Save Penn Station

Thomas de Monchaux

New York City loves demolishing Pennsylvania Station so much that it keeps on doing it. The first demolition is still the most famous: the 1963–66 destruction of McKim, Mead & White’s 1910 sprawling Greco-Roman block-filler. But the threat continues to this day—not only to parts of the 1966 replacement, but to substantial and serendipitous remnants and complements of the original.

That replacement was developer/ architect Charles Luckman’s now unpopular design for the complex constituting of a commuter and intercity train station, a midsized office tower, and the Madison Square Garden arena. “One entered the city like a god,” goes the famous elegy by historian Vincent Scully, “one scuttles in now like a rat.” Presumably he meant that because the demolished Penn Station’s colonnaded halls and vaulted rooms, with their sixty-foot monumental Corinthian order, were based vaguely on the Baths of Caracalla, you could waft through it all as might one of those many irritable or implacable Roman deities—or at least like a Roman citizen spending a summer afternoon at the caldarium. (Never mind that, since the original Penn Station didn’t much provide dedicated circulation to the local subways, and since its main hall was displaced from its primary platforms in the interest of exterior visual presence on Seventh Avenue, there was always a measure of scuttling.)

Yet the rat—virally pizza-schlepping or otherwise—is the natural sigil and familiar of New York City: maritime, hungry, brave, ingenious, ambitious, unsentimental, disloyal, charismatic, sociable, adaptable, violence-capable, possessed of a nocturnal glamour and feral beauty. Compared with all that, what New Yorker would want to be a mere god of ancient Rome: languid, impulsive, callow, inhuman? God-wise, the demolition of Penn Station also answers to the received wisdom of a Christian martyrdom story: the old Penn Station had to die so that other distinguished ancient buildings might live. The fall of the wrecking ball was our Judas kiss. Our uncritically received gospel is that the city’s instant remorse at having done such a thing catalyzed the founding of its Landmarks Preservation Commission, generally understood to be the first of its kind, and—in parallel with the concurrent federal Historic Preservation Act of 1966—an institutional template for the late-mid-twentieth-century conservation movement in architecture and urbanism. More and more when I hear all that, I think: cool story, bro. It is a flattering and soothing and juvenile and puritanical and gratifyingly evangelical narrative: that only through an act of successful savagery and self-sabotage could a place or a people subsequently arrive at righteous rectitude. Conversely, embedded within the relentlessly expressed regret for destroying the old Penn Station may be also a perverse thrill or transgressive pride in having actually done it, in having proved our dangerous streak and our roguish immunity to refinement. By smashing our nice things and then hating ourselves for doing so, we get to have it both ways: to identify with the Barbarians as well as the Romans, with the rats as well as the gods.

WHEN I SEE that durable Scully quotation, I also remember the next slide in Architecture 101: the photo of Scully’s sometime patron, the Ohio socialite and aluminum fortune heir and would-be gentleman architect Philip Johnson—the insider’s insider, the rat king himself—cosplaying as a street-action outsider. There he is at a protest in August of 1962, stooping in a sack suit and bathed in the second-hand virtue radiating from a white-gloved Jane Jacobs nearby, below the handheld hand-lettered sign: “SAVE PENN STATION.” The semiradical chic continued in 1975, in another well-photographed sidewalk event, where Johnson in a fur hat stands dourly next to Jackie Kennedy, Bess Myerson, and then congressman Ed Koch, to forfend the possible demolition of the city’s spare neoclassical railway pile, Warren & Wetmore’s 1913 Grand Central Terminal. Through which, gliding down from New Haven on Metro North, Scully could presumably continue to feel that he was arriving like a god.

A few years ago—in an expression of civic amour-propre that continued the pious satisfactions to be found in self-laceration for the demolition of the old Penn Station—a conclave convened by New York Magazine designated that spare, Grand Central Terminal, to be the city’s greatest work of architecture. It is no such thing. It’s fine. Its dutiful if ponderous Beaux-Arts manner, its picturesque clock and ceiling, and above all its very deft ramped multilevel circulation system integrated with the local streetscapes and subways, would all be a credit to Brussels or Melbourne. Only in Midtown Manhattan would such genuine but assuredly basic competence be mistaken for excellence.

