In 1963, when the Pennsylvania Railroad took a wrecking ball to its opulent Manhattan train station—a Beaux-Arts colossus of pink granite modeled off the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome—Yale architecture professor Vincent Scully lamented the loss with words that have since become famous.
“Through Pennsylvania Station one entered the city like a god,” Scully wrote. “One scuttles in now like a rat.”
Scully was referring to the subterranean warren of passageways that became the “station” once everything above the sidewalk disappeared to make way for Madison Square Garden, the athletic arena that has stood atop Penn’s old foundations since 1968. Though all 21 original train tracks remained in service, the 650,000 people who used the station each day were left to scuttle through a dingy subterranean labyrinth of fast-food stands, piled-up suitcases and fetid restrooms.
Then, on the first day of 2021, five decades of scuttling abruptly came to an end.
On Jan. 1 at 5:00 a.m., security guards unlocked the doors of the new Moynihan Train Hall, a soaring atrium that will serve as Amtrak’s new main concourse. Built within the shell of the old James A. Farley Post Office building just to the west of the original Penn Station’s footprint, the 255,000-square-foot hall gives Amtrak’s New York passengers something they haven’t had for generations: light, air and a sense of occasion.
It’s no coincidence that the hall’s parabolic glass ceilings soaring 92 feet above a floor of Tennessee marble evoke the original Penn Station designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1910. The $1.6 billion project, years in the making, was intended to restore a measure of grandeur lost. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in 2017: “This will be an entrance befitting New York.”
But as Amtrak president Stephen Gardner gave a private tour to this reporter last week, it was clear that the new train hall will be something else: a much-needed marketing boost for Amtrak.
“This really allows us to position rail as a modern mode [of travel] for the future and allows us to really give a statement about what passenger rail can be in the United States,” Gardner said, showing off the new waiting area reserved for ticketed passengers, where the amenities include cushioned benches and dedicated restrooms. “We’re in Amtrak’s most important station in terms of passenger volume,” he continued. “Having a facility here that reflects its importance in the network was a longstanding dream.”
It was a 30-year dream, to be exact. Back in 1990, Amtrak admitted publicly that its existing New York station was woefully inadequate. Amtrak’s long-distance passengers found themselves dumped into the crush of commuters stampeding for the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit, both of which shared the facility. With the exception of a few banks of well-worn pleather seats, there was no place to wait for a train. Passengers shared public restrooms with a platoon of homeless. “Refreshments” didn’t rise much above a greasy hot dog.
Conditions like these worked against the customer service and brand image that the perennially underfunded Amtrak struggled to provide aboard its trains. “The experience that you could have on the train was besmirched by the experience you would have at Penn Station,” Gardner said.
In 1991, Amtrak approached the U.S. Post Office with an eye toward possibly taking over part of its Farley building next door—a granite behemoth, largely unused, that sat directly above the railroad tracks. The idea of building a new Penn Station inside Farley soon won a powerful champion, New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Relocating Penn Station into a historically significant building whose architecture mirrored the long-demolished original station was, the senator said, a rare opportunity. “You don’t get a second chance like this often,” Moynihan said in 1993. “We must do it.”