Monday, December 10, 2007

New York's Waterloo Station?

One of the most infamous moments in modernism was the demolition of Penn Station in New York, and almost as bad, the construction of Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza in its place. It shocked people so much at the time that it launched the historical preservation movement.

In fact, for historical preservationists it was a humiliating defeat - not so much a Waterloo, because they have since gone on to many victories, including Grand Central Station, but a Franco-Prussian War, or a Vietnam, a humiliation resulting in an obsession with the event and a desire to somehow "undo" it. Kind of like Brooklyn's loss of the Dodgers, or the abandonment of the construction of the Second Avenue Subway.

In the 1980s, the preservationists acquired a champion in Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was probably looking for a way to concretely mark a legacy of his 24 years in the Senate. Facing Madison Square Garden to the west was Penn Station's twin, the James Farley Post Office. But since the Post Office had almost entirely switched from using trains to using trucks and airplanes to transport mail, the large mail-sorting facility in the Post Office didn't need to be there anymore. Moynihan (with an advisor, perhaps?) saw an opportunity: if the mail facilities were moved out of the Post Office, it could be renovated into a new Penn Station. It had a similar fa├žade, also designed by McKim, Mead and White, and was of a similar size.

Since Moynihan died in 2003, his daughter Maura has been working to keep his idea on track. It's not easy: between former governor Pataki's attempt to arrange a groundbreaking ceremony before leaving office to the ambitions of the various real estate owners and developers in the area, the project is being pulled in several different directions.

I've got a lot to say about this, but the rest will have to wait. For now I'll just say that it's all very well for the historical preservationists and the developers to have their say, but there's a conspicuous absence of any voices of people who will actually use the station on a regular basis. In the Observer interview, Ms. Moynihan says that "it's a transportation project first and foremost," and I hope she does keep that perspective.

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