Many not-so-nice things have been said of Penn Station—a good number of them unprintable—but perhaps the late art historian Vincent Scully said it best: “To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift,” the architecture historian wrote in the New York Times in 2012. “To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.”
It’s a humiliation suffered by many: The 34th Street station, which links Amtrak, the New York City subway, the Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit trains, and Madison Square Garden, processes more than 600,000 commuters each day, making it the busiest terminal in North America. While most of those have inured themselves to the depressing aesthetics, Penn Station has heaped indignities upon its users lately that go beyond its design.
Advocates may finally be able to marshal support for a much-needed renovation after a (mostly) failed terror plot at nearby Port Authority bus terminal last week highlighted yet another shortcoming of the station: It also isn’t very safe.
The current station is so hard to navigate that it’s extremely dangerous,” says Justin Shubow, the executive director of Rebuild Penn Station. The group is a nonprofit affiliate of the National Civic Art Society, which works to promote and preserve classical architecture.
“There is no natural light and no place for smoke or, heaven forbid, poison gas to go,” he continued. In contrast, “the perimeter of the [original] station had granite door columns that would serve as a bulwark
After the original Beaux Arts structure was destroyed, in 1963, what grew in its place—a dark, squat, dispiriting place, where wayfinding is far from intuitive—helped stoke the modern preservationist movement. In fact, Grand Central Terminal, which was landmarked a few years after Penn’s demolition galvanized preservationists, owes its continued existence to Penn’s demise.
Rebuild Penn Station hopes to not just recreate the spaciousness and beauty of the pre-1963 hub but also improve upon it. Under the organization’s proposal, platforms would be widened and the number of escalators would be tripled, which should “vastly increase vertical circulation,” Shubow says. More platform space would allow some commuters to wait on the platform, hopefully ending the terrifying scramble riders currently engage in each time a track number is announced.