In utero since 1992, Moynihan Train Hall finally arrived this January 1st. Spliced into the U.S Postal Service’s former mail sorting colossus at the Farley Building, the new facility adds 250,000 sq ft to Pennsylvania Station. And, for the first time since 1963, its $1.6 billion design from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill showers something heavenly upon Penn’s passing patrons: natural light.
The Train Hall’s skylight is the best of its features. Soaring 92 feet high, the glass array set about the Farley Building’s original steel trusses directs warmth and color to the concourse below. It not only pays homage to the roof of Penn’s first main concourse that reigned from 1910 to 1963, but nearly matches its once hundred-foot reach.
Next, there’s the elbow room. Free of obstruction, there’s space on the concourse for passengers to sit, stand, or stare; and gather their bearings without being trampled. Since the doors to the Hall were placed on its cardinal points, comings and goings are easy to navigate.
But if you crave more specifics, there’s 20 foot kiosks that mark off the escalators to the tracks. They flash out their various arrival and departure times in letters so large you can spot them from far in the distance.
And what if you’re lost? Well, both the Long Island Railroad [LIRR] and Amtrak offer service centers for the disoriented on the west side of the concourse. And abutting each office is a digital big board showing both company’s schedules. Yet the most helpful tool might be hanging from the ceiling.
Near the center of the concourse, it’s an Art Deco clock that suspends from a beam. Designed by Peter Pennoyer Architects, the time piece measures 12 x 6 and weighs 4,000 pounds. At 25 feet in the air, it can be seen anywhere in the Hall. So saying “Let’s meet at the clock!” is the best advice you could give someone who’s directionally challenged. One day, it may even mirror the importance of its peer at Grand Central Terminal. Regardless, the huge metronome revives an architectural motif from Penn Station’s past that’s been dormant for too long.
There’s also a renewal of panoramic art. In Penn’s first waiting room (1910-1963), muralist Jules Guerin (1866-1946) treated arrivals to six 25 x 70 landscapes under its 150 foot tall ceiling. Today’s Moynihan isn’t as grand, but the artists followed Guerin’s example.
In the new Hall’s West 33rd Street egress, Kehidne Wiley fixed a hand-painted glass triptych into the ceiling called “Go.” In the East 31st Street one, the team of Elmgreen & Dragset fastened an upside-down, 30,000 pound sculpture to the top of its corridor. “The Hive,” as it’s known, contains 91 buildings that twinkle to life with 72,000 scattered LEDs.
In spite of the investment, the Train Hall doesn’t tackle Penn’s most pressing problem: capacity. Before Covid-19, the station was shuffling some 650,000 commuters through its catacombs each day — far more than it can handle. Yet none of its 11 platforms were widened to provide more waiting space for passengers, nor any of its current 21 tracks augmented with others. What’s more, Moynihan can’t disguise the crumbling trans-Hudson Tunnel between New York and New Jersey that is yet to be taken out of service for a complete overhaul. That would require building another tunnel; but that endeavor — whether called Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) as presented in 2003, or the Gateway Project from 2011 — has yet to be funded.
Moreover, Moynihan exacerbates an issue that has plagued Penn since the Pennsylvania Railroad Company [PRR] lost control of the Station after its 1976 bankruptcy: decentralization.
When the Railroad collapsed, New Jersey Transit [NJT] bought its assets running through the Garden State. The federal government [Amtrak] took its routes going elsewhere. Coupled with New York State’s purchase of the Long Island Railroad [LIRR] from PRR in 1965, the Station has since been directed by three entities instead of one, often with disastrous operational impact. (A dispute between Amtrak and LIRR in the 1980s, for example, delayed renovations to the LIRR’s 33rd Street Connecting Concourse until the early 1990s.) In the wake of PRR’s centralized stewardship, today’s Penn Station has simply devolved into fiefdoms: one for Amtrak, one for NJT, and one for the LIRR.
Moynihan Hall just expands the division. Behind the scenes, New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation owns the Farley Building, but it leases the property to the Related Companies and Vornado Reality. So the new Train Hall — and, by extension, Penn itself — is now in the hands of five different interests.