This willful enthusiasm appears to extend to recent renovations by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of the former James A. Farley Post Office Building of 1912 (also designed by White and company) into the Moynihan Train Hall. SOM, with their characteristic talent, converted the old skylit letter distribution hall into an additional waiting hall for Pennsylvania Station, while also raveling some of the tanglier stretches of tunnel, track, and concourse below. The new hall, with its puffy cushion of glass overhead, knows about Norman Foster at the British Museum and at the Isle of Dogs. And it’s Chipperfield-aware in its elegantly curatorial juxtapositions of old classical remnants and new stone veneers. It does, like a duty-free passageway at an airport, feature a lot of LED advertising. It has a handsome clock that won a prize. It’s notoriously without benches—for which its designers are blameless, this being the usual civic hostility toward those who need rest the most. So, let’s say Moynihan Train Hall is great! It’s quite fine! As an example of adaptive reuse and stewardship of existing building stock with lost carbon and energy costs, it is profoundly ethical and deeply skillful. More of that, please. Rather like Grand Central Terminal for its time, Moynihan Train Hall meets a global standard. It’s good work. (It does need those benches.) But it is in no way—in no way at all, dear reader—an architectural artifact that, as the headline to an ebullient bulletin in the New Yorker once suggested, “redeems the destruction of the original Penn Station.”

This displaced affection—for these newest portions of the Penn Station complex and for sturdy old Grand Central Terminal— might instead be lavished on the original “new” Penn Station. Meaning what we might now call the old new Penn Station. Meaning the “bad” one. The one from 1966. Which is—it is a truth that must now be acknowledged—a great building. Its greatness has been obscured and its reputation has suffered from the beginning, because one is ritually obliged to hate the substitute teacher, and to blame the closer for the removal of the starter.

BUT LET’S TAKE A FRESH LOOK. Because the station was obliged to operate continuously during demolition and construction, the architectural erasures of 1966 were ruthless but never gratuitous: plenty of splendid McKim, Mead & White ephemera survives in the background and the underground, thanks to benign neglect and irresistible usefulness. There’s a monumental and indispensable Renaissance palazzo of a building, the Penn Station Service Station at 236-248 West 31st Street, built in 1908 to serve and power the station campus, and still clad in the very same historic Tennessee marble as was all the rest. There’s dainty 1910s detailing down on the train platforms themselves, which the 1960s left surprisingly untouched. Upstairs, the sweep of Luckman’s low broad concourses—Scully’s scuttles—were in part the necessary head-ducking modesty of a transportation hub easing itself under a major arena and office complex. But they also represented a Jet Age effort—poignant, now—to evoke in a train station the horizontal, horizon-seeking vibe of the era’s airports. Minus, alas, the big sky and climactic Saarinen roofs.

The 1966 building succeeds as a Koolhaas-worthy cross-sectional and planimetric warp and weft of intermodal circulation systems, integrating multiuse programs of infrastructure and culture. It is a place of coincidence and confluence. Even compromised by decades of ham-fisted alterations and post-9/11 hardenings, in so many simple and serendipitous and sneaky ways it supports the fluid passage of some 600,000 people a day—a little like one of those scruffy yet scrappy Mars rovers that, designed to last two months, keeps working for twenty years. Inside, all that foot traffic occasions corporate retail at its most gratifyingly abject and local businesses at their most brilliantly striving. Outside, the old new Penn Station succeeds as a formal assembly at an urban scale, in which the jolly cylindrical drum of the Garden and the banker-chalk-striped golden-section-proportioned box of the office tower—displaced from the grid as felicitously as Walter Gropius’s last gasp on Park Avenue at the old Pan Am Building—constitute a composition that lets you know someone has remembered Filippo Brunelleschi’s similar basilica-and-campanile arrangement in Florence. The arena’s circular tension-ring roof engineering, worthy of Luigi Nervi, is a beautifully expressed feat. The whole’s fine detailing, from the textured facades to the attenuated door handles—though much abraded by a visually illiterate 1990s renovation that brought in a lot of Amtrak-blue fake Art Deco—preserves an angular dexterity of geometry and deft consideration of human scale and material pleasure.

The stories of the 1966 Penn Station’s design team are better than those of Stanford White. Its principal designer was Charles Luckman, a former boy wonder who in that capacity as president at Lever Brothers—and already educated as an architect at the University of Illinois—was the enlightened patron for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s quintessential masterpiece, the definitive document of the International Style that is 1956’s Lever House. Luckman went back into architecture and, the legend goes, had the commission for the Seagram Building snatched from him at the last minute by somebody called Philip Johnson. Can it be a coincidence that Luckman’s beautiful proportions for his skyscraper at the new Penn Station are exactly the same as Bunshaft’s at Lever House? Prior to his 1960s work on Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, Luckman was in long partnership with playful Brutalist maestro William Pereira, independently the designer of the best skyscraper west of the Mississippi, San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid. The two co-authored America’s second-best skyscraper north of West 34th Street (after its neighbor, Harry Cobb’s perfect Hancock Tower), Boston’s urbane and foursquare Prudential Center, which only looks better with each passing year.

