In 1993, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, noticing that McKim, Mead & White’s James A. Farley Post Office Building (1912) was no longer the center of the city’s mail-handling operations, proposed that conversion to a railroad station could help relieve Penn Station’s notorious congestion. This problem-solving vision is finally being realized, as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Skanska, and their collaborators transform the bulk of the Farley building into rail platforms and concourse/retail space for Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).
The project’s first phase, the West End Concourse, opened in June 2017 and expanded access to the two rail lines; the second phase, Moynihan Train Hall, opened in January of this year. (Construction delays related to COVID-19 slowed but did not derail the project, as transportation infrastructure was deemed “essential” during the pandemic.)
The most dramatic addition is the undulating 92-foot-high glass canopy that covers the train hall. This “skylight” comprises steel diagrid members by Seele, arranged in four bulbous east-west segments supported by massive trusses from the original building: structural members that also enhance the building’s muscular aesthetics, strengthened by new color-matched beams. An additional north-south glass vault covers a corridor west of the main hall at the center of the building between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, linking its 31st Street and 33rd Street entrances. New steel canopies at those entries are designed “to complement McKim Mead & White’s Beaux-Arts architecture,” said SOM design architect Andrew Lee, and to “reflect the language that we see in the skylight,” introducing visitors to the hall’s balanced aesthetic upon entry.
The Ornamental Metal Institute of New York toured Moynihan Train Hall during construction with Ironworkers Local 580 as they erected the station's six barrel-vault atriums designed by SOM.
The junctures between the glass canopy and the original building’s masonry are covered by metal paneling to create seamless connections around the hall; additional metal work includes column-cover wraps, guardrails, handrails, handrail shoes, and functional grilles that support lighting and conceal ductwork. The uniform appearance is deceptive, because “every one of these panels and every one of these grilles is a different size,” notes Permasteelisa director of business development William Bueso. “Every item we’re doing is a custom one-off piece made specifically for this job … the only stock things we’ve ordered are the screws, nuts, bolts and handrail shoes.”
For Lee and his colleagues at SOM, the mission involved “celebrating the heritage of this building,” which is both an echo of the civic dignity of the original Penn Station and a no-nonsense functional facility. “It wasn’t an exactly thoroughly finished building; the inside was more of an industrial building,” Lee said. “We tried to reveal some of the existing structure by highlighting some of the articulation and the ironwork of the past rather than doing new applications of metal—taking that language and using ornamental metals to recreate some of it in areas where it wasn’t as highly finished.”
In a transit facility, Lee adds, “finishes at the human scale have to be extremely durable and stand the test of time.” The design team selected a material palette that is “not evoking some of the connotations that stainless steel typically has; it’s very institutional—there’s a way to finish it to a higher quality that maybe leaves out some of those connotations.” With ample LED signage and video displays, at any rate, the hall hardly needs the sparkle of reflective surfaces. Lee describes the paneling and grillwork as “Generally very quiet...to really tread lightly in that train hall space, so that you let the skylight and the existing structure breathe.” At staircases between the concourse and platforms, he notes, glass guardrails “minimize the kind of visual clutter that would be in a very busy space to begin with,” optimizing sightlines to the platform level and aiding navigation—a distinct improvement over the abattoir claustrophobia that has provoked complaints over Penn Station’s traffic flow for decades. A grand staircase, seven elevators and 11 escalators expand vertical circulation options.
Like any transportation center, Moynihan is a massive job; it is complicated by its combination of existing and new structures, marrying 21st-Century steel to 1912 vintage masonry. Retrofits pose challenges that new construction does not, particularly where onsite investigations discover details that were not apparent at the design stage. “You can’t foresee some things that are on a 67-year-old truss,” observes foreman Will Jones. “They didn’t know it until you got inside.”
Pointing during a site tour to various anomalies that the project’s design documentation did not predict—cross-bracing in old trusses; lighting wired through a truss; brackets that had to be replaced when onsite calculations revealed that a beam with attachments could not support a grille; beams that shifted when they were loaded with glass and wires were tensioned—Jones observed that a degree of improvisation goes with the territory.
“One of the challenges with an existing building,” he says, “is building things ahead of time to meet the schedule and not quite understanding, because you didn’t have a chance to really dive into a lot of the details about how that’s going to fit on the job site. On a new building it’s a little easier to do that; on an existing building it’s harder, because you open this up and boom! I uncover this site condition.”
At Moynihan, energy-conservation features include radiant flooring on the concourse level, which will heat and cool the entire building; this required installing a piping system before pouring concrete, the type of upfront investment that saves resources by heating air efficiently from beneath occupied spaces and lowering the overall volume of ductwork throughout the hall. “We underestimated the existing building component of the project,” Bueso notes, speculating that general project cost overruns reach the 20–30% range—distinctly lower than found on the city’s only comparable recent transit hubs, the World Trade Center PATH Oculus and Fulton Center.
Considering its spaciousness (255,000 sq ft), its expanded connectivity (creating direct station access from Ninth Avenue for the first time, along with the midblock entrances on the two cross streets) and the relief it offers to two of the three rail systems squeezed into Penn Station, Moynihan Train Hall is a critical upgrade on all fronts. The anticipated scale of passenger traffic ensures that the project is not so much a matter of “if you build it, they will come” as “since so many of them are coming, can we build a facility they can bear, possibly even enjoy?” The hall’s balanced elements give the region’s travelers a space that respects both its own history and their dignity.