Updated: Jan 26, 2021
By Bart Boehlert
Now arriving on schedule is good news for New York City with the opening this month of the brand new Moynihan Train Hall in the James A. Farley Post Office Building across the street from Penn Station on Eighth Avenue between 33rd and 31st Streets. This major new development has been in the works since the early 1990s when the enlightened Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom the hall is named after, championed the idea of converting the Farley Building to alleviate Penn Station, which had become the busiest transportation hub in the western hemisphere. Now, in a design created by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill that marvelously marries the old with the new, an acre of glittering glass skylights stretches over original steel trusses in a concourse that is almost as big as Grand Central Station and welcomes travelers to New York in style. The hall was completed on time and on budget, and all during a pandemic. “This would be an amazing accomplishment at any time, but it is an extraordinary accomplishment today,” said Governor Cuomo at the opening this month. “As dark as 2020 was, to me this hall brings the light, literally and figuratively.”
Certainly, improvements were needed over the dark, subterranean, labyrinth that is Penn Station today. The original Pennsylvania Station was designed in 1910 by masters McKim, Mead & White and was then the largest train station in the world. Inspired by the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla, it was a glorious combination of classical architecture and modern, vaulting skylights. McKim, Mead & White also designed the James A. Farley Post Office Building across Eighth Avenue in the Beaux Arts style in 1914. When the train station was tragically demolished in 1963, it led New Yorkers to pass the Landmarks Law and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has saved significant New York City architecture including Grand Central Station. At Penn Station, Madison Square Garden was built on top of the site, squashing the formerly ethereal train station underground into a confused, tangled mess of low-ceilinged tunnels connecting Amtrak, Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit.
Thankfully now at last the Moynihan Train Hall begins to redress the error. “Our goal was to create an uplifting space that would humanize train travel and elevate the train travel experience,” says Jon Cicconi, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Senior Design Architect. “The intention was to design a really appealing gateway to the city because that was lacking in Penn Station. It was such an abominable place to enter the most amazing city in the world,” adds Marla Gayle, Project Manager at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Within the Farley Building, three huge steel tresses that spanned across the former mail sorting room were uncovered and painted grey. Between these tresses, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill installed 92-feet high glass skylights in catenary arches that billow in waves across the concourse. “Our design for Moynihan celebrates the power of engineering as did the original Penn,” says Gayle. The floor is layered with Tennessee Quaker marble from the same quarry as Grand Central Station’s marble. As in the original station, a handsome clock hangs from the center of the ceiling. The new 12-foot high Art Deco clock was designed by Peter Pennoyer Architects, who won a competition for the commission.
The Moynihan Train Hall is an extension of Penn Station; as such New Jersey Transit remains in Penn Station, while Amtrak and Long Island Railroad are served by the new hall. The two buildings are connected under Eighth Avenue by the new West End Concourse. On the Eighth Avenue street level, the graceful steps of the Beaux Arts Farley Building lead up to majestic columns and into the ornate lobby which is now being restored and will return again as a working post office. At the far west end of the Farley Building, called the Annex, Facebook has leased 730,000 square feet of office space.
The natural light and open spaces of the hall make it easy to navigate and get around. The renovation also includes art installations, dining, retail space and modern display systems that offer transportation information. But mostly, the visitor is impressed by the sparkling cleanliness and hushed quiet of the vaulted space. “We were inspired by a sense of grandeur and a sense of humanity,” says Cicconi. The result is an elegant hub that New York richly deserves.