The Moynihan Train Hall, located across Eighth Avenue from Madison Square Garden
Lucas Blair Simpson/Aaron Fedor/SOM The Moynihan Train Hall, located across Eighth Avenue from Madison Square Garden

When I ask Alexandros Washburn, AIA, how his former boss, the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, came to be so passionate about the design of public space, he tells me a story that sounds like the opening of a Frank Capra movie: “He grew up very poor in Hell’s Kitchen. And one of his jobs was to shine shoes either in Penn Station or on the steps of the public library. And because of the setting, because of the architecture and the planning and the public nature of these places, he always felt like everyone’s equal, even if he was shining their shoes.”

Back in the 1990s, when Moynihan had the idea to reincarnate New York’s old Pennsylvania Station, tragically demolished in 1963, by transforming the Farley Post Office building across the street into a new train hall, he sent Washburn to make it happen. Washburn, then 36, the senator's environment and public works advisor, burrowed his way into the Empire State Development Corporation, a state agency that took on big projects, and began assembling a bi-partisan political coalition in support of his boss's vision. “My explicit instructions were to ‘make it inevitable,’ ” Washburn recalls. “Those were the words he used.”

Lucas Blair Simpson/SOM
The main hall features trusses from the old Farley Post Office
Lucas Blair Simpson/SOM The main hall features trusses from the old Farley Post Office

A quarter century later, the new Moynihan Train Hall, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, has finally opened. The $1.6 billion hall, a bright, spacious annex to Penn Station, was modeled on the proportions of the beloved main concourse of nearby Grand Central Terminal. On a recent tour, I found even the dullest details thrilling. It’s somehow wondrous that the street corner entryways slope gently downward (just like at Grand Central!). Even the ridiculous Cuomoesque touches—like a full wall emblazoned with New York State’s motto (Excelsior!)—are unexpectedly refreshing. Mainly though, I was struck by how lovely the train hall is. It radiates daylight in a way that makes you think a micro-dose of euphoria has somehow been engineered in. The high-tech arches–500 panels of glass in each one–supported by beautiful, industrial trusses (courtesy of the old Farley Post Office), make this new space feel, not like it’s always been here, but like it always should have been here, like it was … inevitable.

The Road to the Inevitable
If the new hall is a good approximation of Moynihan’s vision of a generous train station, one that offers grandeur to all, we have him to thank for it. Moynihan, whose term as senator ran from 1977 to 2001, was the rare politician who understood that architecture was important. He spent his early years as an aide to President Kennedy, and one of his first tasks was reinventing D.C.’s then-seedy Pennsylvania Avenue as “America’s Main Street.” He worked closely with Nathaniel Owings of SOM, earning an education in historic preservation. (One of the buildings he saved from demolition was the Neoclassical post office that is now the Trump International Hotel.)

Moynihan’s idea for a new Penn Station was simple. Everyone detested the station as it was, with its subterranean concourse and passageways that extended under Madison Square Garden. Why not repurpose the 1.4-million-square-foot Farley Post Office, which was designed by McKim Mead & White, just like the original Penn Station? An industrial facility set up to sort the mail that used to be shipped by rail, Farley may have lacked any Neoclassical pomp on the inside, but outside it featured a handsome block-long colonnade, just like the late station.

The old Penn Station circa the 1910s
Library of Congress/public domain The old Penn Station circa the 1910s
The old Penn Station in 1962, a year before it was demolished
Library of Congress/public domain The old Penn Station in 1962, a year before it was demolished

The inevitable took time. By 1999, SOM’s David Childs, FAIA, had released a striking design with a flamboyant 150-foot-tall glass-and-steel canopy that soared above the roofline of the Neoclassical building and brought daylight into a mid-block concourse. (It was immediately nicknamed the “potato chip.”) Childs also reimagined the old mail sorting room as a train hall with a glass ceiling supported by the existing trusses, much as it was eventually built. By 2001, the funding, roughly $800 million, was in place.

Then came September 11. A major postal facility in lower Manhattan was badly damaged in the attack, making the United States Postal Service unwilling, for a time, to relinquish Farley. And the $4 billion Santiago Calatrava, Hon. FAIA-designed World Trade Center rail hub took precedence (and, Washburn suspects, swallowed some of the funding that Moynihan had lined up for Penn).

