the public, exactly four years after the opening of the Second Avenue Subway, another long-stalled New York Project. Because of that, there were fewer people in the station than might happen on a busier day, but more news crews wandering with mic and camera to interview station officials and passersby.


Above, our first puzzle clue, looking up out of the skylight at the interior facade of the building; below, the grand staircase up to the main retail level and office spaces.


Those retail spaces and the food hall won't open until later in the year, but the realistic photos covering the construction area could almost fool you. Maybe more than almost.


Also on the upper level, behind the clock, is the Metropolitan Lounge, a waiting area reserved for Amtrak's elite Acela passengers.


And a few more views of artistic and architectural detail. All Aboard!


Every New York infrastructure project completed under Gov. Cuomo features two slogans, in Latin and English. One, above, is E Pluribus Unum; the other is the state motto Excelsior, or Ever Higher. No actual clue why he wants them on every project...


Congratulations to those who recognized Penn Station as our mystery site:  George G, Jonathan L, PortMoresby and Roderick Simpson. Well played, all!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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