In the midst of a very bleak and confounding time of depression, pandemic and attempted coup, the Moynihan Train Hall has opened in New York, inside the James Farley Post Office on 8th Avenue, carving out a glass vaulted space for Amtrak, to atone for the destruction, one block east, of the entire old Pennsylvania Station which only lived from 1911-1966.
The ugly toilet of Madison Square Garden, and the underground rats maze of Penn Station are still there, sucking up and spitting out hundreds of thousands of commuters who still must scuttle in and out of Manhattan via the subway and the Long Island Rail Road.
By fantastic coincidence, at the same time McKim, Mead and White were building Penn Station, they also designed and constructed the Central Postal Office Building of New York City. It was a logical time in America. If mail went by train, put the post office next to the train station. It made sense.
When the train station was torn down in the early 1960s, this post office, which did not impinge on private revenue, survived. Now it is the very columned home of the new Moynihan Train Hall, and at over a billion dollars, it has gathered praise for introducing late 19thCentury improvements into the horridly barbaric early 21st Century Amtrak system.
What is the architecture like?
Well….. it is big, bright and full of art and signs, including an oversized, identifying name plate: “Moynihan Train Hall.” Buildings of lesser distinction often use signs to shout their individual grace which is otherwise hardly distinguishable.
Its not very artful trusses, travertine and glass could be the train hall for any medium sized city in China or Japan. If it had no sign who would know where it was? It seems to have been designed in a boardroom, with a panel of consultants, designers, architects, and engineers who worked over the design until it finally had the assembly line craftsmanship of a Banana Republic men’s suit.
For solace and bewitchment, I found some glorious old photographs of the original Penn Station when it was alive, and the stone and the glass and the steel aligned in exquisite, thrilling harmony; here was the penultimate, the grace of classical architecture, the tested and proven proportions of ancient Rome resurrected in Manhattan. It looked as if it would last 1,000 years. But its time was up in 1963.
Then I pulled some old photographs of the destruction of the station, a cheap and shitty time in New York when every mouth carried a cigarette, you drank your lunch, and your girl answered your phone.
The capacity of Americans to believe the best of our nation when facts point opposite is one of our most salient characteristics. Lie, cheat, tear apart, riot, threaten, then pray and watch CNN and hope the sun rises tomorrow. The bulldozer trumps the sculptor, the highway rams through the park, the baby in the womb becomes the addict on the street. And we think it all inevitable. But it isn’t. It is our own doing. Collectively. Like the tear down of a great and noble edifice.
When you see the magnificence of the old station, you again see this nation at its best. But is the old Penn Station who were really were?
Or are we, at our heart, a self-destructive project which seeks to destroy those systems, values, traditions, projects and edifices which bring us joy, contentment, fulfillment and freedom?