Inside New York’s Long-Awaited Moynihan Train Hall
The highly anticipated expansion to Penn Station is one of the city’s most ambitious civic undertakings. Planned since the 1990s, Moynihan Train Hall honors the diverse cultural legacies of New York through a masterful restoration and poignant public artworks.
To most New Yorkers, Penn Station has become synonymous with oppressively low ceilings, sardined train platforms, and gloomy hallways. The transit hub moved underground when the city demolished the beloved original building in 1965, two years after the namesake Pennsylvania Railroad Company went bankrupt. Fierce backlash ensued, especially among architectural historians, who lamented the immeasurable loss of McKim, Mead, and White’s stately Beaux-Arts masterpiece. The building’s demolition sparked so much controversy that it’s credited with galvanizing the modern historic preservation movement in the United States, including the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and redoubled efforts to protect Grand Central Terminal from a similar fate.
Now, the erstwhile Penn Station has finally earned its redemption, though on a somewhat smaller scale. After more than two decades of planning and three years of construction, a much-needed expansion is breathing new life into the gloomy transit hub for the first time in more than five decades. The Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall officially opened on January 1, signaling the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel of an extraordinarily dark year for New York. The project features more than an acre of dramatic glass skylights, soaring 92-foot-high ceilings, and permanent installations from some of the world’s most celebrated artists. It’s a stunning addition to the bleak transit hub, whose cramped subterranean facilities were only designed to accommodate 200,000 daily commuters. Before the pandemic, more than 650,000 travelers would pass through Penn Station on the Long Island Rail Road, Amtrak, and the New York Subway every day, making it the nation’s busiest.
Located in the Beaux-Arts landmark James A. Farley Post Office building across Eighth Avenue, the new concourse spans 486,000 square feet in a sweeping light-filled space designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. To support the concourse’s giant skylight, the firm uncovered the building’s three massive steel trusses, which were invisible to postal workers a century ago, and chose to reveal them as a major focal point. With a web-like structure, the bolted trusses infuse the space with feelings of lightness while putting the workmanship of neoclassical design on full display. A new clock, designed by Pennoyer Architects and inspired by the analog clocks that were once prevalent at the original Penn Station, marks the center of the room. Other interior elements reference the historic post office and Grand Central Terminal, notably through curved benches in a walnut seating alcove and Tennessee Quaker marble.
“One of the most remarkable things about this project is the way that it transforms an underutilized and under-appreciated building into a new, inviting front door for this city,” Roger Duffy, SOM’s retired design partner who led the project, said in a statement. “The train hall is at the core of this transformation. It’s designed with lightness and warmth, which combine to reestablish the essence of what it means to come to New York.”
Three permanent art installations also forge that meaning for a new generation. Commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund, each infuses the transit hub with the essence of New York’s humanity and diversity. A backlit, hand-painted, stained-glass triptych by Kehinde Wiley depicts young, Black New Yorkers in poses borrowed from breakdance, the modern dance style which originated on the city’s streets during the 1960s and ‘70s. Titled Go and a counterpart to a 2003 painting in the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection, the triptych recalls the grandeur of decorative Renaissance and Baroque painting while offering a modern interpretation of 18th-century ceiling frescoes. “So much of what goes on in ceiling frescoes are people expressing a type of levity and religious devotion and ascendancy,” Wiley tells the New York Times. “The aesthetic of Black culture is the aesthetic of survival, of buoyancy and saliency and the ability to float in the midst of so much. I wanted to create, at the intersection of trade, commerce, and transportation in the capital of the world’s economy, something that sits as a testament to Black possibility.”
On view in the Ticketed Waiting Room’s seating alcoves near the main concourse is Penn Station’s Half Century (2020), a series of nine photographic panels by Stan Douglas that reconstruct overlooked moments from the original station’s history. The Canadian artist photographed live actors in period costume and seamlessly combined them with digitally recreated interiors of the demolished station to pay homage to the vivid experiences that bring civic spaces to life. The Hive, Elmgreen & Dragset’s rendition of a fantastically inverted cityscape, hangs stalactite-like from an entryway ceiling. Composed of 91 nine-foot-tall skyscrapers equipped with more than 72,000 LEDs, it weighs more than 15 tons and evokes the complex and evolving nature of a hive—not unlike New York’s perennially evolving skyline.
Some argue the project, which caters primarily to Amtrak riders that account for 5 percent of Penn Station’s daily pre-pandemic ridership, should have gone even further. And while the expansion does little to address the underground portion of the transit hub’s endemic problems of congestion and disrepair, it’s a means to a much greater end. “By opening Moynihan, it’s basically like opening the first-class lounge at the airport,” Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, tells the New York Times. “It’s a really good Phase One; it’s the appetizer. But the main station in the subbasement of the Garden is the entree.”
Wiley, who spent most of 2020 quarantining in his studio in Dakar, Senegal, remains optimistic about the project’s long-term implications for public space in New York. “There’s something to be said about a society gathering around an artist, around his or her vision, to say this is something we believe in collectively,” he says. “New York needs this right now.”While a far cry from the former Penn Station’s splendor, Moynihan Train Hall feels like a triumph for a city desperately in need of some uplift.