Editor's Note: For more on Moynihan Train Hall and its part in the legacy of Pennsylvania Station, read a Q&A between Tom Mayes and Holly Leicht on SavingPlaces.org.
A project decades in the making, the new Moynihan Train Hall opened to Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passengers in January 2021. While it does not fully replace the underground warrens of the present Penn Station below Madison Square Garden, the train hall serves as a symbol of what is possible for adaptive use transportation projects in a major urban center.
However, like the restoration of Cook County Hospital in Chicago, this project took decades of sustained, intentional action by committed city planners, preservationists, and architects to bring it to fruition. The result is a preservation success story that redeems the past while also serving as a catalyst for potential projects around the existing Penn Station.
To get a closer look at the work that went into developing the project, I talked to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Design Partner Colin Koop about the design process, the challenges they faced, and how it feels to see a project like this finally be open to the public.
Can you talk us through the evolution of design for the train hall?
This project has been in our office for more than 20 years. We first imagined what the train hall would look like in 1998, after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was a longtime United States Senator from New York, proposed transforming the James A. Farley Post Office into an extension of Penn Station. The design has certainly changed over that period, but the vision has remained the same. We wanted to create a place that not only added capacity to the region’s most critical hub, but also restored the lost grandeur of the original, Beaux-Arts Penn Station.
Each design evoked the aesthetic of the historic station, most notably through skylights above the former mail sorting room. In our first iteration, we envisioned a more angular skylight that would have rested on the building’s three original, massive steel trusses. At mid-block, a concave glass structure would have risen 150 feet above the building to announce its civic presence. Later, in 2006, we designed barrel-vaulted skylights for the mail sorting room and the mid-block corridor that would have soared above the train hall.
The final design that you see today is, in some ways, a blend between the two. The skylight is arranged in four catenary vaults, with glass and steel panels that come together to form a moiré effect. At the edges of each vault, the panels thicken to sustain greater structural loads, while at the apexes, the depth lightens to help create an airy ambience in the space. That ambience is enhanced by the trusses, which we decided to keep as a major focal point of the design. They have web-like structures that exhibit a sense of porosity, and from a more practical perspective, they support the skylight where the glass and steel panels are at their thickest.
What were some of the biggest challenges, in terms of design, that you had to face?
There is an enormous responsibility in designing a civic project that millions of people will pass through every year. We had to design a train hall that was both modern and state-of-the-art, while also honoring and bringing new life to the magnificent architectural heritage of the historic Farley Post Office.
That balancing act plays out most strikingly in the skylight’s design. The skylight hearkens back to McKim, Mead & White’s Penn Station as well as their original design for its sibling, the Farley Building. When the post office was built a century ago, the mail sorting room also was illuminated through a skylight. The steel trusses were enclosed, and the workers below could not see the beautiful structures. Preserving and exposing the trusses, however, and integrating them into the architecture accomplishes both of our goals at once. They bring a modern look and feel to the space, all while displaying the workmanship of neoclassical design.
Let’s talk about collaboration. How did working with Empire State Development and others help achieve the vision for the station?
This project was a major team effort led by Empire State Development and the Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the public-private partnership they created with Vornado Realty Trust, The Related Companies, Amtrak, the MTA, the Long Island Rail Road, and Skanska really is unprecedented. It was a diverse group of stakeholders, and everyone shared the same goal. Together, we sought to transform the Farley Building into a public facility that serves many purposes at once—as a transit hub and a commercial destination, all while the existing post office remained inside at the top of the landmark’s staircase.
Moynihan Train Hall also has been so many decades in the making, and I think one of the things that helped bring the project to the finish line was the sense of hope that it generates. The train hall has been open for a little more than a month, and we have watched people from all over the region travel in just to see it, and to feel uplifted. That’s the kind of impact you dream about as an architect, and it shows that Moynihan Train Hall has already become an icon and a new front door for New York.
What is your favorite feature of the re-opened building?
The skylight is certainly the grandest feature, but another major part of the project is how the building has enhanced its urban setting. While the design preserves the historic fabric of the landmark, it also transforms a massive facility into a building that knits the neighborhood together and allows New Yorkers to access an architectural gem for the first time.
As an example, the Annex—a 1930s addition to the Farley Building that had doubled the landmark’s footprint – was occupied for decades by a parking garage and offices before becoming mostly vacant. Now, it connects Eighth Avenue with Ninth Avenue directly through the building. The doors along Ninth Avenue align directly with the entry to Manhattan West, a mixed-use development SOM master planned and largely designed. The result is one, contiguous pedestrian experience that hadn’t existed before. And the pathway is flanked by restaurants and retail, along with vertical circulation points that lead to new offices for Facebook and USPS on the upper floors.
What are you most proud of with this project?
Moynihan Train Hall is really one of the most monumental projects undertaken in New York City in quite some time. It recreates an experience no one has had here in more than five decades, and it transforms the way millions of people will interact with the city every year. The train hall is a reversal of the dark, overcrowded experience that so many commuters have endured for too long. It brings light to the concourses for the first time in more than 50 years, increases total concourse space by 50 percent, and just restores the majesty of train travel to New York.