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Penn Station Evening, Woods-Bagot
Woods Bagot 2014

Madison Square Garden: On Top of the Post Office?

  Re: Kimmelman, “How to Transform Penn Station: Move the Garden” January 12, 2016, The New York Times


To the Editors:

HOW CAN IT BE that someone as gifted as Michael Kimmelman - who is a good musician among other things - has decided to go and blow his mouth off about something he appears to know nothing about? Has Mr. Kimmelman ever seen a rendering of the post office with Madison Square Garden on top of it, that, judging from his well-developed sense of artistic propriety, would make for a nicely integrated or contrasting, desirable - that is to say, not ludicrous - undertaking? I haven't, and I don't think one exists or is even possible.

Is someone making fun of our poor old post office? So it appears. What an impressive front hall, extending for two city blocks: you should walk inside just to see it. It's the most striking architectural feature around. (with MSG's suspended roof getting honorable mention.) I was there about a year ago, and after getting my money order from the clerk I happened to remark on the beauty of the ornate ceiling to someone standing in line, then proceeded to one of the ornate tables to fill out my M.O. - That's when a chunk of plaster hit me on the head.

It seems we could do with a lot less planning of questionable alterations which as Kimmelman has noted would be of limited practical use as an Amtrak "train hall"* - and a little more ceiling maintenance. As for the current rash of proposals for the Penn Station/Gateway project: if Diller Scofidio + Renfro et al perceive you're asking them to illustrate a never-to-be-achieved wish-fulfillment fantasy they will respond accordingly, and have - with thankfully absent catenary wires and other physical impossibilities - no matter the brilliance of the proposed designs.

An inspired drawing showing a piece of probable reality by architect Jeffery Holmes (Woods-Bagot) is the only proposal that makes any sense. (Google search Images for: "penn station evening woods-bagot" - to see the original inspired rendition.)

The Penn Station/Madison Square Garden half-block contains a lot more empty space than you might think. Originally it held a 5,600-seat theater, a museum, a forty-eight-lane bowling alley, and a high-ceiling exhibition area right under the arena designed to accommodate a large number of cars on display - apparently intended to compete head-on with the New York Coliseum. This empty space, virtually unused during the past fifty years, offers some enticing opportunities for architectural flights of fancy on the order of those contemplated by the star architects who competed for the Penn Station brief, though most of them planned on building it from the ground up.

It is well known that the failed Felt Forum theater and its later also-failed iteration The Paramount (who's increased space was achieved through some rather extreme structural slight-of-hand) have stood virtually empty for the past fifty years, with the Felt Forum's one-time entrance on Eighth Avenue now blocked. The empty volume of the current enlarged facility** with its six-story blind wall extending out to the street along a .4-mile frontage, has effected an air-tight seal along the property's entire west side, blocking access and light to the building, and the station below. The Woods-Bagot plan deals with this by eliminating the theater, allowing light and access all along Eighth Avenue.


Further iterations of the Woods-Bagot plan, displayed on various websites in coverage of Governor Cuomo's announcement this month that ground will be broken in 2016, have regressed in terms of quality to the point where the renderings look dated, and dull as dishwater - quite in contrast to that noted above. Could this be intentional? And what for? Is it possible that while insisting that we have a magnificent new Gateway to the city at Penn Station proper, we must also insist that said Gateway is too expensive, and that certain "necessary" curtailments be made? Like any number of other rail projects planned for optimum usefulness... Hint: there aren't any.


Like the recently-FTA-approved line to Las Vegas: where it's obvious a new route to Barstow, with tunnel, is required, but instead they plan a line in the middle of the highway, with at least one (on-quick-perusal-of-the-plan-noticed) 3.5% grade. Such grades on mainline track are a 175-year anachronism. The new service is not even expected to have a station at Barstow, and will, of necessity, run non-stop from its end-station some sixty miles east of Los Angeles, straight to Vegas. Needless to say: two-track rail lines for passengers only (due to the ruling grade) without any stations, are a waste of money. And omitting this particular stop, a famous railroad town which the new line fairly bisects in plain view, is definitely not politic. Current scheduling for the L.A. - Barstow run is better than 3.6 hours, for a distance of ninety miles.


While open plazas in front of train stations are a common sight in many parts of the world, a word of caution is needed here. The place will be a Mecca for vending carts, and rather than peremptorily choosing some uniform design, it might be best to have another competition, once plans for the space are solidified, to see if anyone can come up with several cheap, purpose-specific, diverse and colorful designs that can be easily duplicated to spec. and positioned away from the glass walls of the station - which might best be lined with a well patrolled and protected low border of shrubbery and so on where well-used doors are not present - lest the voluminous glass surround be needed in the first instance for lines of carts, thence lines of permanent stands, thence enclosed shops up to a certain height, etc., etc.

It also might be a good idea to post the old "No Littering $50 Fine" sign - about $500 in today’s dollars, and enough to rent a respectable apartment in 1960, since people took rats seriously in those days - and because cleanliness is an important part of "maintaining the scene" in our new public showcase!


                                                                                                                            Bruce W. Hain

                                                                                                                            Queens, New York, January 16, 2016

*The Moynihan expansion does have a practical purpose though it would not allow expanded train scheduling absent the Penn Station South addition. I don't like the "train hall" appellation and gave myself a poor excuse for quoting it in the article. Moynihan would be especially useful for limited high-speed service in conjunction with my tunnel proposal (first item on the index page) which shaves a mile off the Northeast Corridor between New York and Newark. 6/6/16

**The MSG Theater as it's now called appears to be pretty active since the Dolans got hold of it. It might be best if they retained management at a new location assuming the current one is closed - say, at the Hotel Pennsylvainia on the 32nd Street side, provided the Landmark Big Band icon is not gotten rid of. It's the last big accordion-terraced building I know of, and there aren't many streets in the world with 30-story buildings as far as the eye can see. The cavernous chimney-shaped super-scraper being promoted as a replacement is decidedly inferior. 6/6/16

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