On the surface, though, Moynihan is a notably Amtrak. Its main concourse supplies escalator passage to and from only those tracks designated for Amtrak’s use: Tracks 5-16. And although signs for the LIRR are everywhere throughout the Hall, patrons would need to drop down one level to the West End Concourse to access those tracks marked for Long Island’s use: Tracks 17-21. NJT is another matter.
Neither the West End Concourse nor Moynihan Hall bring commuters to NJT’s Tracks 1-4. Instead, the big board reads, “NJ Transit & Tracks 1-4: Please Cross 8th Avenue to Penn Station.” And the confusion inevitably follows: “But aren’t I in Penn Station?” Well, apparently not anymore.
To get there, as the big board suggests, patrons could go back outside and cross 8th Avenue. Or they they could take the West End Concourse north until it ends. There, a slim, old tunnel veers east. And, after ducking under its 11 foot ceiling, dodging obstacles like standing water and exposed girders, and avoiding the turnstile to the 8th Avenue Subway, the traveler would finally arrive on LIRR’s 33rd Street Connecting Concourse. “Huh? But where’s Tracks 1-4?”
Moynihan keeps tearing Penn’s former cohesion.
The Farley Building itself has a big transit flaw: stairs for an entrance. And they don’t lead to trains.
Spanning 8th Avenue between 31st and 33rd Street, its 31 stone steps alight 25 feet to the lobby of today’s trimmed down Post Office. However, once past the mail clerks and drop boxes, the commuter is deposited on a balcony above the Train Hall’s concourse. More stairs are needed to get down again. So Farley’s steps are far from practical. Patrons will probably find Moynihan through Farley’s smaller street level entries to the north or south of its steps. However, once words gets out that the north entrance is the shortest way to Tracks 17-21, the area could develop a permanent bottleneck.
While Moynihan is spacious, it lacks public seating. Amtrak offers waiting rooms on the east end of the concourse, but only for “ticketed customers.” Everyone else can sit on the floor.
In the Penn that existed from 1910 to 1963, however, free public seating was a priority. Between the waiting room and main concourse, its architect placed two “sub-waiting” rooms with benches that could hold up to 700 people. On the Station’s lower level, seating for LIRR passengers was initially ignored. Later, though, when PRR’s president caught an earful from angry Long Islanders, he ordered his engineer to install a waiting room for 150 riders where nobody intended one. Perhaps the same will happen today.
And finally, the name. While the late Senator from New York Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) first championed the expansion of Penn into Farley, christening the Hall after him is tricky. Of course, there’s the obvious: It invites confusion. To the unfamiliar, they’ll read his name and wonder, “Where’s Penn Station?” To the rest, they’ll ask, “Is this now a separate station?” Perhaps a moniker like “Penn West” would have averted the trouble. But Senator’s legacy is a different matter.
In early 1970, while serving as counselor to President Richard M. Nixon, he wrote a memo outlining how the President might repair “the relation of [his] administration to the black population.” He proposed that
The issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’ The subject has been too much talked about…. Greater attention to Indians, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans would be useful. A tendency to ignore provocations from groups such as the Black Panthers might also be useful.
But the pain of Black Americans being “ignored” by their country was on full display during the 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd. Perhaps “neglecting” their concerns all these years wasn’t such a “useful” policy. Maybe the new Train Hall shouldn’t bear the stain of Moynihan’s brainchild.
Instead, it could have been named after William Mitchell Kendall (1856-1941), the architect from McKim, Mead & White who sketched out the Farley Building. Or maybe George McAneny (1869-1953) who, as Manhattan Borough President, pushed for Penn Station in the first place. But the most worthy of all could be Alexander Cassatt (1839-1906). While president of the PRR, his vision of a Hudson River tunnel bringing trains to New York gave birth to Penn Station in 1910. There was once a statue of him in the old arcade. Perhaps it’s time for his likeness to return.
Photos by Rick Stachura. Moynihan Train Hall, Pennsylvania Station. January 3, 2021.