Luckman seems to have been something of a John Portman–like figure, masking a magnificent madness with the technocratic posture of a late-mid-twentieth-century man of affairs. As with Portman, Luckman’s worldly success may have blinded his peers and critics to his natural talent and idiosyncratic idealism—even of course as the works of both men coincided with and sometimes added an enabling architectural pedigree to the classist and racist public policies of so-called urban renewal. The finely textured surfaces, expressed materiality, and urbane massing of Luckman’s old new Penn Station are an essential document of the pivotal high-modernist encounter between Brutalism and—as by Edward Durrell Stone at the still-extant but reskinned Two Columbus Circle or by Minoru Yamasaki at the late great Twin Towers—New Formalism.

NOW IT’S ALL BEING SQUANDERED. Again. Somebody has decided to wrap blue mirror glass around the finely detailed Penn Station office tower. This neoliberal glass, thanks to its tint, provides you with the peculiar pedigree, from a self-appointed industry group, of an operational energy efficiency rating named after a precious metal. Never mind that lighting/heating/cooling operations, compared with demolition and construction, are an increasingly minor percentage of any building’s life-time energy and carbon systems impact. The silver lining to this reskinning is that it may long delay still another demolition of a serviceable midtown skyscraper, and the associated squandering of embodied energy and other lost environmental costs.

This glassy defacement of Luckman’s tower is presumably to make it better resemble that apparition to its immediate west, Hudson Yards—all those lumpen bluish skyscrapers recently built on Penn Station’s decked-over railyards, two blocks to the west. You remember Hudson Yards? From 2019? The disappointing City of Oz at the end of the Yellow Brick Road that was the High Line? Palliating the disappointment, a shaggy little tail of that elevated linear park now wraps carefully around, and that much is still lovely. And there’s the consolation of The Shed, the culture and entertainment hub that Diller Scofidio + Renfro made good and big and fun in a way that makes one think back to McKim, Meade & White’s own design for that other edifying pleasure palace, the original Garden, back when it was actually at Madison Square.

But then there’s Thomas Heatherwick’s apparatus next door. Would that a trigger warning such as this one were available for those who in daily life encounter evidence of its sad history—such as apparent test installations, this past August, of some retrofitted safety nets. One can choose to hold the high expectation that its chastened dismantling, in memory of those whose suicides it convenienced, must be forthcoming. The other disappointments of the complex are more banal. There’s a cavernous indoor shopping mall, historically an awkward typology for Manhattan, recently abandoned by its anchor tenant, Neiman Marcus. There’s a superabundance of leasable office space, its original construction premised on the assumption of a density of in-person white-collar workers that no longer applies—now that the first years of the pandemic have revealed the practicability and desirability of remote work. This is especially so in the fields of finance and technology, as indicated by a June 2022 Bloomberg report that Facebook and Amazon are downsizing their planned footprints in the development. There’s a lot of luxury high-rise condominium residences, a quarter of which are currently unsold. There’s a reported reconsideration of assurances made to build schools and parkland and housing in phase two of the development, in favor of such more lucrative enterprises as a new sports arena or casino.

Even before this obsolescing and backtracking, as a matter of urban and architectural design Hudson Yards not only lacked the romance acquired over time by Rockefeller Center—a comparable development from almost a century earlier—but lacked that older project’s fundamental competence in integrating pedestrian, vehicular, and transit circulation; in accommodating and empowering a variety and liberty of activity by its users; in spatially and socially stitching a modern superblock into the fabric of the city. All this—its collapsing economic models, its prim poverty of imagination, its bloat—suggested that at the very least, Hudson Yards would stay where it is. But here it comes, slouching east.

“HELLHOLE” was the word that current New York governor Kathy Hochul used not for Hudson Yards but for the existing Pennsylvania Station complex when in 2021 she proposed a $7 billion demolition and construction project featuring ten new supertalls that would exceed city zoning restraints to accommodate another 13 million square feet of in-person office space—for which the need is ever more unlikely—plus some billion dollars of tax breaks to its primary private development partners. “The big prize,” wrote Jane Jacobs of that earlier era of so-called urban renewal, “became getting the government to do what you wanted” as a “means of making great fortunes.” To call a place a hell is to slander its users as demons and sinners. Today’s Penn Station is of course no such place: it’s just a complicated patch of urbanism that has suffered from poor stewardship, from uncomprehending and condescending renovations, and from habituated and unexamined contempt. As a major artifact of Albany-administered urban infrastructure, it is the site of a state’s ambivalence and suburban passive aggression toward its city, and of a car culture’s biases around the class and race of many who use public transport. It is blamed for the visible evidence of its own neglect.

