In honor of April Fool’s Day, we’ve put together a guide to NYC’s most hated building, Penn Station. Most of the negativity around Penn Station focuses on its aesthetics, its confusing signage, and the fact that it replaced a soaring piece of McKim, Mead & White architecture. But we’ve always believed that one of its strengths was that it was extremely functional. We agree with Second Avenue Subway‘s Benjamin Kabak who writes, “While Penn Station is ugly and dingy and, at best, utilitarian, the problem with the station isn’t necessarily the way it looks.”
Today’s guide is thus about the hidden “gems” in this oft-traveled yet ignored space.
1. There are subtle reminders of the now lost Penn Station
On an escalator into the Long Island Railroad waiting area, a cross section of the old Penn Station notes “YOU ARE HERE,” beneath the main rotunda:
In the Amtrak area are framed photographs of the old Penn Station, ignored by passengers more interested in charging their cell phones:
2. There are remnants of Penn Station scattered in and outside the station
This cast-iron partition in the waiting room is the only official remnant according to MTA spokes Sal Arena (although the MTA website acknowledges that “Fragments of the old Penn Station are hidden in the lower depths of the building that replaced it.”). This entryway was saved because it was walled off during the demolition and left untouched and forgotten for 30 years:
On the western end of Tracks 5 and 6 is a staircase of brass and wrought iron from the original Penn Station, as reported by the New York Times. Keep your eye out for other similar railings in the station.
In the western end of the Hilton Passageway, next to a now defunct soup shop, old glass block flooring is rumored to be from the original Penn Station. Some more are reportedly visible from the tracks as well, so don’t forget to look up! [Note that this find is less substantiated, coming mostly from online forums, but the New York Times piece does mention "glass bricks that brought natural light from the station's skylight down to the passageways and train level" in an off-limits baggage area. This baggage area also has an original track indicator.].
3. There used to be an underground connection to the Herald Square subway station
The Hilton Passageway also gave access for commuters between Penn Station and the N/R/Q and B/D/F/M trains until the 1970s, when it was closed off due to security reasons.
3. There’s a wine shop in Penn Station
There are wine tastings at Penn Wine & Spirits and most recently they’ve been promoting FAIR, a Fair Trade French vodka made of Bolivian Quinoa.
4. The only Krispy Kreme in New York City is in Penn Station
5. There’s a Maya Lin sculpture in Penn Station
Located above the fray, in a busy concourse between the 1/2/3 subway and the LIRR ticketing area, is Eclipsed Time by architect Maya Lin. It’s an interactive piece–the two elliptical disks move from East to West and back, creating an “eclipse” at midnight every day, when the disks are perfectly aligned.
Just nearby are also pieces by Andrew Leicester, making up Ghost Series and Day and Night, an homage to the original Penn Station:
6. K-Mart offers a popular cell phone charging spot
The outlet is likely left over from when the pharmacy was awkwardly giving flu shots in the corridor:
Another example of extreme electronic charging in Penn Station, where outlets are at a minimum:
7. Free smoothie samples at Planet Smoothie
The free strawberry banana smoothie samples are a staple amongst commuters:
8. There’s an unusual number of shops in Penn Station that focus on only one item
Élégance Hosiery (near the Amtrak area):
The pun-filled, “Tiecoon,” filled with neckties:
9. There’s a diner inside Penn Station
Tracks Bar & Grill’s lesser seen side (except by savvy commuters who take the Hilton Passageway) has diner-like architecture wrapping its facade:
10. There are remnants of the old Penn Station outside the current station
14 of the 22 original eagles that adorned the old Penn Station still exist, located across the United States from Kansas City to Valley Forge to Market Street Bridge in Philadelphia. In Manhattan, one of these eagles is on the green roof of the Cooper Union building in the East Village, two others are at Penn Station’s entrance on 7th and 33rd Street, another is fenced in on 7th Avenue near 31st Street.
Also on 31st Street is the facade of the “coal-fired Penn Station power plant, now used for storage and backup power systems,” according to the New York Times. And the four-sided clock at the entrance on 34th Street close to 7th Avenue is also rumored to be an artifact.
Vincent Scully once wrote of Penn Station, “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.” Although it is unlikely the architectural loss of the original Penn Station will ever be reversed, we hope this gives you a new eye to Penn Station, the next time you visit. Here’s a link to useful maps to the transit hub.