Friday, February 17, 2012
McKim, Mead & White, Pennsylvania Station, 1910
TIMESMAN MICHAEL KIMMELMAN wrote Restore a Gateway to Dignity about some current ideas for Penn Station and Moynihan Station, the name for the station Senator Patrick Moynihan planned to build in the McKim, Mead & White Post Office across the street from Penn Station, above the same railyards.
I sent a Letter to the Editor, but never heard back from the Times. Here it is:
Senator Moynihan once sent me an email about contemporary Classical architecture, much to my surprise and delight. A friend had forwarded to him an email I had written about Classicism in our time, and he wrote to me about why he wanted a great Classical train station for New York. The Senator would be disappointed by what has happened to the plans for Moynihan Station since his death. We're not getting the Classical monument he wanted.
The primary reason is that the New York architectural establishment acts like Henry Ford: they will give you any architectural style you want, as long as it’s glass and steel and Modernist. That's why the various architects hired for Moynihan Station are only of the type that say you can’t build Classical buildings today, even though New York is home to some of the best contemporary Classicists.
Like Charles McKim, who successfully argued against a commercial tower above the old Penn Station, Senator Moynihan would also oppose real estate deals with the Related Companies to build towers above the station. Moynihan wanted some civic beauty and dignity for our citizens. These real estate deals are for the 1% who want more consumers.
The last point makes sense if you have read Kimmelman's article, but may require a little explanation if you haven't. Since the days of Doctorow (Deputy Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff), New York City has considered it good business to sell of development rights in return for having developers build civic buildings, particularly schools. In the view of someone like Senator Moynihan, and me, this is a bad idea.
Moynihan was educated in some of the great New York City public schools designed by Charles B.J. Snyder a hundred years ago, when New York City thought it was important to spend money builiding a great school system, embodied by the schools drawn by Snyder. The buildings are recognizable as city schools, and they are neighborhood centers as well. In a nutshell, they are prime examples of the Civic Art valued by Moynihan.
Today, the city thinks more about how consumers can be used to build city facilities. The school at the base of the Frank Gehry designed tower on Beekman Street is an example. The Related Companies, well connected in the Bloomberg administration, have proposed buying the rights to build three towers in the Moynihan Station block. This might make sense if we lived in a poor rustbelt city. But New York may have never been richer. The number of houses and apartments new and old in Manhattan that only the truly rich can afford is asstounding.
Gehry's Beekman Tower is a case in point. Until a few years ago, no one would have considered building luxury apartments there for the last 100 years. But today it is surrounded by apartments as expensive as any in the history of New York. But it's been almost a hundred years since the city built a great school. Gehry"s can not compare to what we built in 1910, when we had far less money.
McKim opposed a tower over the old Penn Station, because he thought it would diminish the civic character of the privately-built gateway to Manhattan. Kimmelman quotes the famous line about Penn Station from the great architectural historian Vincent Scully: "You used to enter the city like a god. Now you creep in like a rat." If he were here, Senator Moynihan would say the same.
Jane Jacobs & Philip Johnson
PS: A few people have written to me saying that we should simply rebuild the old McKim, Mead & White design for Pennyslvania Station. I've said that before, but didn't bring that up in my Letter to the Times, for two reasons: 1) Letters have to be restricted to 150 words, which doesn't allow room for many points; and 2) most Times readers probably think that's a silly idea. Here are a few counter thoughts.
Twenty years ago, it would have been much more difficult to rebuild the old station then it would be today. Few architects understood the practice of Classical architecture well enough then, but that is no longer the case. And the same advances in computer modeling and robotization that have made the construction of buildings like the Guggenheim Bilbao possible can also be used for Classical construction, making it easier and cheaper to build.
Modernism objects to historical construction and says it's not "authentic," but when visiting Central Europe we go to visit buildings bombed in World War II without realizing that they are reproductions built from scratch. I've put a picture of one below, below an historic photo of another McKim, Mead & White masterpiece, the old Madision Square Garden, which stood on Madison Square before it was moved into the suburban-style structure above the new Penn Station.
Stanford White's Madison Square Garden and Charles McKim's Pennsylvania Station are the two greatest buildings New York has lost. We would be a better city if we rebuilt them.
PPS: Kimmelman himself wrote about about the reconstruction of an old building before he became the Times architecture critic, in an article called Rebuilding a Palace May Become a Grand Blunder, about West German plans to rebuild an 18th century palace in Berlin. He called it a "fake Baroque palace," and wrote, "It’s hard to find a thinking Berliner these days who actually likes the Schloss idea," even though polls show a majority of Berliners support the plan. At the same time, he brought up enough complaints specific to the old building that it's not clear if he would oppose the reconstruction of the old Penn Station.
McKim, Mead & White, Madison Square Garden, 1890
Frauenkirche, Dresden, destroyed 1945, reconstruction 2005
The Landmark has already been dedicated in Postmaster General Farley's honor....the Post Master is historically associated with the landmark via the construction of the Annex.
Moynhan Station is not going to be built because the boosters of this project insisted on trying to use the construction of the "Station" as a means of tampering with the landmarks namesake....effectively removing the landmarks "Official" dedication. Its in violation of the NHPA of 1966.
A fool's errand!
Posted by: patton at Feb 20, 2012 10:59:49 AM
Seeing those building made by late great architects is such a great experience knowing that they have that brilliant talent and they share it to us. They leave us a great memories to cherish to.
Posted by: school architects at Mar 20, 2012 3:43:26 PM
Really love the classical architecture of many of these historic buildings. Thanks so much for this post!
Posted by: Connecticut Limousine at May 8, 2012 3:18:18 PM