Moynihan Train Hall is open and in this humble Chief Experience Officer‘s opinion, it is good. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the renderings we saw for years became a reality on New Years Day when the spacious 255,000-square foot hall was opened to the public. The Art Deco clock was the first welcome surprise. The timepiece, designed by Peter Pennoyer Architects, was not on an any of the original renderings but now hangs as an homage to the concourse clock in the old Penn station and the beloved opaline-faced clock in Grand Central Terminal. Train travelers finally have a clear and definable meeting spot on the west side.
Clock in Moynihan Station by Peter Pennoyer
Architects and critics have been fairly kind to this new hall. Others say that Moynihan is bland and serves as a band-aid for the more pressing problems facing New Jersey Transit and the MTA across the street. Or more critically that there is still only a single 110-year-old tunnel under the Hudson River servicing the entire Northeast Corridor.
I too voiced those concerns and was conservative in my excitement for the new train hall. Back in 2019 I was quoted in Paul Kaplan’s book New York’s Original Penn Station saying, “I worry that the current design will look dated quickly and I also worry about the idea of it becoming just another subterranean shopping mall surrounding train tracks.” Criticisms aside, I was not prepared for the warmth my heart felt when I finally saw Moynihan Train Hall in person.
Penn Station has happily been my business for over twenty years. I know it may seem strange that the most maligned transit hub on the planet has brought me nothing but joy throughout my adult life, but it has.
I was an 18-year-old Fordham freshman around the time that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan caught the ear of then President Bill Clinton with an ambitious plan to develop a more humane Penn Station using the James A. Farley Post Office across the street. My first trip to Penn Station was a Saturday evening back in 1997 and I was immediately lost. By accident I found an old Pennsylvania Station photograph hanging in the Amtrak concourse and at first I was confused, then outraged, and finally I became obsessed.
The fateful photograph in Penn Station that prompted an obsession
That obsession prompted me to write an off-Broadway play, create a tour, and finally forge a career — all about Penn Station. If it weren’t for Penn Station I wouldn’t have met our Founder Michelle Young or Chief Executive Officer Augustin Pasquet, two people I’m still excited to work with on a daily basis and honored to call dear friends. I first met Untapped New York’s Artist-in-Residence Aaron Asis on a Penn tour and from that meeting came our popular Remnants of the World’s Fair Flushing Meadow tour and Underground Art in the Subway tour among other amazing projects. In 2016, over a thousand people attended the symposium we organized with The Museum of the City of New York at Cooper Union about the future of Penn Station. And now, Michelle and I have driven around the country to visit, soon, all of the remaining eagles of Penn Station.
The off-Broadway play I wrote about Penn Station, The Eternal Space
After hundreds of Penn Remnant tours delivered to thousands and thousands of people, I realized many of our early Insiders started with Untapped New York’s Penn Tours and more continue to sign on during the pandemic for our virtual Penn programming. As Michelle and I have said time and again, “Penn Station is the gift that keeps giving.”
A crowd for one of my tours of the remnants of Penn Station
None of this was lost on me this past weekend when I saw New Yorkers wandering through Moynihan gasping in delight at the original McKim, Mead & White windows used throughout the hall to add light and navigational ease to the new complex. Or when I saw many, phones in hand, trying to get the perfect shot of “The Hive.” The hanging city sculpture designed by Elmgreen and Dragset is mounted on a mirror above the 31st Street entrance so viewers can catch their reflection as they pass under it.
Elmgreen & Dragset, The Hive, 2020 Stainless steel, aluminum, polycarbonate, LED lights, and lacquer Commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train HallPhoto: Nicholas Knight, courtesy Empire State Development and Public Art Fund, NY
I wondered how some of the pioneering break dancers from the Bronx will feel when they see their art form in stained glass thrown against the sky in a very New York take on the Sistine Chapel. Kehinde Wiley‘s triptych “Go” will now welcome millions of visitors to the city by having them look to the sky before they hit 33rd Street.
Go, 2020 © Kehinde Wiley. An original work of art commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Photographer: Nicholas Knight. Image courtesy of the Artist, Sean Kelly, New York, Empire State Development and Public Art Fund, NY
Throngs of people were looking up. They were smiling and pointing all around in interest. This was not common behavior in Penn Station. A father explained to his child that there used to be an old Penn Station as both looked at archival photos placed above the new baggage claim area. Old Penn is also impressively depicted in photo murals called Penn Station’s Half Century 2020 by Canadian artist Stan Douglas. The murals placed in the new Amtrak Ticketed Waiting Area hang between wooden benches designed to reference those in the old station.
Ultimately it warmed my heart that Untapped New York guides Mandy Edgecombe and Beth Goffe met up with Untapped New York Insiders like Robert Morbeck to walk around in child-like excitement as they became part of history. Or that Insider Peter Taylor immediately offered me a collection of photos he took when he saw Moynihan for the first time. I met Peter and his wife Sandy on a Penn tour.
In a year filled with fear and loss, New Yorkers forgot they were wearing masks, forgot about their isolation and were brought together by the opening of a train station. This was a great surprise for some and a dream for others like myself.
“How many people can say they’ve seen the sun rise in Pennsylvania Station?” I wrote that line at a crucial point in The Eternal Space almost 15 years ago thinking there was no way I would ever see sunshine in Penn Station during my lifetime. It was a dream realized to see it burst through that acre of glass.
Long Island Railroad Concourse in Penn Station. Let there be light.
Moynihan is not perfect, and I know better than anyone else that this train hall is technically not Pennsylvania Station. But for the moment it’s close enough. Besides this is not a Penn Station dream realized. It’s a New York one. New York City demonstrated once again that even in a dark hour it can still create spaces large enough for great dreams to come true.
I hope you will join me for one of our upcoming Penn Station experiences. Both the virtual and in-person tours have been upgraded to include in-depth looks at the new Moynihan Train Hall. At 5 PM today, I’ll be giving a tour of the new Moynihan Train Hall virtually for our Untapped New York Insiders. Use code JOINUS to join this event for free! Then, you can join me one of our upcoming tours of the Remnants of Penn Station which will include an in-depth exploration of Moynihan Train Hall.