The New York City council voted overwhelmingly this week to renew the lease of Madison Square Garden only for 10 more years – essentially serving an eviction notice to the hulking stadium in midtown Manhattan. The decision was cheered by architectural and civic organizations, who have been pressing for decades to redevelop Pennsylvania station, the neglected railway terminus underneath the stadium. Penn station is by far the busiest railway station in North America, and Madison Square Garden has been one of the principal roadblocks to redeveloping it.
The eviction notice for Madison Square Garden offers the best opportunity in decades to revive Penn station. Earlier this year the Municipal Art Society presented a quartet of new design proposals from architects such as Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who masterminded the reconstruction of Lincoln Center, and ShoP Architects, designers of the Barclays center stadium in Brooklyn. All the proposed designs eliminate the underground maze of today’s Penn station, and bring passengers back up into the city.
While the US has long suffered from some of the worst infrastructure in the western world, other cities have built some hideous stations too.
Old Penn Station
The original Penn station, which opened in 1910, was a beaux-arts masterpiece. Designed by McKim, Mead & White, the most prominent architectural firm of the era – responsible also for the Morgan library and the Brooklyn museum – the station served as a breathtaking arrival point for visitors to New York. The station’s waiting room, modeled on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was the largest indoor space in New York at the time.
New Penn station
The current, calamitous Penn station opened in 1968 and is entirely underground. “Through it one entered the city like a god,” Vincent Scully said of the old station. “Now one scuttles in like a rat.” The current design “features” grimy, fluorescent-lit narrow hallways, now packed to capacity as more than 300,000 passengers trample through the terminus every day. The horror of the new Penn station did have one positive effect, however: it contributed to grassroots opposition to Robert Moses, the all-powerful “master builder” of New York. While he got his way with Penn station, his subsequent plans for an expressway cutting through lower Manhattan were thwarted.