Loss, Redemption, Renewal: The Moynihan Train Hall
Everyone who loves old buildings knows the story of Penn Station in New York City. We have watched documentaries, marveled at the black and white photos, and seen the picketing protestors that fought for its survival. Some might argue the loss of this magnificent structure (and the almost universal hatred of the station that replaced it) stirred imaginations and emotions leading to the birth of the modern movement for historic preservation.
It has been a continuous lament of loss. Until 2021.
After decades of work, the Moynihan Train Hall is now open. Located in the James A. Farley Post Office Building in Manhattan, this expansion—even in photographs—feels like an exhalation of a long-held breath. Tall ceilings, bright skylights, and a clock you cannot take your eyes off are the culmination of over twenty years of work by New York State’s economic development agency, Empire State Development (ESD), architects Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, and an innumerable array of public and private partners.
It is a particularly poignant reminder of just how important public spaces are to building community, and connection—even in a city filled with millions.
For Holly Leicht, executive vice president for real estate development and planning of ESD, the new train hall is a melding of the past, present, and future of the city. While she has only worked on the project for the past three years of its multi-decade history (shortly after construction began), Leicht was involved in the final stages of the project in her role overseeing the Moynihan Station Development Corporation, an ESD subsidiary.
To consider the role the newly opened Moynihan Train Hall plays in the preservation story of New York City, we set up a conversation between Tom Mayes, chief legal officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (and author of Why Old Places Matter), and Leicht. The story they tell is one of loss, redemption, and renewal, at a time when New Yorkers, and the country alike, need a story of hope.
Tom Mayes: I, like many other people, mourned the loss of Penn Station even though I never saw it. I've only ever seen images of it. I wondered if you would talk a little bit about why the loss of Penn Station continues to resonate beyond its lifetime?
Holly Leicht: Penn Station was one of the first major preservation fights in New York and is such a big part of New York City history. Its destruction was the first step toward the establishment of the New York City Landmarks Law, and its loss still resonates with people, both in terms of the magnificent structure we demolished and the way it catalyzed a movement in New York, not just legislatively, but also emotionally, in that its loss led to us saving more buildings.
That being said, I was surprised to learn that the original Penn Station was only in operation a little over fifty years before it was demolished, and that many, including Holly Whyte (an influential critic on public spaces), said it really did not work very well as a train station, that it got antiquated pretty quickly.
But even that just adds to the story of Penn Station, which brings with it so much lore and energy.
Mayes: So many aspects of preservation philosophy are embedded in what you just said about the usability of the space and how the original Penn Station became unusable for a period of time to the point where they did an intervention. I have seen some of the images of that intervention at Penn Station, and they are very disconcerting. But then here we are with the post office which also lost its utility and is now being reinvented in a different way which is, I think, very much the story of the reuse of these buildings.
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Leicht: I think today we are a lot more creative in thinking about how we reuse historic buildings, and technology helps. Technology enables us to make buildings that might not have had utility in today's world functional in ways that, in the '50s and '60s, people could not have even gotten their heads around.
I also think our philosophical approach to preservation today is more creative. People think creatively about how we can adaptively reuse structures in ways they were not necessarily originally intended. So rather than trying to put a round peg in a square hole, we completely change the scenario, as we did at Moynihan. I don’t sense people approached the original Penn Station that way.
It does not always work. There are plenty of perceived white elephants that we still lose. But we had the advantage at Moynihan of great architects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). They spent years on this project, starting with some much more extravagant designs that over the years were scaled down to a design that is not just beautiful, but practical. A lot of people complain it took two or three decades to do this, but I think we got a better design because of all that time spent thinking about how to marry utility and history with amazing results.
Mayes: I wonder if you could talk about the importance of preserving that sense of history and place.
Leicht: When Senator Moynihan first had this idea, the big picture concept was McKim, Mead & White designed this “sister” building to the original Penn Station, and its transformation could be kind of a redemption for the demolition of Penn. But Farley was not a public building other than the post office that fronts 8th Avenue. Everybody knows that iconic public space, but the rest of the building was not public, it was for sorting and administration and back-office functions.
I think one of the fascinating aspects of this project was taking what was essentially a utilitarian building from 1912 and making it into a modern public space. It was not built to be grand inside, like Penn Station or Grand Central. So, while we certainly are very cognizant of Farley’s connection to the original Penn Station—the way I have described it is there is a conscious tip of the hat to the past that does create a sort of redemption story – but Moynihan is not striving to replace the original Penn. It has this really exciting hybrid feel of a historic space that is also a very modern, sleek transportation hub.
Throughout much of this work, Moynihan Station Development Corporation (MSDC) had an amazing president, Michael Evans, whom we lost in March, and sadly he did not live to see the result of all his work.He had an incredible ability to knit together the history of the old Penn Station with a design that speaks to the future of train travel.