The Farley Post Office Building in 2014
Flickr/David Jones/Creative Commons License The Farley Post Office Building in 2014

Construction time lapse of Moynihan

By 2008, however, an even more ambitious, $14 billion version of Moynihan was ready to go. Largely paid for by the sale of Farley's considerable air rights, the new station was destined to be surrounded by millions of square feet of new, towering commercial development. SOM was charged with designing Moynihan East in the old post office, and Foster and Partners were to design Moynihan West on the site of the old Penn Station. Madison Square Garden—the obstacle to any wholesale redevelopment of the station—was to be relocated to the far western end of the Farley facility. The deal had come together in large part because then-Governor Elliot Spitzer had muscled the stakeholders into agreement. But then came Spitzer's sex scandal and resignation, just as the economy began to tank.

New York’s current Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has styled himself as a master builder (the Governor Mario M. Cuomo neé Tappan Zee Bridge, La Guardia Airport), restarted the project in 2016 and finally realized this less ambitious version of Moynihan’s vision.

Lucas Blair Simpson/Aaron Fedor/SOM

An Aesthetic Call to Arms
In early January, when I visited, the new facility was sparsely populated: A cluster of Amtrak passengers huddled on the Rockwell Group-designed retro wooden benches. And the cleaning staff, looking a little bored, dusted Stan Douglas’s faux historic photos showing re-enactments of events that occurred in the demolished Penn Station.

Presumably, post-COVID, the space will come to life, with passengers flocking to a cocktail bar on one of the balconies and an adjacent food hall. (The other balcony is occupied by a lounge for premium Amtrak customers, designed by FX Collaborative, which was largely unoccupied when I visited.) There’s an LED display (created by Moment Factory) stretching the width of the room displaying “New York State imagery” such as the Chrysler building and the Montauk Lighthouse, illustrated in a vivid, swirly style that’s a hybrid of Grant Wood and Japanese anime. Someday, the display will list arrivals and departures.

Amtrak lounge
Nicholas Knight, courtesy Empire State development Amtrak lounge
Lounge seating overlooking the main concourse
Nicholas Knight, courtesy of Empire State Development Lounge seating overlooking the main concourse

Eventually, New Yorkers and visitors will discover Moynihan, realize that it belongs to them, and embrace it as one of the city’s iconic spaces, the kind of place where couples in romantic comedies meet cute. SOM design partner Colin Koop regards the new complex as an aesthetic call to arms. “We’ve all been browbeaten into accepting so many indignities as New Yorkers … If Moynihan means anything, it’s that you walk in and you have this moment. ‘Oh my God, it doesn’t have to be like that. It doesn’t have to be that bad.’ ”

More than 25 years have passed since Senator Moynihan organized the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation and set this project in (slow) motion. With the capacity to handle roughly a third of the nearly 700,000 passengers who use the stubbornly dysfunctional Penn Station on the other side of Eighth Avenue, the new facility isn’t a replacement. But Moynihan Train Hall may be a harbinger. After all, we now have a president nicknamed Amtrak Joe, and Governor Cuomo, in a recent speech, promised a $16 billion reconstruction of the existing Penn Station. He released renderings suggesting that daylight-filled concourses will be part of the new development and that train platforms will be added south of the existing station to accommodate trains from two future tunnels under the Hudson, another long delayed project.

"Go," a hand-painted glass triptych in Moynihan by the artist Kehinde Wiley
Nicholas Knight/Public Art Fund, NY "Go," a hand-painted glass triptych in Moynihan by the artist Kehinde Wiley
"The Hive," a scaled version of a global metropolis by the artists Elmgreen & Dragset, is suspended from the ceiling in Moynihan
Nicholas Knight/Public Art Fund, NY "The Hive," a scaled version of a global metropolis by the artists Elmgreen & Dragset, is suspended from the ceiling in Moynihan

In Cuomo’s speech, he said many of the right things: "Building new projects enhances day-to-day life. Seeing progress lifts peoples' spirits. And building with bricks and mortar also builds public optimism and confidence."

But Daniel Patrick Moynihan's worldview goes deeper. As a senator he attached meaning to architectural lessons absorbed as a shoeshine boy. Washburn says that Moynihan was inspired by the idea that “that public space builds public trust”–a concept that feels particularly relevant in this tumultuous moment. If that is what his namesake train hall does, helps restore even a little of the public trust that's been squandered in recent years, then it was worth the wait.