The 1912 Post Office facade — also by McKim, Mead & White, with the “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom” inscription — will then become the face of Amtrak. That will restore a superficial measure of the dignity to railway travel that was lost in 1963 when the old Pennsylvania Station was torn down. But the experience for most people using the building will not be like the glory of moving through Grand Central or the old Penn Station. Aesthetically, a top-ranking state official confided to me in all seriousness, the Moynihan project aspires to be more like the Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station in Secaucus, N.J.
Years ago the critic Ada Louise Huxtable noted that at the turn of the last century the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Alexander Cassatt, wanted to build a hotel atop Penn Station to exploit valuable air rights. But his architect, McKim, talked him out of it. The railroad owed the city a “thoroughly and distinctly monumental gateway,” McKim argued. Idealism temporarily triumphed over commerce, until McKim’s great building, across several troubled decades, became an increasingly rundown emblem of urban glory and gave way to an architecture of gloomy pragmatism and moneyed interests.
There is historic justice in trying to rectify a crime committed a half-century ago that galvanized the architectural preservation movement. “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat,” is the familiar lament from Vincent J. Scully Jr., the Yale architectural historian, about the difference between the former and present Penn Stations.
[the Rail Station in Secaucus is horrendous. A strange hard to navigate, joyless, gateway to NJ. Fitting since until recently that state has lacked any sort of integrity. But horrendous. If I have a vote… I’d move the Garden.]