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A narrative history of Penn Station and Moynihan Station

sen moynihan.jpgDaniel Patrick Moynihan, for 24 years New York's Senator, spent over a decade championing a modern Pennsylvania Station for New York City. As a child during the Great Depression, he sold newspapers and shined shoes in the old Penn Station. As a Senator, he secured federal, state and city funds and guided an initial architectural plan to rebuild the station in the adjacent James A. Farley Post Office. Following Moynihan's death in 2003, Senator Charles E. Schumer and Governor George E. Pataki proposed re-naming the facility Moynihan Station to honor the Senator from Hell's Kitchen. The plan for Moynihan Station has since grown to include a new Madison Square Garden and the total overhaul of Penn Station that is so desperately needed. This final, unfinished piece of Moynihan's legacy unites landmark preservation, infrastructure, urban planning, transportation policy, architecture, design and economic development in service to the common good. It is a unique public works project that will yield tangible benefits for every citizen of our region. And it will revive a critical swath of midtown Manhattan, for too long blighted by the destruction of the original Penn Station some forty years ago.

The decision to raze Penn Station was made in private boardrooms and finalized by the City Planning Commission. Many alarmed citizens protested with vigor and eloquence, but the commission ruled in favor of the proposed value, not the existing value of the site. The civic groups were ignored and on October 28th, 1963, a rainy Monday morning, the destruction of Penn Station commenced.

It took a full three years to tear down the marble and granite masterpiece that Charles McKim had built to last forever. Its Doric columns, sculpted angels and Jules Guerin murals were hastily tossed into a swamp. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the New York Times: "Tossed into the Secaucus graveyard are about twenty-five centuries of classical culture and the standards of style, elegance and grandeur that it gave to the dreams and constructions of Western man." Penn Station was only 56 years old.

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See more pictures of the original Pennsylvania Station.

And so for the past four decades, our visitors and fellow citizens have entered America's greatest city not through a glorious replica of the Baths of Caracalla, or any kind of sane, functional thoroughfare, but through "the chill, bleak anonymity of the twentieth century transit catacombs (ancient catacombs softened even death with frescoes)," decried Huxtable. A walk down 33rd and 8th is a grim reminder that New Yorkers are still paying a high price for the loss of that great train station, civic space and architectural masterpiece.

But redemption lies across the street in the Farley Post Office building, a landmark also designed by McKim, Meade and White. By building a new train hall in the Farley's old mail-sorting room, and moving Madison Square Garden to its Annex, a great new state-of-the-art station can be built on the site of today's dismal Penn Station.

Moynihan Station will allow passengers to move through an organized, elegant public space. Moynihan Station will expand capacity in the most heavily used transit hub in the tri-state rail network and strengthen a critical link in the Northeast Corridor. Today, we can be more hopeful than at any time in the recent past for the fulfillment of Senator Moynihan's vision. Gov. Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg have pledged their support for the project, and the development team of Related Companies and Vornado Relaty Trust has a vision that will truly change Midtown forever.

But after years of delays and false starts, we cannot let optimism slip into complacency. Federal funds that are left too long unspent can be rescinded at any time. We face an out-of-control federal deficit, exacerbated by the costs of the war and Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, and any funds at the discretion of Congress are at risk. We must also be vigilant about what Senator Schumer calls our present "culture of inertia." In spite of broad support for the project among our political leaders, New York has a singular knack for inventing new ways of abandoning great public works. Senator Moynihan wrote in his book Counting our Blessings: "We are a blessed people, but not invincibly elect. We must make our future as we did our past." Moynihan Station has the support of New York's Senators, Congressional delegation, Mayor and Governor. It has the support of our fellow citizens. And now it has a talented, vigorous development team. This is a chance for civic redemption that won't come again.

We lost Penn Station once before. Let's not lose it again.

To learn more about the original Pennsylvania Station, check out these great books:
* Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels by Jill Jonnes (2007)
* The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station by Lorraine B. Diehl and Ada Louise Huxtable (1996)
* The Destruction of Penn Station by Lorraine B. Diehl, Eric P. Nash, Barbara Moore, and Peter Moore (2001)
* New York's Pennsylvania Stations by Hilary Ballon, Norman McGrath, and Marilyn Taylor (2002)