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  • Writer's pictureD. Maurice Kreis

Regional Civic Architecture Takes a Step Out of the Gloom

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their their appointed rounds."

These words, first written (in another language) by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, is one of my favorite quotes. With apologies to the classicists of my acquaintance, I don't much care that during the wars that took place between the Greeks and the Persians from around 500 B.C. to 449 B.C., the Persians had a terrific network of mail carriers on horseback.

Rather, I care about architecture -- and the power of our built world to reach into our daily lives, affirming and supporting us or, in far too many instances, oppressing us. Sometimes architecture becomes so important that an architectural act even bends our culture in some palpable fashion.

So it was when a junior designer in the fabled architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White decided that the observation Herodotus made about ancient message couriers would be just the thing to chisel into the entablature of what was known, when it opened in 1914, as New York's General Post Office. What's cool is that those words somehow attached themselves to the U.S. Postal Service with Super Glue, so much so that it is widely but incorrectly believed that the aphorism is the official motto of the USPS.

Eventually, the General Post Office became the James A. Farley Post Office (named for the loyal Democratic pol that Franklin D. Roosevelt made his Postmaster General) and, of course, this grand but faux classical spectacle designed by McKim, Mead & White is much in the news in early 2021 because it houses the newly opened Moynihan Train Hall (named for yet another politician, the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan). It is directly across Eighth Avenue from Pennsylvania Station; the migration of Amtrak across the street is widely and correctly considered an atonement of sorts for one of the great architectural misdeeds in American history -- the destruction, from 1963 to 1965, of the McKim, Mead & White Penn Station.

Out of that misdeed grew my personal interest in architecture. I was a little kid while Penn Station was under demolition, with grandparents who lived nearby, on East 34th Street. I never saw the inside of Penn Station, but I distinctly recall what it looked like from the outside -- dark, dirty, and scary. Right around then, there was a paid supplement in the New York Times one Sunday that was all about the complex that eventually replaced Penn Station. It was Charles Luckman's design for Penn Plaza -- what struck me as a dazzling and bright collection of mixed uses (an office tower, a new home for Madison Square Garden, exhibition spaces, shopping concourses and even a bowling alley) all built atop a sleek and modern station serving both the interstate Pennsylvania Railroad (now Amtrak) and the commuter-oriented Long Island Railroad.

You will have to forgive me. At age seven, I thought buildings were cool, I liked new fresh new buildings better than sooty old ones, but I had no notion that, to invoke the now-famous micro-assessment of the late, still renowned, and always highly opinionated Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully, that "one entered the city like a god" but "one scuttles in now like a rat."

I figured it out, soon enough.

Scuttling in and out of Penn Station while dreaming of what was once there is familiar to me as a former resident of New York City and as a frequent user of Amtrak's northeast corridor as a convenient way to get into and out of Washington, D.C. from my present home in New England. I can't wait to check out the new Moynihan Train Hall. Meanwhile, ever the contrarian, I would like to take this opportunity to quibble with, if not demolish in 1963-65 fashion, a few of the nostalgic myths that have accreted, like so much grime on a great neoclassical edifice of the early 20th Century.

First things first. Scully's famous rebuke of the Charles Luckman monstrosity proceeds from a significantly flawed premise. One never entered the city like a god.

When Charles Follen McKim and his team sat down to design the world's greatest railway station, he was not just striving to resurrect the Baths of Caracalla as they existed in ancient Rome. He was also attempting to create a giant people-moving (and baggage-moving) machine that took into account the then-available insights and technology. Then, as now, people tended to hang around railway stations while embarking but not upon arrival. Thus McKim et alii created exit concourses that actually bypassed Penn Station's grand spaces and swiftly reunited passengers with their baggage and funneled them to the places where taxicabs and subway trains awaited. For arriving passengers, there was no stairway to heaven.

