There are a handful of landmarks that define the glory and grandeur of New York City. The associations and memories that visitors have with these spaces gives the city its rich cultural texture. From Central Park to the Brooklyn Bridge, Carnegie Hall to the Guggenheim, to walk through this city is to experience its storied past and bustling present.
Penn Station used to be one of those iconic Manhattan landmarks. Widely regarded as one of the stateliest, most majestic buildings in the city from its opening in 1910 to its unfortunate demolition in 1964, Penn Station evoked feelings of grandeur and awe in all who passed under its soaring ceilings and vaulted glass windows.
By the 1950s the advent of air travel and increased highway driving had cut into Penn Station’s profits considerably, making it difficult for the Pennsylvania Railroad to maintain and clean the huge station. Plans began to emerge to move the station entirely underground, with air rights being sold to make way for the new Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza. Supporters of this plan argued that maintaining the building had become cost prohibitive, but New Yorkers rallied with cries of “Don’t amputate—renovate!”
As so often is the case when history makes way for progress, the majestic old Penn Station was demolished, and in its place, the less attractive version of Penn Station we’ve come to know today. Fluorescent lighting replaced those vaulted windows, and air conditioning replaced the breezy open air atriums. The demolition sparked a new national interest in preserving national landmarks, with new laws being created that would at least protect Grand Central Terminal from a similar fate.
While few have praised the aesthetics of Penn Station as it has existed in its rebuilt form since 1964, the station has continued to be a valuable workhorse for commuters, ushering 650,000 people in and out by train every day. To put that figure in perspective, that’s more people than all the daily travelers who pass through JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports combined!
But why should a building have to choose function over form? Can Penn Station be beautiful and useful? These days, architecture enthusiasts and those who miss the grandeur of the old Penn Station can rejoice over some good news: Brooklyn based architecture and design firm Atelier & Co. has submitted plans to rebuild Penn Station to restore the building’s former glory. Here’s how the three part plan would restore rail travel to its glory days:
1. Take a Page From Penn’s Original Design Plans
Looking to its original design by architecture firm McKim Mead & White, Atelier will use hundreds of the original designers’ drawings, which have been preserved in the archives of the New York Historical Society. There are also countless photographs that capture not only the original design, but also the feeling of dignity and importance that Penn carried for travelers. These artifacts will be used to kickstart the design process, which aims to restore a glass roof, spacious floor plan, and vaulted ceilings.
2. Make Penn More Functional For Today’s Commuters
Penn Station was originally designed primarily to serve passengers traveling from city to city. Today Penn Station mostly hosts passengers from the New Jersey Transit and Long Island Railroad. The underground labyrinth of subway and commuter rail lines is dark and crowded, and Atelier hopes to see some of this traffic diverted to Moynihan Station, the new Amtrak station currently being constructed across the street. Freeing up some of the congestion of Penn Station would go a long way in restoring the feeling of being in a grand open space filled with light.
3. Give the Surrounding Area a Facelift
The third leg of Atelier’s proposed plan involves giving a much needed beautification process to Penn’s surrounding areas. This would likely require the removal of Madison Square Garden, which sits atop Penn. As the stadium’s lease runs out in 2023, perhaps that isn’t such an unrealistic expectation. Imagine if Penn Station was surrounded by a great new outdoor park for pedestrians to enjoy as they waited for their trains.
Merging the Past with the Future
The Atelier Plan could potentially cost upwards of $2.5 billion. That’s a pricey ticket, especially when the plan is contingent on the movement of certain buildings. It remains to be seen whether the Atelier plan for Penn Station will become a fully funded reality, but it’s heartening to imagine a future New York City that reclaims a bit of its old world beauty, nostalgia, and architectural majestry.