Amtrak builds on Penn's past glories: The monumental decision to reconstruct a once-great station signals a revivalist train of thought for America's railroads

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WAS Rebecca West who observed that America's cathedrals were its great railway terminals, such as Grand Central and Penn in New York.

Thirty years ago, Penn, a colossal shrine to the glory days of railroading, was torn down in an infamous act of desecration. Now, as train travel in this country strives for revival, a miracle of resurrection may be about to occur.

Plans have been drawn up by Amtrak, the national passenger carrier, which would allow the city virtually to rewind history. Although the original can never be reconstructed - most of its remains lie buried as landfill in the New Jersey meadowlands across the Hudson River - the next best thing may be possible: to take possession of the equally historic General Post Office, just across 8th Avenue from where the old station used to stand, and turn it into a new, yet still old, Penn Station.

Designed by the architects McKim, Mead & White, on behalf of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the original Penn was as monumental as the still-surviving Grand Central.

Its soaring concourse, made of Italian marble and modelled on the baths of Caracalla, equalled the nave of St Peter's in Rome in size. At its opening in 1910, it symbolised the triumph of the train as the conqueror of the continent and, more specifically, the feat of bringing passengers into the heart of Manhattan through tunnels dug under the river.

And yet its demise was to come only 54 years later, in 1964, when all that was above ground was razed to make way for the soulless Madison Square Garden sports arena. Its demolition spawned the first laws to list such buildings as protected monuments.

It also created the Penn Station that exists today: a wretched, swarming Hades that serves, if the word applies, half a million people every day, and is the starting or stepping-off point for almost 40 per cent of all Amtrak passengers countrywide. The architectural historian, Vincent Scully, famously wrote that, with the old Penn, 'one entered the city like a god', whereas 'one scuttles in now like a rat'.

The Post Office project is generating wide excitement. It has already won the endorsement of President Clinton, who has proposed dollars 100m (pounds 66.5m) in federal funding for it in next year's budget.

Equally importantly, it has the passionate support of New York State's senior senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Capitol Hill's aesthete-in-residence and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. 'Half a million people a day come through what is now Penn Station, now only a hole in the ground,' he said recently. 'We have a second chance. We won't get a third.' Last month, he used an emergency finance bill, aimed primarily at post-earthquake reconstruction in Los Angeles, to release a first dollars 10m instalment.

Implanting the new station in the Post Office would be especially apt. Opened four years after the old Penn in 1914, the Post Office also was conceived by McKim, Mead & White, and shared many of the same architectural themes with the station. 'The Post Office was built with Penn Station in mind . . . almost as if it was the adjective to the proper noun,' remarked Lorraine Diehl, whose book, The Late, Great Penn Station, describes the old structure's rise and fall. With a similar neo-classical appearance, its main facade on 8th Avenue consists of a procession of Doric columns that stand atop a block-long sweep of 30 steps rising from the pavement.

Above the pillars is the famous inscription, adapted from Herodotus, that boasts of America's mailmen: 'Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Heat Nor Gloom of Night Stay these Couriers from the Swift Completion of their Appointed Rounds.'

Directly beneath the Post Office, which the US Mail is in the process of vacating, lie the tracks and even sections of the platforms of the existing station. While the exterior of the building will be left more or less intact, a huge, 120ft parabolic arch of steel and glass will be raised through the roof to echo the shape of the old train sheds of Europe. The inscription, of course, will remain.

Those celebrating Amtrak's proposal include the New York City Preservation Commission, the body set up after the old station's destruction to identify those buildings still standing that were worthy of protection. Curiously, the Post Office was the first structure it settled on. 'It is ironic that almost a century after people were putting up these buildings of such monumentality, after so many decades of blindness, we are again beginning to recognise their value,' said the commission's director, Laurie Beckelman. 'We're very excited.'

For Amtrak, the dream is once again to have a gateway into New York worthy of the destination. Beyond that, however, the prime motivation is one of revenue. Other stations that have been renovated recently - most notably the now gleaming Union Station in Washington - have brought more riders on to the trains. However, any increase in traffic would simply overwhelm the subterranean facility that Amtrak now has at Penn.

'The emotion is part of it,' said John Livingston, senior partner in Penn Station Associates, the development company responsible for the plan. 'We're returning to New York what was torn down 30 years ago, but we don't do a project just for that. This is not about historic preservation. We know that, if we do nothing in Penn Station, in 10 years from now, we'll have pedestrian gridlock.' Mr Livingston is hopeful that the construction work, budgeted to cost dollars 315m in all, will get under way at the start of next year in time for completion on the millennium.

But just as Amtrak tries to regain some of its past grandeur, present-day realities continue to sap its confidence. Its president, Thomas Downs, confirmed to Congress last week that the financial situation - for many years precarious, at best - and standard of service continue to deteriorate. This is despite the fact that, in his budget, President Clinton has included an allocation to Amtrak three times more generous than any proposed by the Bush administration.

Since it was created by the federal government in 1971 to preserve the remnants of the once-mighty private railroad companies, Amtrak has been forced to depend on government subsidy for survival. 'We're selling disappointment at the same time as transportation,' Mr Downs testified. 'My fear is that this is the precise formula that 30 years ago led to the rapid decline and near demise of rail passenger service in the country.'

The uncertainty of the system's future does not dent the anticipation of Mike Gallagher, Penn's station manager. Convinced that the move to the Post Office will happen, he admits that the claustrophobic maze he presides over now is hardly adequate. 'I'm looking forward to having a station that's totally dedicated to looking after the Amtrak passenger, a more modern, convenient, state-of-the-art facility,' he says.

Until then, he can direct you to a few, tantalising remnants of the grand old Penn that still survive: the brass and metal staircase down to Track 6, for example, or the patch of pink granite paving visible by the lost-luggage office, where the nasty, modern cement concourse flooring has begun to wear through.

(Photographs omitted)