In fairness to Scully, and as reflected by two of the images above, there was more than a little grandeur to both arriving and departing when Penn Station opened in 1911. Railroad electrification, and thus the elimination of noisy and smoke-belching coal-powered engines, made it possible to transform train stations and their passenger platforms into fully indoor spaces. So a person travelling from Penn Station in Philadelphia to Penn Station in New York stepped off the train after crossing beneath the Hudson River (the tunnel also made feasible by electrification) and into the light of McKim's glorious, glass- and iron-ceilinged atrium. Alas, that vista was eventually eliminated and the floor of the departure concourse extended to cover the platforms fully -- at safety measure, I believe, so that no one would ever accidentally make contact with the high-voltage catenary that powers the trains as they move through the station.

The drawings that I have appropriate here are from the National Civic Art Society and its quixotic Rebuild Penn Station project. To their credit, they're all in for a resurrection of the original design as embodied in what opened to the public in 1911. What they do not acknowledge is how flawed the basic concept of Penn Station was, pretty much from the get-go.

McKim and his team had a really rigid notion of the odyssey each departing passenger would undertake, simply to go through the process of buying a ticket, checking baggage as necessary, and then boarding their train. From the sidewalk one was supposed to enter via the temple-like facade on Seventh Avenue, almost a block away from the train platforms themselves. As every New Yorker well knows, the blocks between avenues (as opposed to the ones between streets) are really long. From there one was supposed to proceed west along a long and admittedly glorious looking retail arcade to arrive at the main hall -- which is the space intended to evoke an ancient Roman bath. For those arriving by taxicab or other motorized vehicle, there were motorways on either side of the retail arcade that likewise led passengers to the main hall.

As others have pointed out, while the concourse was a tribute to the emerging age of glass and steel -- and is thus an honest reflection of building science as it existed in 1911 -- the main hall is about as real and honest as a worlds fair pavilion. The stonework was all fake; plaster was applied to a steel infrastructure. Still, it must have been something to alight there and approach an agent of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad to book passage to points east or west. But your walk was not over since you still had to proceed further west to the Crystal Palace of a concourse in order to catch your train.

Thus it can be said that the repurposing of what was once a giant mail sorting room in the Farley Post Office for use as a consolidated concourse and ticketing hall, with flanking lounges, waiting rooms, and retail establishments, is actually an improvement upon rather than a recapitulation of the original Penn Station design. It is the work of architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) -- a poignantly suitable choice for the job. SOM is the McKim, Mead & White of our era; it is vast and powerful, but unlike the shop that created Penn Station it has proven itself both enduring and innovative. Founded in 1936, SOM has shaped the New York cityscape since the completion of Lever House on Park Avenue in 1952 through One World Trade Center in 2014 and, now, the grandest act of adaptive reuse in Manhattan since the creation of the High Line (park and surrounding upscale architectural fantasyland) out of the High Line (crumbling elevated freight line and surrounding Meatpacking District).

As much as anything, the advent of the Moynihan Train Hall is a reminder that what happens in New York City doesn't stay in New York City; the public spaces and infrastructure created there matter for us in New England too, as well as the millions and millions of other people who pass through Manhattan and travel the Northeast Corridor. On January 11 Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architecture critic, proclaimed the $1.6 billion Moynihan Train Hall "a start," noting that for Long Island and New Jersey commuters the new Amtrak facility is the equivalent of "a luxury box in a stadium . . . built essentially to benefit a privileged few."

Kimmelman also notes that even with the new facility in the Farley Post Office the Penn Station complex "still needs . . . more tracks and platforms and new tunnels under the Hudson River" and he dares to dream it could be so once we have "an Amtrak fanboy in the White House."

Meanwhile, here's hoping we've learned our lesson. It's not that one should never consign an important public building to oblivion because it has grown obsolete and economically unsustainable. Rather, don't trust the design of the replacement to a former toothpaste salesman, even one like Charles Luckman, the very person was responsible for hiring SOM to design Lever House. One of these days, there will be a viable plan to demolish Madison Square Garden and the rest of Penn Plaza. At that great moment in the history of architecture, may neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stay the demolition crews from the swift completion of their appointed task.

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