Penn Station, Take 3

The original Pennsylvania Station opened in 1910 to serve the Pennsylvania and Long Island Railroads; the later construction of the New York Connecting Railroad allowed the New Haven Railroad to enter as well. The Pennsy, as the largest and wealthiest railroad in the US, built a palace as its New York station. By the 1950s, as railroads were declining, the station began to be seen as an albatross: expensive to keep up and not providing nearly as much rent as could be expected from two full blocks of Manhattan real estate. Penn Station, Take 1, ended in the late 1960s, as the headhouse and concourse were demolished and an office building and new sports arena (the fourth Madison Square Garden) were constructed in their place, over the still-in-use platforms. Penn Station, Take 2, which I travelled thorough hundreds of times, had the ambience of a slightly-better-than-average subway station. As of the beginning of this year, we have Penn Station, Take 3, which uses a portion of the post office west of the original station as a new headhouse. There’s a certain symmetry to that, since the post office was designed by the same architects as the original station (McKim Mead and White) to complement it.

Rather than me going through the entire story let me recommend a New York Times article by Christina Goldbaum, a Times architectural review by Michael Kimmelman, and an independent architectural review by Karrie Jacobs.

The picture that I took above, during any first time catching a train at the new station, gives a sense of standing there looking at one end of the new concourse. Here’s a wide-angle but more artificial view of the whole concourse. (My apologies to the woman in the foreground for the effect that the panorama setting had on her appearance.)

There’s been a lot of focus on the skylights, and rightly so. The second station was oppressive, like being a fly trapped inside a desk drawer, so having an all-glass roof in the main space helps a lot; the architectural and structural design of the skylight are also impressive. But I found myself looking at the whole space with a sense of deja vu until I realized the architects had made a very clever choice. They had no way (economically or geometrically) to recreate the roman-bath portion of the first station:

So they used as their model the roman-bath-meets-steel-framing part of the original:

Then, a big empty floor with services at the perimeter, a curved skylight above, and stairs down to the platforms; 110 years later, the exact same thing, with escalators in place of stairs. I’d even go so far as to say this idea was reused because it works.

Some of the details of the new concourse struck me as appropriate to both the space and the reuse idea, and not just the cute and chunky columns. For example, what’s a better way to hide air vents than by putting them behind a heavy steel truss:

The old Penn Station was never coming back. The grand public spaces were meant for long-distance passengers who are now a small minority of the 350,000 rail passengers who pass through it daily (along with another 250,000 people using the adjacent subways and other services), a lot of the secondary spaces were awkwardly planned for the number of people, and the maintenance-cost-to-revenue-ratio problem that doomed the first station still exists. But the third station, using the original platforms and (mostly) the original track layout, is an attractive and functional building that would be celebrated without reservation if there weren’t a beautiful 50-year-old ghost hanging around.

There are still a few loose ends. There’s a lot of new signage directing people from the subways and the platforms to the new concourse, but a more direct connection to the east is in the works. Traffic is unnaturally low because of Covid, and we’ll see what has to be adapted when that big room is packed with people. And, perhaps most importantly, we’ll see what, if anything, has to be adapted as the materials start to age.

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