Contemporary disparagement of the place—and exaggeration of its flaws and so of the scale of their putative refurbishments— helps establish a false urgency for this new thirty-acre real estate development project: as if that project’s purpose was to tend to the tiny fraction of that acreage that happens to constitute a globally petite intercity and commuter railway facility, a bijou office tower, and somewhere for 20,000 people to watch the Knicks. What the Penn Station and Madison Square Garden complex needs is not especially some thirty acres of supertalls, but a mindful and surgical intervention—perhaps by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, exactly in the manner of their masterfully sympathetic update of the West Side’s other magnificent midcentury relic, Lincoln Center—that would extract the deadwood of all those clumsy renovations; update air-handling systems; clarify pedestrian wayfinding; and ingeniously introduce daylighting into the heart of the complex. This should be within the competence of a metropolis.

Even now, it appears that the plan is not only to erase pieces of Luckman’s modern vision for Pennsylvania Station, but also significant remaining original work by McKim, Mead & White—including that glorious landmark palazzo of a power station, which a published draft of the Empire Station environmental impact statement ominously described as having, “Significant Adverse Impact from Development on Site 2,” a consolidated lot along the south side of West 31st Street. Beautiful and useful and embodied-energy-rich structures that have lasted from 1908 should not be destroyed lightly. This power station is of course, as was London’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall, a world-class art museum in waiting— perhaps for the American Folk Art Museum, a storied institution currently in need of a more useful home than its current digs near Lincoln Center. Also due for destruction is McKim, Mead & White’s 1919 landmark Hotel Pennsylvania, designed by them, as was Farley Post Office, as part of an urban composition continuous with their station. (That particular demolition apparently serves the construction of another glassy supertall office tower, by Foster + Partners, with the amusing name of PENN15.) An old hotel—especially of the great scale of a grande dame like the Hotel Pennsylvania, with some 2,000 rooms—is a magnificent unnatural resource of lost-cost carbon and energy, which no “net zero” jiggery-pokery will redeem or replace; and is of a typology especially useful for addressing the urgent question of housing equity in New York City. Dear city, dear careless and avaricious city, for once get something right: just keep it and make it into a homeplace. As of this writing, it’s not too late. Everything extant can be put to good future use.

AFTER THE CROWDED ISOLATION and the failures of governance, citizenship, and common sense evinced in the pandemic-era city, it’s sometimes hard to remember why I Love New York. Here’s one small reason why. Once, I was mindlessly commuting along in the infrastructural circulation part of Penn Station, in the usual fugue state, when I noticed the joy of those in the crowd, who were weaving through the ramps and concourses associated with the cultural part. Normally these joyous people are Rangers fans and I don’t pay much attention. But this time they were, seemingly to a person, exquisitely dressed. There was an energy of glory as if they were going both to church and to a bacchanal. Which in a way they were.

Guided by intuition, I missed my train and just followed them, improvising into the flow of the city, steering out into its current and its night. The transition was seamless. It was enabled by the absence of the intense architectural segregation of user types and by the absence of the brittle regulation of personal behavior that are characteristic conditions of places like the High Line and Hudson Yards. It was enabled by the fluidity of the high-functioning mess that, in some kind of reciprocal homeostasis and collective oversoul, the ever-new city has made of its old new station—that putative hellhole. I threw away my LIRR ticket and bought, from an enterprising gentleman on Seventh Avenue, a ticket to the concert upstairs. It was Jay Z and Kanye West. Watch the Throne.

I knew, not having grown up with it, not a lot about hip hop—the Bronx birthplace of that art just a few express stops from Penn Station on the A train. But I know that seeing that concert has been as important in my understanding of what it means to be a human being as seeing, say, Chartres Cathedral. I remember Kanye in his pale smock and leather pants, floating through the air on a sparkling silver cube. I felt that seeing those two then—especially at that moment in what I now understand to have been West’s tragicomic trajectory as a public persona and perhaps also as a private person—was probably the closest I will get to hearing the greatest of all New Yorkers himself, Walt Whitman, read his own poetry aloud. Ball so hard. That shit cray. We ain’t even ‘posed to be here. You escaped what I escape. And what I assume you shall assume. For every atom belonging to me as good belong to you. Urge and urge and urge. I believe in you my soul. Serendipity. Density. Complexity. Liberty. The freedom of crowds. The wisdom of crowds. Save New York City. Save Penn Station.

THOMAS DE MONCHAUX is an architect, an award-winning design writer, and an inadvertent but inveterate New Yorker.

Illustration by SEAN SUCHARA

This review appeared in issue #31. Subscribe to receive our current issue by mail.