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  • Writer's pictureD. Maurice Kreis

Gloom and Doom on Seventh Avenue in NYC

One strolled down Seventh Avenue in New York City between 31st and 33rd Streets like a god, and soon one will scuttle down that urban corridor like a rat.

That, with respectful homage to the late architectural historian and pithy built-world pundit Vincent Scully, is my reaction to the plan to reconfigure Two Penn Plaza -- the monstrous mediocrity of an office building that in the 1960s replaced the eastern half of what was once the glorious McKim, Mead & White neo-classical Pennsylvania Station.

Why do I care about this? Well, as I have previously explained, even for us New Englanders the great metropolis of New York City is still to some degree the crossroads of the universe. The Amtrak Northeast Corridor passes directly beneath Penn Station and is the vital transportation link connecting Boston and Washington plus all points between. Rare is the New England citizen who does not have to use Pennsylvania Station from time to time.

Plus, the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station, which began in 1963, is my personal original sin when it comes to my interest in architecture. The demolition is literally my first architectural memory; I thought the McKim, Mead & White building to be gloomy and scary whereas I thought the Charles Luckman-designed complex that replaced it to be bold and beautiful. How wrong I was, as I gradually discovered over the years.

Lately all of the attention has been focused on the Eighth Avenue side of Penn Station. On the east side of Eighth Avenue is the clunky toxic waste drum that comprises Madison Square Garden, sitting atop the squashed remnants of the railroad station. But across the street stands the newly opened Moynihan Train Hall, Amtrak's dazzling new station that has been cleverly nestled into the atrium of another McKim, Mead & White building -- the Farley Post Office.

But the Seventh Avenue side of Penn Station is still important. The original McKim, Mead & White design essentially assumed that most people would arrive on the Seventh Avenue side of the complex, which is closer to the heart of midtown (i.e., Times Square, Herald Square, &c.). The Seventh Avenue IRT, which has a stop at Penn Station, is a key local artery for Amtrak passengers. This corridor should not be overlooked in the midst of celebrating all of the developments on the Eighth Avenue side.

Meanwhile, Vornado Realty Trust (which apparently owns Two Penn Plaza) has released renderings of the 'improvements' it intends for the building. One could call these improvements cosmetic -- the design created by MdeAS Architects replaces the existing pseudo-miesian facade with something glassier and classier -- if the proposal did not also include a cancerous growth that would cantelever a new module so far out over the plaza that the whole thing would be left in shadow.

Look at the two renderings above! The shadows in the first one don't seem to comport with the reality of the way the sun actually shines. When renderings do that, it's a dead giveaway that someone is trying to hide the actual shadow-throwing effect of the contemplated construction. The second rendering seems to be a somewhat more realistic depiction, showing that a stroll down this block of Seventh Avenue would become unfriendly indeed.

Even more galling are the images Vornado have provided of various pleasant outdoor scenes their Two Penn Plaza renovation would facilitate. It turns out the cantilevered module is supposed to create all sorts of pleasant strolling spaces -- but they will be several stories above the street level and, presumably, open only to guests of the rent-paying tenants.

Such privatization of sunshine and urban amenities is never welcome but at this particular location -- the home of the once glorious Pennsylvania Station, crossroads of the universe -- it is downright intolerable. Thanks to the High Line, strolling high above street level has become a quintessential way to experience Manhattan. But the High Line is a public park. This is just a rich people's private terrace with a rat habitat beneath.

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