Descending into the depths of the fluorescent-lit underground warren that is the country’s busiest passenger transit hub, Richard Cameron looked up and was shocked. An architectural drawing of New York’s formerly grand, neo-Roman Penn Station had been reproduced on a bulkhead above a stairway, accompanied by the caption “YOU ARE HERE.”
“I almost crashed the escalator,” recounts Cameron, a Brooklyn architect who is the leading advocate for rebuilding the 1910 Beaux Arts terminal. “You are emphatically not there.”
The original Penn Station was discarded in 1963 by a Pennsylvania Railroad struggling to compete with interstate highways and jet airliners. The railroad executives desperately needed cash and sold their two blocks of Midtown Manhattan real estate to developers who built the fourth incarnation of Madison Square Garden. The remains of the station were crammed into the basement under the arena. Since then, the hundreds of thousands of travelers and commuters who arrive in New York City by train each day have been forced to navigate a series of cramped, overcrowded, and confusing tunnels. As the scholar Vincent Scully wrote, once “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
The demolition of the old station, which even many modernist architects considered a masterpiece, was a catalyst for the historic-preservation movement that has saved other landmarks such as Grand Central, New York’s other great train terminal. Cameron wants more than preservation, however: he argues for restoring the old Penn. “The fact that it was taken away was almost a kind of war crime,” he says, “a kind of commercial crime that deprived everyone of this great public good.”
In recreating the old station, Cameron says New York would follow the example of Dresden, where bombing by the allies during World War II reduced medieval squares in the German city to rubble. Today much of the baroque splendor has been restored, once again creating inviting urban places that are the envy of cities across the globe. Cameron also cites the imperial palace of Berlin and Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior—the latter once leveled by Stalin and replaced with a large swimming pool—as examples of how rebuilding a landmark can correct a mistake while improving public spaces and increasing tourism.
The movement to bring classical grandeur back to Penn Station is in at least its third decade. In the 1990s, longtime New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the most high-profile advocate for a plan to move the ticketing hall and passenger waiting areas to the 1919 Farley Post Office building across the street, a classical edifice designed by the same architects as the original Penn Station. The proposal for the modified terminal—now to be known as Moynihan Station, following the senator’s death in 2003—has inched along in fits and starts. It has found a champion in New York’s current governor, Andrew Cuomo, who recently unveiled renderings showing a large shopping mall and waiting room with a modern glass canopy inside the post office’s traditional facade. But the plan is a kind of stopgap: it would move Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passengers into the post office, while leaving a substantial number of New Jersey regional train riders in the old rat tunnels across the street.
Cameron argues that New Yorkers should accept no substitute for the old flagship terminal, whose classic design is still capable of meeting today’s demands. Moreover, he says, the post office plans do not address how the behemoth Penn Station complex can interact more harmoniously with the neighborhood, a problem that has beset planners and developers for over a century, ever since Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt sought to bring his Philadelphia-based trains into the heart of Manhattan.
For decades, passengers on “the Pennsy” had been forced to alight on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River and complete their journey to New York by ferry. Bridges were proposed but rejected by the authorities. So Cassatt tunneled under the river, digging what was once the longest underwater passage in the world. That engineering marvel needed a monument that would signal to the New Yorkers that a wonder of the world was just beyond the station, below the depths of the Hudson.
Thus Cassatt hired McKim, Mead, and White, architects for Columbia University, the Boston Public Library, and the iconic Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village. At a time when New York was reaching skyward, Charles McKim designed a classically proportioned temple to the modern railroad that evoked the most impressive civic buildings he had studied in Europe. Greeted by long doric colonnades running for two blocks along Seventh Avenue, travelers walked through a wide arcade of shops and restaurants before descending not into today’s underground labyrinth but to a magnificent General Waiting Room with a ceiling 15 stories high. Bathed in natural light, that coffered ceiling was held aloft by eight massive corinthian columns. The entire space was dressed in the same Roman travertine used in the Coliseum and the Vatican.
G.K. Chesterton compared the space to a cathedral, and indeed the massive, ornate waiting room was even larger than the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thomas Wolfe, in his novel You Can’t Go Home Again, described “the mighty room” as “vast enough to hold the sound of time … here, in a single instant, one got the entire picture of human destiny.” From the moment it opened, Penn Station was a timeless public space unrivaled in scale or emotional resonance.
The precincts outside the great temple, however, were never uplifted as the station’s original developers had hoped. Cameron maintains that this was partly due to the neglect of the outdoor public realm and streetscape. “No one wants to be here. There’s no here here.” Thus his plan situates a new plaza adjacent to the reconstructed station. It would sit mid-block between two new towers, away from the noise of the wide avenues but directly across from an entrance to McKim’s General Waiting Room. It is a vision that unabashedly draws on the City Beautiful movement of the late 19th and early 20th century—at the center of which was McKim—and would thus be a kind of fulfillment of Penn Station’s original promise.
Cameron has been promoting this vision for a long time. In 1994, he used the founding editorial of a new journal, The Classicist, to call for no half measures in restoring Penn Station. Whether it’s a Farley Post Office that is no more than a historic shell around a shopping mall or contemporary glass stations that resemble every new airport terminal, such modern plans “blindly assume ourselves to be the cultural as well as technical superiors of our ancestors, and so to refuse to emulate them at any cost.”
Now the classicists may finally have an opening. Though Governor Cuomo claims that the Moynihan Station project will go forward, there is increasing pressure on the owners of the aging Madison Square Garden to move the arena elsewhere, and their lease expires in 2023. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman has repeatedly called the post office expansion inadequate and wants the arena to relocate. He is not entirely Cameron’s ally, however. Kimmelman has proposed a new station that reuses the superstructure of Madison Square Garden, creating a giant glass cylinder that would be partially open to the outside and, like the old station, provide natural light for train platforms.
“What is the value of another glass envelope in a city being overrun with them?” asks Cameron. “We are fast becoming another generic international city of faceless, characterless glass structures as it is.” He is confident that if a vote were held among the passengers actually using Penn Station, most would choose his rebuilding proposal over contemporary plans like Kimmelman’s. “I think it would win in a landslide.”
Cameron acknowledges that resurrecting the old station will cost a significant sum, around $2.5 billion, but notes that the modernist World Trade Center Transportation Hub just completed near Ground Zero serves far fewer passengers and cost a staggering $4 billion. What the project needs is a political or celebrity advocate—or both, he says, half-joking that if Donald Trump loses in November, perhaps he can turn his energies to Penn Station.
Rebuilding this landmark should appeal to more than political conservatives and aesthetic traditionalists. Cameron argues that it could be a winning issue even for left-leaning mayor Bill de Blasio—should he care to take the side of the people over modernist ideologues. Once the public becomes aware that bringing back this lost piece of monumental civic art is a realistic option, he is convinced that it will enjoy widespread support. When that day comes, Penn Station, which even the radical poet Langston Hughes honored as a “vast basilica of old,” may once again tower “above the terror of the dark / As bulwark and protection to the soul.”
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative. This article was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.