For example, the preservation of the trusses, which is probably the most iconic part of the train hall. It was not clear at first if they could be preserved because they had been enclosed during the time that it was the post office, and nobody had seen them in so long. The architects and engineers did not know what kind of shape the steel would be in. It ended up being a very dramatic unveiling when they took the enclosures off and the steel was in perfect shape. So, we were able to keep those. That was a big moment, and a huge preservation victory.
Mayes: And of course, the tropes with the girders of the original Penn Station.
Leicht: Exactly. And there are other original pieces. If you look at old pictures at Penn Station, there are these steel trussed columns, particularly in the shed, that are very iconic. And some of those were in the post office as well. Michael was very focused on keeping those exposed and not enclosing those columns. When you go into Moynihan’s waiting room and into the ticket offices, those stand out and are deliberate callbacks to the Penn Station era. There are a lot of those kind of historic details that he really cherished and fought to preserve, along with the New York State Historic Preservation Office.
Mayes: We talked about the sense of loss from the original Penn Station a little bit and some of the really positive impacts of that loss, but I was wondering if we could talk about how the Moynihan Train Hall represents redemption for the city.
Leicht: I think for me personally, with my career starting in historic preservation and specifically New York City preservation, it really does feel like a redemption—not a replacement, nobody is saying this is the new Penn Station or watch out Grand Central, here we come - but I think in its own way, Moynihan brings some closure for New York and for those who still mourn the loss of Penn Station. The Moynihan Train Hall closes the book on that unfortunate period of history where we did not value our public works of architecture the way that I think we do now. I feel a sense of peace that we now have this building that honors that past. And the fact that it was so hard fought to get this done just adds to that legacy even more. And credit to Governor Cuomo for picking up the baton and driving this once-in-a-generation project to completion.
Mayes: In a usual year, I would be in Penn Station about once a month, but not with the COVID-19 travel restrictions. I can’t wait to see it.
Leicht: We all expected that the opening of Moynihan on January 1st after such a hard year would be a breath of fresh air for New York, but the reception it has gotten from the public exceeds all expectations. After a year of COVID-19, when our public spaces have been emptied out and travel felt so precarious, having this iconic public space open, makes it feel that even if we are still not at the level of travel that we usually are, this is a space that is really uplifting, reassuring us all that we will come back.
Mayes: Beautifully said. I know that in your career, you have focused quite a bit on public spaces, both parks and transportation spaces. Could reflect a bit on why these public spaces are so important and how they serve people more broadly. We have this redemption story where a large building that did not have a use, helped recover the city from the loss of an incredible public space.
Leicht: There are a few reasons why I am drawn to public spaces, particularly in an urban setting. I think one is, they say a lot about our values. In creating these public spaces, we are sending the message that we care about civic life and the people who live in our cities and those who travel to our cities.
I also value the egalitarian aspect of public spaces, that there's kind of a shared sense of place when you are in a public space with other people. To me, it really reinforces civic life and democracy to be in spaces where we are all playing by an unspoken set of rules of engagement. I think it brings out, in general, the best of us.
Mayes: Would there be those same benefits if this were an entirely new space or is it important that it is the rehab of an existing historic building that is there?
Leicht: There are new spaces that have that impact on people, but I think Moynihan holds a particularly special place in New York's public sphere because of its connection to a moment in our city’s history that we are a little embarrassed about. There is a certain magic to this space because of its historic nature and that connection to the past. But there is also a beautiful intimacy. It is a huge space, but it feels intimate, and I think its historic nature is part of that.
While there was not a lot of historic fabric left other than the trusses and some of the steel columns, we very consciously called upon more historic materials in the redevelopment of Farley. So, for example, the floor is Tennessee marble from the same quarry that many of the city’s historic iconic buildings—like Grand Central Terminal and the New York Public Library— used. And that was a very conscious decision to use historically appropriate materials as a way of bringing intimacy and memory to the space.
Mayes: In Why Old Places Matter, I wrote about both personal identity and collective identity. And this project I think, has the capacity to help New York see itself in a different way. And I wondered if you thought the same.
Leicht: I do, I hope so. I am optimistic, as I said earlier, that Moynihan’s opening comes at a moment when New York must reinvent itself, which is something we are really good at. New York reinvents itself quite fluidly quite often, but this is a big moment in our history. We are going to come out on the other side of COVID-19 with a lot of loss - there's human loss, we are going to have lost a lot of our small businesses and restaurants — and we are going to have to rethink how offices are used and what retail looks like going forward. There is a lot ahead of us that we are starting to grapple with as we think about how we are going to revive the economy, and Moynihan feels like the first step in that future-thinking.
And I think it sets the right tone that New York’s past will always be part of what we are, but we are always looking forward and thinking about what the city needs to do to continue being the greatest city in the world.
Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content and Rhonda Sincavage is the director, content & partnerships at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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